Tuesday, December 22, 2015

God With Us

“Now all this happened in order to make come true what the Lord had said through the prophet, ‘A virgin will become pregnant and have a son, and he will be called Immanuel’ (which means, ‘God with us’)." - Matthew 1:22-23

That wonderful season is upon us again, that time when we gather together with our family and friends to celebrate the birth of our Lord, Jesus.  And although our traditions may differ, during this special holiday we seem to make an extra effort to be near those who are important to us.  Airports are crowded, mail is slowed, and highways are packed as we try our best to share the beauty of this time.

We often see those things as trials we have to endure in order for Christmas to come.  And from time to time we may even get angry that they are distracting us from the real reason for the season.  I’m not so sure.  You see, just as we long to be close to our loved ones now, so God longed to be close to the ones he loved.  That’s us.  And because he loved us so much, he sent his only son to be near us.  The first chapter of John tells us that in the person of Jesus, God became human and lived among us.  That’s the kind of love we celebrate this month.

Of all the names we use to refer to Jesus, the one we use at Christmas is perhaps the most appropriate.  For as Matthew told us above, Immanuel means, “God with us.”  Now that’s not just a catchy phrase or a line from your favorite Christmas carol, for when Jesus was born, God was truly with us.  He was with us way back then and he is still here with us today.  And that’s important to each of us as we try our best to live our lives of faith.  But this time of year it is easy to remember that.  As we sing our songs and exchange our gifts and enjoy our families, reminders of God’s presence are all around us.  But what about later, after the tree is down, the decorations are put away, and the family has all gone home?  Do we remember God’s presence then?

We should.  For the promise of Immanuel is not just a promise for December.  It’s not meant to be celebrated once a year and then put away in a box in the attic.  For when God came to be with us, he came to be with us forever.  And even when our parties have ended and our packages are all unwrapped, God is still here.  Waiting and wanting to be a part of our life throughout the year.  It’s only up to us to make him feel welcome.

This is an incredibly busy time for rural pastors. The services are numerous, attendance is usually up, and activities abound.  We are often challenged and perhaps even a bit stressed by the many obligations that crowd our calendars and our perceptions that each activity is essential to providing a meaningful experience to each of our members.  In the process of doing Advent and Christmas it is actually possible to miss out on our own celebration of the season.  I have to admit that there have been times when I have come up for air after the Christmas Eve service and realized that everyone else has been celebrating but me.  And while it is understandable how we might fall into that trap, it is completely unnecessary.  Because the most basic lesson that we learned in seminary applies to this time as well – it is not about us.

Pastors and church leaders are more than just paid employees in the Christmas service machine. Like everyone else in the church, this time is for us as well.  When God came to be with us, he came to be with us, too.  Not just those in the pew, but everyone who calls Jesus Lord. Therefore, it is up to each one of us, pastors especially, to make an effort to remember that this season is not about what we do, but what we receive. And the greatest gift of all was given in the name of the child we celebrate this week. I hope you will take the time to experience the Christ, not just tell others about him, as you celebrate the nativity with your family, your church community, and your own faith.

In the spirit of his love, Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 4, 2015

  Small Churches, Powerful Worship

I have always admired people who could play the guitar, especially pastors.  The ability to lead the congregation into an encounter with God by moving seamlessly between Word and music is a very special gift.  Certainly we can do that to a degree with organ or piano accompaniment, but I have always felt that a pastor who can both lead music and preach has a sense of intimacy with their congregation that encourages a feeling of vitality in worship.  I watch my friends or my students stand up there and lead worship with confidence, playing the familiar strains of “This is the Day” or “Open the Eyes of My Heart” and setting a mood that is undeniably appealing, and I think, “If only I could play the guitar…”

But I can’t…and that is a ship that has long since sailed!

Some congregations are blessed with musical talent. Others are not.  In small and rural churches this is a fact of life that we frequently cannot change.  We live and minister in a relatively small pool and our options for recruiting specialized talent is limited by the nature of our context and community.  I have been blessed over the years with some fantastic organists and pianists, but have never been in a place that had even one reliable, competent guitar player or a group of people who could make up even a basic praise band. But that did not mean that we could not have vibrant worship. Vital rural churches understand that the key to success is in making the most of our available assets, not being held back by our inherent limitations.

I am sure that we would all agree that worship is an essential element of the life of any congregation and is probably the most visible act of ministry that we perform.  In many ways the quality of our worship defines who we are as a church, particularly to those who are visitors in our midst. So why is worship vibrant in some congregations and lacking in others?  Believe it or not, in spite of my confessions of Fender envy, it has less to do with the type of music or the continuing debate about contemporary vs. traditional styles of worship, than it has to do with other factors that we can control and encourage.

There are certain things about good worship that we should simply assume.  For example, worship should honor and praise our Triune God and encourage us to develop a strong and lasting relationship with Jesus as our savior. In worship, scripture is essential, preaching should be faithful to the Word, and music of some kind is an important part of every service. Nearly every church tries to form their worship around these basics.  But there are other factors that we find in vital churches that seem to set their worship apart from the rest.

Here are a few common themes that we find in the vibrant worship of vital congregations:

1.      Worship is welcoming. This may seem obvious and much has been written about the need to be welcoming, but what I am referring to is far more than whether or not you have greeters at the door or nametags for your members. It is not enough to just say hello to someone who visits your church or to make them comfortable or even to invite them to your fellowship time. Those are all important things.  But the key is in the service itself. Our worship service should be developed in such a way that it is welcoming to visitors. That means making the order of worship easy to follow, avoiding too many hidden responses or expectations, and giving even the least experienced among us something to think about when they go home.

2.      Preaching is relevant. As we all know, a sermon is more than just an interesting speech or an exegesis paper. A good sermon is based on careful interpretation of scripture, but then that preaching has to apply to real life.  It is in the application that our members begin to put the word into action and see meaning for their own lives.  One should not have to be a theologian in order to make that connection, so it is our responsibility to make sure that the language we use is clear and understandable. Save those words you learned in seminary, like exegesis and expiation, for your conversations with your pastor friends and use the vernacular of your congregation and community. Remember, the sign of a good sermon is not in others seeing how smart you are, but in how faithful you can help them to be. Everyone should take something home every week.

3.      Worship should be memorable. In vital churches, worship is remembered long after the service is over.  If you find that your members are talking about the service or your message in the local coffee shop or café several days later you know that you had an impact.  I’m not talking about being quirky or goofy in worship, but in drawing interest to our God in ways that others can relate to.  People who experience memorable, vibrant worship are often excited to share about it with their friends and neighbors, sometimes even inviting them to come see for themselves. It might be the music, the sermon, or the fellowship afterward, but there is something about vital worship that stays with the participants after they leave the sanctuary.

4.      Worship is an attitude.  In vital churches, people see worship as much more than a Sunday morning service. It is the attitude that they take with them into everything that they do. Worship impacts the decisions we make, the relationships we share, and even the problems we encounter. In turn, that makes worship our motivation for service in the community. That means that the outreach of our church, no matter what form it takes, is an extension and reflection of our worship, even encouraging our members to feel comfortable sharing about their faith with others who have little understanding of what it means to know Jesus.

5.      The Spirit is welcome in worship. We have all been in congregations where we have sat down to worship and then felt less than inspired.  When the service becomes an exercise in moving from one item on the agenda to the next, there is little sense of expectation or inspiration and too often the most exciting thing on your mind has to do with your plans for lunch. In vital worship, when the Spirit is welcome there is a sense that God is indeed present and that an encounter with the Almighty is not only possible, but likely. Leaving room for God means leaving room for the unexpected. It means allowing for awe and wonder and not just order. While good planning is an essential part of our preparation for any worship service, allowing for silence and mystery is equally important. Being a good leader is not just knowing what to say, but also knowing when to get out of the way.
      Incomplete as it might be, my intent in sharing this list is to get the conversation started. What I want to avoid are excuses, reasons why we can’t make our worship have life and excitement no matter what size our church might be. There are certain things out of our control or that are hard to change, like the resources we have available or the number of members in our church. But these are a few characteristics that we find in the worship of vital churches and whether we have 30 or 300 in attendance they give us a starting point for considering how we might encourage and enhance the worship of our own small and rural churches. 

Friday, September 25, 2015

Exploring Vitality in Rural Congregations

An Online Conversation for Pastors and Church Leaders

We have been sharing together for several months now about the ways we can bring vitality to the congregations we serve. Now I want to take the next step and invite you to be a real part of the conversation in a very intentional way.  

The University of Dubuque Theological Seminary is offering us an opportunity to take this conversation into the classroom in an online format.  I will be moderating the discussion (teaching the class) but you can be an active part of the course by participating in a series of online discussion forums over the course of five weeks. I want you to help set the agenda for our time together by asking your burning questions about rural ministry.  During that time we will share ideas, discuss our own ministry settings, talk about what has worked and not worked, and hopefully leave with an idea or two that will enhance the work that we do. 

Best of all, this class is affordable and accessible.  For only $150 per person our group will get five weeks of conversation and sharing about topics designed to impact their ministry in very real ways. And all from the comfort of your home.  This class is asynchronous, which means that you can join the conversation anytime day or night, at times that work best for you. There is no travel involved and you don't have to be away from your other responsibilities.  For those reasons alone, I think this is the most relevant and convenient continuing education offer available anywhere.

I invite you to check it out:

“Exploring Vitality in Rural Congregations”
Dr. Skip Shaffer, Associate Dean and Assistant Professor of Ministry

University of Dubuque Theological Seminary
October 19 – November 22

This course will explore the practices and programs that bring vitality and vision to rural congregations and their ministries.  We will examine the practices of successful church leaders, share ideas about programs that have been successful, and suggest resources that may work in your ministry setting.  This will be a five-week seminar that encourages input from ministry leaders and puts us face to face with others who have brought new life to the churches they serve.  We will use our time together to share those ideas and help one another develop ministries that make a difference.

We have had good response so far to our invitation and a number of people have already registered. But there is still room for you. The more participants we gather together, the richer the conversation and the greater the opportunity to share ideas that will make a difference. It is my hope that we will make a statement to the larger church community and show those around us that rural ministry is alive and well and that we are able to have a significant impact on the church around us.  I invite you to register today!

To register or for more information, contact Bridgett Boone at 563-589-3691 or BBoone@dbq.edu. CEUs are available. First time participants in online learning at UDTS will be asked to take the Online Learning Course, an easy to complete orientation to online learning for only $75.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Cultivating Vitality

In some places you can feel it the moment you walk through the church doors – a sense of energy and enthusiasm and life.  The greetings are genuine, the people seem motivated, the worship is vibrant, and the fellowship appears to be mutual. Most important, it doesn’t take long for newcomers to be welcomed into the circle.  This is something you could get used to.

There are other churches where the mood is less inviting. It doesn’t mean that you are not greeted at the door and welcomed with a bulletin, but there is something missing.  People quietly filter in and find their seats, but conversation is sporadic and subdued.  Even when the preaching is decent, worship often feels like a collection of unrelated elements without a central focus and the hour seems to take much longer than sixty minutes.  When the service is over, the members briefly greet one another in the narthex and then exit without much opportunity for fellowship, eager to beat the crowd to their favorite restaurant.  You have been to this church before.  And you are not excited about going back.

Vitality is something that we all want for our congregations, but the results are often mixed. It is hard to define specifically, however we seem to recognize it when we see it. Unfortunately, there is no secret formula to achieve it and there is no single strategy that will ensure success.  And very often achieving that sense of vibrancy and vitality depends on different factors in each congregational context.

What gives a church that special aura of vitality? It is my hope to explore this question in a variety of different ways over the next few months. And while there is no one-size-fits-all solution, there are a number of factors that seem to be common to the churches that we would consider the most appealing.

Here are a few ideas to get the conversation started.

Vitality begins with mission – Churches that have an extra sense of life are motivated by more than just the desire to be together.  Of course, basic to our Christian faith is an underlying call to serve God through Jesus Christ. But within that rubric, there are many things we can do to express our faith and share the good news.  Sometimes it happens though worship, but often we find ourselves living out that purpose through a variety of activities, some social, some educational, some missional. Churches that exude a sense of excitement understand that there is a purpose to everything we do together, and that ultimately reaching out to others in God’s name is an important thing.  It is what motivates and encourages us and it is inviting to others who want to join our cause.  Churches that are self-focused, where the primary attention is on the care of the building or making the budget or having meetings for their own sake do not share a sense of purpose that is appealing to others outside the community.

Vital churches share leadership – Organizations are the strongest when their members join together to share the work and the responsibility, and churches are no exception. I have yet to see a congregation, large or small, where there was not enough work to go around, but the big question is in how the work is distributed. Too often our churches look like an inverted V, with the pastor and a few select leaders at the bottom and the others along for the ride.  Members cannot expect their pastor to carry the whole load. Those that do usually experience two things – that their pastor will burn out, becoming less effective and eventually seeking a new call, and that the church body will be unmotivated, since they are essentially bystanders. On the other hand, the pastor must be willing to share responsibility for leadership with the laity. We cannot try to do it all ourselves. Too often in the past, members have been given jobs like Sunday School teacher or choir director, while worship leadership, preaching, visitation, and in some cases, decision making and administration, was left to the clergy. Cultivating spiritual and administrative gifts and then allowing the freedom for our members to exercise those gifts, is one of the primary things we can do to encourage vitality in our churches. With that sense of confidence and responsibility comes an attitude of shared ownership in the mission and a motivation to serve God through the church.

Worship is an attitude, not an activity - Too often we think of worship and church and Sunday morning as being synonymous.  And while they do go together, we are short changing ourselves if we limit our worship of God to one hour on the weekend.  In truth, worship can be a part of our lives in a very wide-reaching and all-encompassing way.  And it doesn’t just happen in the sanctuary.  And it doesn’t have to be limited to what we do together as a church.   Our spiritual lives are encouraged and fed by the time we spend together in that place.  But they are nurtured and nourished when we take what we receive there and apply it to our lives each and every day.  Worship takes many forms….in our prayers….in our devotions…in our scripture reading…in our service out in the community…in the words we use around other people and most important of all, in the way we demonstrate that we are people of God. Vitality happens when worship becomes an irresistible expression of our faith and not just a rote activity that happens every Sunday at 10:00.

Vital churches express hospitality – It may seem obvious, but the church should be a welcoming place. And in many ways, our time together with the Christian community should be an opportunity to take refuge from the rushed existence of our culture.  That is why so often we find ourselves sharing together around the table, whether for a meal, a cup of coffee, or even to experience the love of God through the Lord’s Supper.  We have said it before, but hospitality is the language of rural life and food is its currency. Eating is never an end in itself, but a means to a deeper kind of relationship.  Food provides a bridge for conversation, relationships, and even pastoral care. Many things have been shared over a piece of pie that would have never been expressed in a phone call or an email. But all of that takes time.  When we worry too much about our schedules and not enough about each other we miss out on the rich opportunities that God has placed before us.  Rushing in and out of a social setting, a meeting, or even a worship service, is not only bad manners, but it is also bad practice. Vital churches find the time to be in fellowship together, whether in the coffee time after worship, a meal following a funeral, or even a special night out with our fellow members.  The form that fellowship takes is less important than the rewards that it brings.

Activity in the church is contagious – One of my students did a study last year of the churches in his area and came to discover that churches where activity was present throughout the week were perceived to be more vital than churches that locked their doors Monday through Saturday.  Even though worship is considered the primary public act of the church, it was the perception of activity that made the community feel that the church was a hopping place.  It didn’t usually matter what the nature of the activity was, as long as it was church related.  The mere presence of cars, people, and kids and the sight of the lights on in the building made many feel that this was a church of action.  And some who were interviewed even expressed the opinion that they were more likely to attend that church because it seemed to have a lot going on.  Don’t get me wrong. Activity for activity’s sake is never a good idea.  But churches that expressed their faith by getting together throughout the week increased awareness of the church in the community, enhanced the possibility that others would wander in the doors, and helped their members feel that they were a part of something special.

Congregation size doesn’t really matter – Vital congregations come in all sizes, large and small, and express themselves in a variety of interesting ways.  What they all have in common is a commitment to worship and serve Jesus Christ.  Large churches have the benefit of an abundance of resources, enough members to always have a critical mass at any activity or gathering, and the ability to provide variety for many tastes, whether in worship, service or fellowship.  On the other hand, small churches that have a strong sense of their mission in the community can have vibrant worship, a significant sense of purpose, and a feeling that what they do together really matters.  The truth is that the size of the congregation cannot be used as an excuse for a lack of vitality in worship or community life.

Neither does worship style - The same is true for worship style.  Much has been made of the worship wars, including the place of traditional or contemporary music, the use of a standard ordo or a free flowing format, and even the place and timing of the services.  But the truth is that we find strong churches that fit in each of these categories.  Style does not determine vitality.  Far more important are the quality and integrity of the various elements of the service, the faithfulness to God’s Word, and the perception that each person was given the opportunity to truly encounter and worship and living God.

Inspired pastors influence vitality – The attitude that pastors and church leaders take into their work does make a difference. In fact, it can be contagious. When church members see that their pastor is excited about his/her faith, they get the message that it matters.  When the congregation sees that the pastor is more than a master of ceremonies in worship, but is committed to encouraging an encounter with the living God, they are more likely to be enthusiastic themselves.  When a family feels that an emergency pastoral call in the middle of the night is an act of love and not an obligation, they realize that faith is more than mere words. On the other hand, when it feels like we are distracted, bored, or overworked (and we are letting it show), they are more likely to bring the same attitudes to their own spiritual lives and activities.  Like it or not, we set the tone in everything we do.  We establish the standard for the attitude of any gathering by the attitude we present.  Vital churches have pastors who are inspired about their faith and are not afraid to share those feelings in all that they do.

As we enter this new era in the life of the Christian faith, it is important that each of us has our eyes on ways that we can effectively cultivate vitality in our churches.  We cannot afford to be complacent, inflexible, or worse yet, boring. But we must also be faithful to the leading of the Spirit and to the Word of God.  This is just the beginning of the conversation. There are so many more factors, observations, and ideas that we can share about vitality in our churches, in our communities, and in our faith and I am excited to begin to explore the possibilities with you.

That’s where I am going.  I hope you will come with me.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Out of the Office and Into the Church

Nearly every church building has one.  They vary in size, style and usability, and sometimes they are hard to find, often tucked in behind the chancel walls or somewhere near the Sunday School classrooms. In many buildings they are prominently featured right inside the front door, providing easy access to all who enter.  But in one form or another, no matter what the building looks like, it is usually there – the pastor’s office.

For many of us our office is like a staging area, filled with all the things that we need in order to do effective ministry.  We think of it as the center of our professional existence, the place where we write our sermons, counsel our members, and pray to our God.  Our offices may look different, but they have many things in common – shelves of books, piles of papers, a desk, some chairs, a computer or laptop, and often many personal mementos.  Our office is like a “pastor cave”, our personalized space where we go to do the work of the church.

It is important to have a place like that, a space where we feel comfortable, where we can write effectively, where we can spread out our resources and do exegesis, where we can meet with people who need a private moment to talk about difficult and often very personal issues. 

The office is the setting for many critical ministry moments, but it should never be mistaken for the center of our ministry itself.  As pastors we should be careful that we do not become office bound, that we do not fall into a routine that takes us to our desks each day, waiting for people to come to our door.  The truth is that the pastor’s office is probably the last place many of our members want to be seen, especially if they have a problem.  And it is a foreboding place for non-members or members of other churches who feel a need to seek out our help. In this day and age, a rural pastor who sits in the office and waits for ministry to come to his or her door will likely be as lonely as the Maytag repairman.

In order to effectively encounter the church, we need to get out of our offices and into the community.  Real ministry happens when we interact with people in their daily lives and are aware of the places they frequent and the problems they face.  When we make ourselves accessible in non-threatening environments, we invite conversation about daily life that can be an entry point for sharing God’s love.  And it enables us to visibly demonstrate that Christ’s presence extends far beyond the walls of the sanctuary.  Discussions that start over coffee in the café often lead to more meaningful topics of concern or a quest for counsel from individuals who might never find their way inside the church doors.

So where do we go to be the church? In the small Western Iowa town I used to serve, there was no home mail delivery.  Everyone, residents and businesses alike, had to send someone to the post office every day to collect their mail. That included us.  Nearly every morning it would amaze my wife that a short four block trip could take two or three hours.  Why? Because inevitably this relatively quick task would put me in contact with several church members and even more non-members from the local community.  While running to get the mail may have seemed like an inconvenience, it turned into an opportunity.  It was a chance to visit and pass the time of day, and in many cases, to talk about something much deeper.  Many a conversation moved from the weather, to “since you are here, I was wondering…”  As time went on, the people in town knew that the pastor got the mail every morning and I came to suspect that our chance encounters on the sidewalk were often more than just a coincidence.

Every town, big or small, has places where people gather.  Many of my friends and former students who minister in urban contexts tell of setting up their office at Panera or Starbucks.  In small towns, there is usually a café, coffee shop, or convenience store where the locals gather to get a cup of coffee, maybe have a little breakfast, and share the news of the day.  A smart pastor knows how to get into the line of fire, finding a seat near the action which will eventually invite conversations with others nearby.  My wife calls this the “ten foot rule.” Simply put, it means that when people come within ten feet of us we should see that as an opportunity to visit.  Most will respond favorably, some will not.  But the reward is worth the effort.  Whether you are at the Breadbox Café, or Sparky’s One Stop convenience store, or even the high school basketball game, be aware of your interactions.  That offhand comment about the amount of rain we received last night may be more than meets the eye.

What I am suggesting is nothing new.  Successful pastors have been doing this for a long time.  But we live in an era that has advanced the opportunity.  In the past, these little forays into the culture of the community have been seen as temporary expeditions.  Eventually, the office and “real work” summoned us back to our home base.  But today technology has made our office portable.  The resources that we once kept at the church building are now available in our smart phones, laptops, or tablets.  Keeping up with correspondence, doing devotions, even basic exegesis and sermon preparation are made easier through our electronic devices. We can now do those tasks anywhere.  And the amount of time that we can spend out in the community, along with the opportunity to interact in the name of God, is increased exponentially.  We no longer need to head back to the office, except for special needs, because the office is always with us.

In a small town or rural community, the pastor is much more than the shepherd of a particular congregation.  Pastors who interact with everyone, regardless of church affiliation, and who are accessible and easy to talk to, often find that others see them as the de facto chaplain of the community. Credibility comes with time and practice.  If our eye is on serving as an ambassador of Christ, rather than gaining new members for the flock, opportunities for service will appear from unexpected places and in the end God will be glorified.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

When Mission Knocks On Your Door

“Moses is here to see you.”

It was my first day at a brand new call.  In fact it was the first hour.  New church, new people, new town. I was doing all of those important things that you do when you move into your new office, before the real work begins – putting books on the shelves, checking out the computer, looking through the directory to try to put names with new faces – when my secretary poked her head into the room and said those words that I never expected to hear, “Moses is here to see you.”

Sure, I thought, Moses is here to see me.  And perhaps Elijah and Joshua are sitting in the waiting room. I was convinced that this must be some kind of church secretary humor.  Some way to haze the new guy and welcome him to town.

I walked out of the door with a smile on my face, trying to think of some quick comeback that would amuse the office staff and show that I was a good sport, when I came face to face with Moses.  He was the tallest man I had ever met.  Fairly young, but imposing nonetheless, a new immigrant from the country of Sudan, with the ritual scarring common to adult males of the Nuer tribe. He put out his hand and said something that was even more surprising than his introduction, “We have been waiting for you.”

A few minutes later, Moses was joined by several other leaders of the local Sudanese community, who shared the story of their journey and the difficulties they were facing integrating their families into a new and largely unknown society, thousands of miles away from familiar surroundings.  They came to the United States to escape the violence that had engulfed their homeland and the constant threat of death and persecution that terrorized their families.  In the refugee camps of Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya they had encountered the Christian faith, largely as a result of the teaching and care of Presbyterian missionaries. So when they arrived in this country, they sought out the church that was familiar to them and upon learning that a new pastor was coming in a few weeks, they waited.

We talked about their needs, their wants, and their dreams.  Some things were immediate, like navigating the school system, getting a driver’s license and insurance, and finding decent housing for their families.  Other necessities popped up in the conversation, such as English language classes, access to clothing, and resources for families who were about to give birth.  We bought a lot of cribs that summer. And of course, there was worship.  They wanted a place to gather so that they could have a service in the Nuer language.  The elders would do the preaching, but it was important for the pastor to be there, to pray and serve as an ambassador from Jesus.  More about this in a few minutes.

Our little town in Southwest Minnesota was the destination for a large number of new immigrants.  Hispanic, Asian, and African men and women brought their families to our community in search of jobs and safer way of life.  With several industries that seemed to be constantly searching for new employees, including a packing plant, and a community of people that was small enough to recognize you by sight and call you by name, we fit the bill nicely.  Just a few years earlier, diversity had meant the difference between being Norwegian and Swedish.  Now diversity described the changing nature of our churches, schools, and neighborhoods.

Rural America is experiencing a new wave of immigration that is changing the way our communities sound, the way our schools look, and the way our churches live out their ministries.  These changes are felt more rapidly in a rural setting, where we know our neighbors and can respond quickly to their needs.  The church should be on the cutting edge as our local demographics change, being the first to extend a word of welcome, to be aware of the needs of our new neighbors, and to desire to be in ministry with those who may see life through a very different lens.

A number of recent UDTS graduates, new immigrants themselves, have been called to ministries among the immigrant communities of rural America.  They conduct services in a variety of languages, from Nuer and Anuak to Spanish and Chinese, along with many others.  They help members of their communities straddle the divide between an English speaking culture and families that still reflect their homelands.  They serve as guides, spiritually, vocationally, and socially, and offer endless encouragement to the people in their care.  And they encounter the same social problems and concerns that plague other communities, but with fewer resources and less support.  Pastors like Enna, Gilo, Paul, Jordan, Owar, Ekram, and Tina, along with many others, serve with very little compensation, but with endless enthusiasm.  Theirs is a work that seems to be never completed, serving congregations of believers, both officially recognized and spontaneously conceived, sometimes meeting in shared or repurposed buildings, rented space, or even in homes.  And to a person, they would value the help and partnership of other pastors in their communities.

If there are new arrivals to your town, consider how your church should reach out in the name of Jesus Christ.  Are we truly living our call if we are sending mission dollars overseas, but ignoring the needs of people down the street?  Do we effectively represent our Savior if we encourage our youth or other members to embark on short-term mission trips to exciting locations, but fail to share with newcomers in our area?  It is not a matter of either or, but the importance of doing both.  While this is not an exhaustive list, here are a few things to remember as you think about your local mission efforts:

1.  Always think ministry “with”, not ministry “to”.  The history of failed mission and evangelism efforts is littered with examples of well-meaning Christians trying to do things for others. Instead, consider entering into a mutually beneficial relationship that openly acknowledges that we have a great deal to learn from each other. Never think of a neighbor as a mission project, but rather, think of ways you can walk in this journey of faith together.  Sometimes the best start is simply being a friend.

2. Don’t worry about membership. The goal of our outreach with our international friends should never be the impact it will have on our membership rolls. Becoming a member of a congregation is a non-biblical concept that is a construct of denominations to enable them to effectively tax or assess their congregations. Does that sound too cynical? Probably, but the truth is that membership standing has very little to do with pastoral care.  We don’t offer care on the basis of social status, economic resources, or family relationships.  Instead, think of your church family in different terms, recognizing that the sphere of ministry to which you are called goes far beyond the boundaries of the official congregation.

3. Your church will experience change.  This is a positive thing, so embrace it. If your congregation tries to reach out to the new immigrants in your area, but refuses to entertain ideas that may change the way they have always done things before, then you will inevitably encounter barriers that bring your efforts to a screeching halt. Your worship services may look and sound different, your Sunday school teachers may need to adjust their lessons, your annual cycle of events may include celebrations that you have never heard of, and your boards and committees may have to rethink the way they function.  Keep in mind that the church does not exist to perfect itself, but to provide a way to do God’s work together in a very imperfect world.

4. Worship is essential, but the way you worship is not. Over the years we have developed our worship patterns and practices as a way of expressing our love for God within a particular cultural context. But our way is not the only way to worship Jesus.  When we introduce voices from outside the culture, our worship service experiences change, but with a richness that witnesses to the larger community we have become.  When Moses and his friends came to our small town congregation, they expressed a desire to have a Nuer language worship service, apart from the regular worship of the church.  We quickly agreed, but with one proviso – that our Sudanese friends would also be encouraged to attend the traditional worship of the church, and that the members of the congregation would be invited to attend the Nuer language service.  Surprisingly, many did, attending both services with equal enthusiasm.  We prayed together, conducted baptisms together, and shared together around the Lord’s Table.  The participants may not have always understood the language, or even what was being said, but the result was a sense of community and shared experience that enhanced each worship gathering and brought glory to God.

5. Culture is relative, not normative.  In our communities we live in contexts that are comfortable and familiar to us.  Our culture is comprised of things we take for granted, like potluck dinners, high school basketball games, and 4th of July celebrations.  We have a way of living as residents of our towns and even of this country that feels natural and consistent.  But the things that make up our culture and even our way of life are not the same around the world.  New immigrants come into our neighborhoods with backgrounds and traditions born of a different context and often, a different world view.  When these new friends merge their lives with ours, they may not always appreciate those things that we assume.  And likewise, we may lack an appreciation for the customs and traditions that they hold most dear.  Our goal should not be assimilation into a single, homogenous culture, but a sense of respect and appreciation for those aspects of another person’s culture that they value and celebrate. Our new friends may never understand our national obsessions with bacon and our lawns, but that doesn’t stop us from being brothers and sisters in the faith.

If there are new immigrants in your area, it is an essential part of your calling to reach out and welcome them into the church family.  It isn’t always easy to make introductions and there are times when the first attempts at conversation may seem awkward, but caring always beats ignoring.  Mission is no longer an activity or even a separate function of the church.  Mission is now an integral part of the work that we do every single day, as we work together to realize a different kind of Christian community.  A place where all men, women and children are invited, welcomed, and encouraged to be a complete part of the body. 

What will you do when mission knocks on your door?  Remember the lesson of Matthew 20:1-16.  It doesn’t matter who came first or last, but only that we answer the call.

Monday, June 15, 2015

New Life for Tired Churches

What do you call a church with thirty members?

In most denominations today, a church with only thirty or forty members is often considered a candidate for closure.  At the very least, you can be confident that the topic has been discussed, either within the church itself or by others in the denominational structure.  However, if you had asked the same question a hundred years ago, the answer would have been very different.  Back then, a church with thirty or forty members would have been considered a good start.

Why the difference?  It is all a matter of perspective and identity.

From our 21st century, North American point of view, we measure success with numbers.  How many members do you have? How many have you gained this year?  How many have you lost? Then we tend to compare those numbers with the standards set by other congregations.  Our measure of a successful church is one that is increasing in membership and consistently has more income than expenses.  Congregations that experience consistent declines in these categories are a source of concern, regardless of the type or quality of ministry that they practice.  We feel comfortable with this corporate model of assessment, because it is the same model that we use to assess the other aspects of our lives.

Many small and rural churches suffer from an identity crisis based on their perceived place in the comparative pecking order.  As pastors we feed that mindset in the ways we refer to our own ministry settings.  In talking to others about the work that we do, one of the first questions we frequently ask is, “How many members do you have?” as if that is the most important of all identifying factors.  Too often members of these smaller churches undervalue the work and ministry they do, simply because they are trapped in a system that puts more of a premium on the number of people in the seats and less of a value on the quality of their faith or the things they do in the name of the Gospel.  But what if we ignored the numbers and focused primarily on mission? What if we looked at the work that we do in our context through the lens of service to Jesus Christ, rather than quantifiable categories?

Smaller membership congregations have the opportunity to renew their own sense of spiritual well-being by intentionally thinking about the purpose of their faith community.  It goes without saying that worshiping and glorifying the Lord is our primary purpose, but what happens if attendance numbers are low or musical gifts are absent or the quality of worship is uninspiring for reasons that are unrelated to the gospel itself?  These factors can accelerate the sense that a church is in decline.  Worship is essential, but if worship is the only way the congregation expresses its life together or its presence in a community, then a decline in worship may be an indicator that the life of that congregation is coming to an end.

Vital churches, regardless of size, discover additional ways to express their mission to Jesus Christ.  While worship is generally an internal expression of a congregation’s calling, other means of outreach can feed the flames of their faith and assert the importance of the church in that community.  Let's be very clear - making disciples and providing pastoral care are essential functions of every faith community, regardless of size. And mere activity should never be mistaken for the real business of the church. But activity is the language that the church speaks in its effort to be visible to the larger community. Through visible activities the church is able to make inroads into larger circles, often filled with those who have a marginal, or even no faith commitment. This is an opportunity for mission and evangelism local-style, even if we never use those words.  A low-membership church, even one that has been in danger of closing, can experience a renewed sense of life and purpose, when its members rededicate themselves to a particular work that distinguishes them within that context.

Mission studies are common within most denominations, but unfortunately they most frequently occur when the church is in the process of seeking new pastoral leadership.  Too often that means that the study is seen as another hurdle that needs to be overcome so that we can get on with the process of finding the right person.  As a result, they often reaffirm the most common practices of a congregation and seldom lead to new ways of thinking or new directions for ministry. Therefore it is important for congregations seeking new vitality to think intentionally about their identity at a different time, when finding a pastor is not the primary concern.

Every small and rural church should ask this question  - If we did not exist in this community, what would be missed?

If the answer is nothing, then the writing is on the wall. That church is a good candidate for closing, since it contributes little to the cause of Christ or the community itself.  But if the answer reveals an aspect of ministry or service, then the conversation has a place to begin.  Vitality in any church, particularly a small congregation, is directly related to identity.  And identity is related to the ways our efforts to represent Jesus are perceived and received by ourselves and by those in the world around us.

Many churches still live in the shadow of their golden years. They look back on a time when the pews were full and the Sunday School rooms crowded and think that the same type of ministry is possible today. But with very different resources, the 30 member church cannot live the same life as the 200 or 300 member church that they used to be.  The question is not "How can we do what we used to do," but rather, "What can 30 people do well in this place to bring glory to God?"

What does this look like in real life?  A sense of service in the name of Christ is unique to every faith community.  In one place I served it was our commitment to meals on wheels and the impact that had on the shut-ins around us.  In another, it was realized by renewing our commitment to the young people of the community, regardless of faith or denomination, and providing a place for them to gather a couple of nights a week. In other towns it might mean providing weekly volunteers at the local nursing home or sponsoring a food stand at the county fair with prices that enable even the poorest of families to enjoy a meal.  Some congregations have an annual meal or event that everyone looks forward to, like a chicken supper or a roast beef dinner.  On the outside they may seem like simple fundraisers, but in reality the ways that church members are drawn together to make the event a success and the perception in the community that this Christian church is doing something for others in the name of Jesus, makes the event a success in ways that reach far beyond the number of people served or the amount of money raised.

Even churches that have no distinguishing activities or types of outreach can gain a sense of vitality by asking a couple of different questions – what does our community need, how can our church fulfill that need, and how could such an outreach serve the cause of Christ?

Being a small church is not the same thing as being a dying church.  Because numbers only tell a part of the story.  The real key to finding vitality in small packages is in identifying our unique calling and in realizing how that serves Jesus in this place.

What do you call a church with only thirty members?  If it is committed to serving Christ, regardless of its limitations, then I call it a success!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Celebrating Vital Ministry in a Rural Context

What does rural ministry mean to you?

Throughout my career I have been continually surprised and amazed by the power and depth of the relationships that I have formed as a result of my work as a pastor in a rural setting. And it always appears in unexpected ways. To the untrained eye, a trip through the rural countryside is a quiet and peaceful experience, largely devoid of people and basically populated by scattered herds of farm animals and large expanses of land, sometimes cultivated, often not. The occasional visitor sees only these outward trappings and assumes that life in this place is slow and bucolic, without challenges and dreams, except for the constant work of making a living from the land. And even when they know better, images from Grant Wood or Green Acres immediately spring to mind.

But that is not the life that we rural pastors know.

While the land is important, even essential to our existence, the life in our context is found in the men, women, and children who call this place home.  Each community, each congregation, each family has a story to share. Their lives are full of challenges and dreams, sometimes filled with disappointment, anger, grief, and struggles, but often balanced by hope, celebration, joy, and promise. And into those lives we step, called to represent Christ and his church in personal and very real ways.

One of the greatest privileges of being a rural pastor is that we are invited into the personal lives of the people we serve at very private, often very intimate moments. Joining the family circle for births and deaths, weddings and funerals, anniversaries and other celebrations, means that we not only represent the church, but are ambassadors for Christ as well. Learning to cultivate that gift of 'presence' is essential to the practice of effective ministry.

One stereotype of rural ministry is that we are caretakers for our congregations and that vibrant, creative ministry only happens in urban areas.  As you might have guessed, I could not disagree more. While there are some churches for which that is true, and some pastors who don’t strive for anything else, there are many places where excitement and vitality are the norm; churches that demonstrate a desire to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to their constituencies with passion and meaning, and pastors who are engaged in the lives of their members with the kind of care, concern, and faith that must bring a smile to God’s face.

This web site is dedicated to the encouragement of that kind of passion and vitality.  It is designed as a gathering place for pastors and church leaders who are looking for resources, ideas, and conversation that will lead to renewal in our congregations and in the larger church.  We don’t see our rural settings as a barrier to church growth and development, but as an opportunity to provide the gospel for a 21st century people who happen to live in a unique and less populated context.

Over the years we have spent too much time and energy worrying about the loss of members, our denominational struggles, and maintaining a style of ministry that was designed for the 1950s.  Our rural churches deserve better.  I invite you to join us on this journey, as we reinvent the church, moving away from an attitude of decline and irrelevance and toward a new expression of the faith that exudes the gospel of Jesus Christ in the way we live our lives, the way we relate to others, and the way we worship our God. 

That’s where I’m going.  I hope you will come with me.


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