Monday, June 8, 2009

Vision clarity: a focus on families

It's been awhile since my last post.  And there are reasons for it, as I have intentionally tried to use this blog for a place to gain feedback and generated dialogue with people in our church over the future.  There have been a couple entries that were simply generated out of my devotional times with God, but for the most part, I've been reflecting on all the new learning I've been gaining through this process.  I'm happy to say, at this point, something has become very clear to me as I look at how our church might grow healthier and stronger.  It has to do with vision.  I've heard leaders in my life talk about the simplicity on the other side of complexity.  Well, this is one example of that.  And it's this:  In terms of vision, I am convinced more than ever that our church is best equipped for reaching families.  That's one undeniable aspect of who we are.  We are a church of mostly young families with children and some youth. 

In the past months, I've been trying to name this "community" we are called to reach with terms like "unchurched" or "overchurched", but it just seemed too out of reach for people in our congregation to grasp.  Not because they didn't understand what those terms meant, but perhaps because the terminology just didn't grip their hearts and compel them toward a sense of agreement.  But the minute I started talking to individuals in our church, asking them to answer the question, almost all of them said, "our church is best prepared to reach families".

So, I think during this long somewhat reflective blog-pause, I've come to accept that God has called New Life Center to touch families with the power of the Gospel.  This, to me, is more than just a generality.  Because for us to embrace this as our vision as a church means that we will need to organize around it.  Anyone can say they want to reach families.  But churches that are actually doing it have intentionally planned, organized, and implemented around that focus.

So, here's the question of the day.  If our church were to take this vision to reach and minister to families within our church and within the larger region seriously, what kinds of needs would we have to address?  What kinds of ministries/programs would need to be improved, created, and sustained?  What kinds of events would we need to plan?  How would our services need to change?  How would our focus on families impact how we renovate our facility?

I don't expect you to answer all of these questions...welcome to the inside of my head.  Take a moment if you have it, and swim around.  Your thoughts, feedback, questions, and opinions are welcome.  

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Walking with God?

I receive these daily devotionals from a ministry called Ransomed Heart.  It's basically excerpts from some of John Eldridges' writings.  He's the guy who authored the book, "Wild at Heart".  Anyway, this one in particular captured my attention today, and served as a good reminder in how we understand the journey of discipleship in our life with Christ.
My reflection in response is at the end of this entry.
We take folks through a discipleship program whereby they master any number of Christian precepts and miss the most important thing of all, the very thing for which we were created: intimacy with God. There are, after all, those troubling words Jesus spoke to those who were doing all the “right” things: “Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you’” (Matt. 7:23). Knowing God. That’s the point. 

You might recall the old proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The same holds true here. Teach a man a rule and you help him solve a problem; teach a man to walk with God and you help him solve the rest of his life. Truth be told, you couldn’t master enough principles to see yourself safely through this Story. There are too many surprises, ambiguities, exceptions to the rule. Things are hard at work—is it time to make a move? What 
has God called you to do with your life? Things are hard at home—is this just a phase your son is going through, or should you be more concerned? You can’t seem to shake this depression—is it medical or something darker? What does the future hold for you—and how should you respond? 

Only by walking with God can we hope to find the path that leads to life. 
That is what it means to be a disciple. After all—aren’t we “followers of Christ”? Then by all means, let’s actually follow him. Not ideas about him. Not just his principles. Him.   (Waking the Dead, Eldridge)

The question that this entry begs at the end for me is: "What does it mean to walk with God on a daily basis?"  If indeed our discipleship is more than following principles and rules, but following a person, then what descriptors must characterize my relationship with this person we call God (in Christ)?  How do I get beyond the rule/principle-driven Christianity that I was taught early on in my faith journey?  Or more importantly, "how do I respond to the idea that God is my heavenly Father whose character  is reflected in the best qualities of our earthy fathers, but who can also provide and teach us what our fathers didn't?"  To me, to couch the journey of discipleship in terms of a father and son/daughter relationship helps.  That notion helps me become less focused and dependent on the right principles and the rules required to be a good Christian.  It frees me to be in a moment by moment relationship with Father God, who is fathering me in and through all the present circumstances of my life.  And it helps me to see all of the arenas and areas of my life as training ground for God to teach me timeless lessons about himself, myself, and people.

What about you?  How would you characterize your "walk with God?"  What does it mean for you that God is your Heavenly Father?

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sabbath: A Timely Reminder

As I have found myself swirling in the change vortex that is starting to take place in our church life, I have concurrently been reminded of the need to rest, pull over, and park on a regular basis...just to BE with God in the middle of all this DOING.  Here's part of an entry from one of my daily devotional guides that I found particularly profound and life-giving.  It's about the Sabbath.  In the midst of all the things that I feel need to be done to align with God's will for my life and the life of the church, I cannot neglect the practice of a personal Sabbath.  As we raise the level of ministry activity in our church, we also need to be cultivating a deep intimacy with God that will allow us to sustain such activity over the long haul.  That's the challenge.  That's the command of John 15:5- "I am the vine, you are the branches.  If a man/woman remains in me and I in him/her, he/she will bear much fruit.  Apart from me you can do nothing."

Let the following be part of your devotional life going into Holy Week:

"Sabbath is not dependent on our readiness to stop.  We do not stop when we are finished.  We do not stop when we complete our phone calls, finish our project, get through this stack of messages, or get out this report that is due tomorrow.  We stop because it is time to stop.  

Sabbath requires surrender.  If we only stop when we are finished with all our work, we will never stop--because our work is never completely done.  With every accomplishment there arises a new responsibility.  If we refuse rest until we are finished, we will never rest until we die. Sabbath dissolves the artificial urgency of our days, because it liberates us from the need to be finished.  

We stop because there are forces larger than we that take care of the universe, and while our efforts are important, necessary, and useful, they are not (nor are we) indispensable.  The galaxy will somehow manage without us for this hour, this day, and so we are invited--nay, commanded--to relax, and enjoy our relative unimportance, our humble place at the table in a very large world.  

Do not be anxious about tomorrow, Jesus said again and again.  Let the work of this day be sufficient.  Sabbath says, be still. Stop.  There is no rush to get to the end, because we are never finished.
                            - Wayne Mueller

Question to Consider:  What is your greatest fear in stopping for a 24-hour period each week?

Prayer:  Lord, this idea will require a lot of change in the way I am living life.  Teach me, Lord how to take the next step with this in a way that fits my unique personality and situation.  Help me trust you with all that will remain unfinished and to enjoy my humble place in your very large world.  In Jesus' name, Amen.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Fusion System

"Fusion" is the title of one of the books I pulled off my shelf a couple weeks ago.  I had it in my library...I mean, I remember ordering it months back, but for some reason, it rose to the top of the stack when I was scanning my library the other day.  I love fusion.  Jazz fusion that is.  The blending of rock, funk, R&B elements with the freedom and wild, barely dissonant harmonics of jazz chord phrasings and improvisation.  Put it all together in a creative blend, and you have music that has a familiar, even catchy hook, but that takes the listener on a musical journey that pushes the boundary outward without fully breaking out of the box.  That's what I think I like about jazz fusion.  It creates a "box" all of its own, which sounds familiar enough to keep you interested, but when you decide to listen further, you find yourself on a musical adventure that pushes you to the fringes.  It all depends, of course, on the skill of the lead musician.  

I used to listen to the legendary tenor sax player, Michael Brecker.  I still do from time to time, whenever I'm in the mood for simply being "wow-ed" by a saxophone virtuoso.  Michael Brecker passed away a few years back, but everyone remembers his musical legacy.  He had a way of improvising that left you dumbfounded.  I'm not even talking about his straight-ahead jazz projects.  I'm talking about the soul, funk, blues stuff that he used to do.  His solos, woven together through some pretty basic blues/rock chord progressions, would push the envelope just enough to make you want more.  In other words, while the musical chord progressions were something quite familiar to the listener, Brecker's solos would start out within what made sense musically, and then he would develop them in a way that moved you just beyond the fringes.  And just when you thought he was getting a little too "chaotic" or beyond what was tolerable, he would take you right back into the flow of things.  Just that little trip to the outer realm or border of that song was what kept me rewinding the CD, listening again and again to his phenomenal artistry.  

OK, back to the book.  While the main title of the book made me think about the kind of music I have loved for years, the book was actually about "hospitality and stewardship".  The full title is, "Fusion: Turning First-Time Guests Into Fully Engaged Members of Your Church".
Not exactly related to jazz-fusion in the very least.  The book highlights the importance of a well-functioning assimilation system for the local church.  Or, the system for how a church moves its guests week in and week out from being first-time attenders, to second time attenders, to regular attenders, to fully participating "partners" or members of the church.  

Of the many ideas the book presents regarding the "first impressions" of any given local church, one that caught my attention was the "7 Minute Rule".  In essence, this rule says that, on average, the people that come to your church for the first time make their decision as to whether they will come back again OR NOT within the first 7 minutes of stepping foot onto the church property.  That's because to a first time attender, who presumably has not been to church before, or has not been to church for a long time, everything communicates.  Everything from how well the grounds are kept, to whether there is adequate signage to help them orient to the facility, to whether there are friendly people showing respect and making them feel at home.  And all of this happens before they even hear the praise team sing or the preacher preach.  By the time they are seated in the pew, they've already subconsciously made a decision about whether they would come back or not. 

Fascinating.  So, from a numbers perspective, let's say over the course of one year, we grew as a church from 150 to 170 members.  So, we added 20 new members to the congregation in one year.  But the church records show that we had over 150 first-time visitors to the church during the course of that same year.  That's about a 14% retention rate.  What happened to the other 130?  While there are probably a whole lot of good reasons the 130 didn't return for a second visit or become a member of the church, the bottom line is that most of them probably fell through the cracks.  Or more particularly, the church did not have an adequate follow-up system to invite them, connect with them, and encourage them to further participate in the life of the congregation.  So, they moved on.  No harm, no foul, no blood, no ambulance, and no growth.

But what if...What if these 150 people were actually results of God bringing people in through the front doors of our church?  No matter how they came, what if they were God's gifts to us?  What if God expected us to be more hospitable, and better stewards of these new attenders?  And what if, by being better stewards of these new people, we boosted the retention rate from 14% to 50%?  I know, it's a numbers game of sorts.  But the numbers can actually mean something if we put it in the right perspective.  The numbers could actually reflect that we are becoming better stewards of the people God is sending our way.  

Actually, the first thought that came to me when I started seeing it like this was, "Lord, I repent".  I repent for neglecting the "gifts" of people that you've been bringing to us.  The neglect, of course, was not a personal or intentional one.  It was the neglect that creeps up on you when you start becoming "inward-focused".  Only then did it occur to me that one of the ways in which our church can start becoming more outward-focused is by changing the way it treats new attenders.  Sure, there's a community "out there" to reach.   But maybe God is telling us to start in our "Jerusalem" with the people that, without any real evangelistic effort on our part, He is bringing to our church week in and week out.  

So, in the end, I think there is some similarity between a Michael Brecker solo and the assimilation system of a local congregation.  In the same way that jazz-fusion artists like Brecker play their solos within a set "system" of basic chord progressions, so too, the local church needs a basic system in place in which to "assimilate" or "blend" if you will, new attenders with the local culture of that congregation.  Ultimately, this blending or fusing is about making disciples and fulfilling Christ's commission.  So this basic system of assimilation needs to point to that end.  But regardless, without such a system, new attenders will continue to fend for themselves and fall through the gaps.  And we will continue to steward poorly the people God sends to us.   

Furthermore, in the unique way in which a Michael Brecker solo pushes the envelope and points the listener outward toward the fringe of the musical limits, any of the already committed members of a local church can embrace an attitude, intentionalize and action, and take a step of faith toward the fringes within the very congregation they are a part of.  
The way they do this is simply by taking on a mentality that they will be intentionally hospitable, respectful, helpful and appropriately friendly to any new attender on any given Sunday.   Easier said than done, I know.  

But a system is just that...a functional process by which some purpose can be accomplished.  It cannot and will not work without people.  It will not work without leaders who initiate it, administrators who maintain it, and implementers that try it, evaluate it, improve it, and apply it consistently till it becomes part of the DNA of that church.  So here's another take on the question of what we're all about at New Life Center.

It's all about Jesus, right?  Right.  It's also all about people.  Stewarding the gifts of people that God gives us as a church.  It's about fusion.  It's about the "jazz" of assimilation in the local church...the fusing of new people into the life of a community of Christ-followers called the church.   Fusion...I like it.  Sounds like it could become another core value for our church.  I think I'm in the mood to listen to some now...

Monday, March 16, 2009

Tipping Point for Congregational Life

Reflecting on a conversation I had with a friend yesterday and a book I'm reading (Tipping Point), and I was reminded of how the smallest, sometimes most insignificant things can create the context and build the momentum for radical change.  In Tipping Point, Malcom Gladwell talks about two concepts that contribute to radical change (for better or worse) in society: the Power of Context and the Law of the Few (there are actually three, but these are the two that struck me).  

He cites the 1964 stabbing of a young woman in Queens New York, where she was attacked three times on the same street by her assailant while 38 of her neighbors watched from their apartment windows.  None of the 38 witnesses called the police.  After the incident many tried to explain the behavior of the 38 by highlighting the cold, unfeeling, uncaring nature of urban life in which people become rather indifferent and numb to the realities around them.  But a couple of psychologists in New York conducted a social experiement to try and explore this behavior more deeply.  They named it "the bystander problem".  And they basically staged emergencies of different types in order to see who would respond with help.  Of all the different kinds of emergency situations they simulated, they found one key factor that influenced the response of bystanders.  The factor was how many actual witnesses to the event there were.  

So, for example, when there was one person in the room next door, listening to someone having an epileptic seizure, that person rushed to help the victim 85% of the time.  But when that one person was told that there were four other people listening, and overhearing the seizure, they rushed to help the victim only 31% of the time.   Basically, they concluded that when people are in a group, their responsibility for acting is diffused because they all assume someone else will take the initiative to help.  Or... they assume that because no one else is acting, the immediate problem must not really be a problem.  So the argument being made here is that the real reason the 38 people didn't call the cops while witnessing a violent crime was not because they didn't hear the lady scream for help, but it was precisely because they heard her cry for help.
Ironically, if this lady was attacked in an alley way where there was only one witness, she just might have lived!

I'm reminded of what my NT Greek professor in seminar always told us when interpreting Scripture:  "Context is everything".  My thoughts gravitate to New Life Center, and I wonder if God will use the small, seemingly insignificant things within the context of our congregational life to prepare us for transformational growth (radical change).  These things are not the large, immediately visible elements of our church life.  They are things like personal testimonies of what God is doing in the lives of individuals and families, or the placement of singers on the platform, or the "on-the-shelf" leader who begins to step out of the woodwork and begins influencing others positively, or the morning prayer meetings held once a month and attended by the few but faithful, or the significant connection initiated by a leader with a concerned parent, or the relative unity of the leadership teams that get 80% of the work done...things like that make up the hidden landscape of our congregational life.  

Most of the congregation may not immediately notice such things that are done by the few, but perhaps Gladwell has a point.  We tend to think that if we just had more or this or more of that, then we could really grow and do something for the kingdom of God.  But it is the power of the few acting in ways that influence the context in small, indirect perhaps, but significant ways that can lead the way toward radical transformation of the church as a whole and bring about a tipping point for growth and health in the life of the church.

Where do you see the power of these dynamics at work in other places in our church, or even in your life?  


Saturday, March 7, 2009

Values to Define Who We Are

At the Idea Camp, Erwin McManus said something interesting.  "Once you win the conversation about why, the how, and when, and where, and who become i've never had a conversation about creativity when transitioning our congregation, it was always about values...what matters to the heart of God."

What matters to the heart of God is another way of getting at the values and convictions that are core to us.   Core values shape our identity and they are reflected in the way we behave. They can be actual or preferred, or a mixture of both because we're still working on them.  Here are the ones we've stated thus far as a church:

INTIMACY WITH GOD.  Worshipping God is our chief aim and greatest delight.
GOD'S TRUTH.  Information is good.  Revelation is better.
GROWING DEEP.  Christ-like character is the foundation for all personal and ministry development
MISSIONAL EXISTENCE.  We exist for others. 
RELATIONAL GRACE.  Loving relationships are at the heart of our ministry efforts.
TEAM.  No one should do church alone.
GOD'S DESIGN.  Every Christ follower is called to serve in the way that is true to how God has gifted them.
BUILDING LEADERS.  Without godly leaders, church and community life loses it's meaning and direction.

As I reflect on these, I think about the ones that we currently live out, and the ones that we struggled with.  But I also wonder if there are any that we have not stated, yet are obvious in the way we "behave" as a church.  

Any thoughts? 

Monday, March 2, 2009

Church Transitions: Idea Camp (part2)

Meeting Scott Hodge at Idea Camp was a tremendous blessing.  Finally!  Someone my age who had actually walked through a painful season of transitioning a plateaued (more like declining) church...and lived to tell about it.  

So, before I even get into this, you've got to read this article entitled, Sharp Curve Ahead from a 2005 edition of Leadership Journal.  Leadership Journal asked Scott Hodge to write an article telling the incredible story of how he and his dad led their declining church through a season of transition that proved absolutely transformational for the church, and for the community they were called to reach.  I was moved by the way he wrote this article, especially the excerpts that he included from his dad's journal.  Check it out.