Tuesday, September 22, 2009

FCC St. Joe is Excellent in Evangelism! (sort of) (Dialogue Column 9.29.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter.

Last week I received an envelope from our denomination’s Office of Evangelism which contained a very attractive certificate declaring our church is a recipient of an “Excellence in Evangelism Award.” “Huh,” I thought, “Who would have thunk it?” After reading the fine print, I discovered that the award declares that out of churches of our size (101-250 participating members) for the year 2008 we were in the top 10% for number of additions of new members.

I next checked our records and found we had 23 new members last year—20 of them transferred their membership from another church and 3 of them made first time professions of faith. I guess that qualifies as “Excellence in Evangelism” in our denomination (among churches of our size, in the year 2008, etc. etc.). A cynic might scoff at what passes for “Excellence in Evangelism” in a shrinking denomination like ours, but I’m not cynical. Although it is nice to be recognized—for as much as such recognition is worth, each of these 23 additions last year—along with the 18 we’ve had so far in 2009—is meaningful to me because he or she represents a commitment to follow Jesus as a part of the community of faith that is First Christian Church of St. Joseph.

The letter accompanying the certificate made a point of qualifying what the word “Evangelism” means in such an award. It clarified that awards for additions were not necessarily awards for evangelism, at least not strictly speaking. The paragraph-long explanation is a little wordy and vague, but I took from it that evangelism is really about people making first time professions of faith (new Christians) rather than people transferring their membership from another church. So, I guess we really have an “Excellence in Adding New Members who are Already Christians but Whom were Either Inactive or Dissatisfied in their Previous Churches” award.

Based on what I know about the backgrounds of those who joined last year, here’s what I can tell you statistically:

· 3 made first-time professions of faith;
· 5 moved to St. Joseph and were looking for a church;
· 7 lived in St. Joseph, had belonged to a church in the past but had not been active in some time;
· 8 were active members of another church in town and for various reasons were looking for a new church.

So maybe we deserve an “Excellence in Adding New Members who Made a Profession of Faith, Moved to Our Town, or Felt a Desire to Find a New Church” award. A cynic might dismiss some of these new additions as examples of “sheep stealing” or “church shopping,” but I’m not cynical. For me, each of these people who have chosen to join First Christian Church is a person who was looking to deepen their commitment to Jesus Christ and was led by the Spirit to our church. There are many reasons why a person might go looking for a new church and many reasons why he or she would end up at a particular congregation. I choose to believe that those who have joined our church over the last few years have done so, because our members have made a concerted effort to allow God to work through them in some exciting ways.

Some folks have credited my coming to First Christian as the reason our church is adding new members; I tend to think that is an extreme overstatement. I believe that over the last few years we have done a better job than in previous years of letting people in our community know about the kind of faith community we are. Based on who has joined over the last two years, it is about evenly split between those who visited the church due to our marketing campaign and those who visited because of a direct invitation of a church member. Whether it was through a TV commercial, a postcard in the mail or from a personal invite, people have gotten the idea that we are a special kind of church that welcomes all people and values people of various beliefs coming together to serve God and others. Once they got in the door, another special thing happened—they felt welcome and cared about. Many of the new members have shared with me about their first interactions with church members on a Sunday morning. They felt they were greeted not merely out of politeness but with an eagerness to show hospitality and concern. They felt like this was a church that cared about them and then came to feel that through this community of believers they might be able show care to others in Christ’s name.

So, maybe we should have received an award for “Excellence in Welcoming Strangers and Helping Them to Connect with a Community of Faith.” I think I like that title best of all.

Grace and Peace,

Church. . . It's Complicated (Dialogue Column 9.15.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter.

Each week Jen and I watch The Soup, a TV show dedicated to making fun of trashy reality TV shows, snarky talk show hosts and poorly acted cable series. Their tagline is “We watch it all for you, so that you don’t have to!” The show is often hilarious and it allows us to keep a toe in the scum-covered waters of pop-culture without actually having to watch all this stuff (although sometimes even a half an hour of The Soup makes me despair for humanity).

One of the reality shows made fun of on The Soup is called Denise Richards . . . It’s Complicated. Richards, who once played a girlfriend for James Bond and was also once married to actor Charlie Sheen, is not what you would call the sharpest tool in the shed. From what I can gather from the clips of her show I’ve seen, the only thing “complicated” about her life is how she ever got her own show in the first place. Yet, this reality show that Jen and I have never really watched has given Jen and I our own inside joke. Now whenever anything is difficult, we like to add to it “. . . It’s Complicated.” Such as, “Parenting. . . It’s Complicated.” “Long Division. . . It’s Complicated.” “Programming the Remote Control. . . It’s Complicated.”

I want to share this inside joke with you, our church, as we begin our stewardship campaign this year. I haven’t run this by the Stewardship Committee yet, but I’ve thought about hanging up a banner that says, “Church. . . It’s Complicated.” (Of course, then I’d have to explain the joke to all the people that don’t read my newsletter column, so perhaps, I’ll just skip the banner.) As much as I the minister or other leaders of the church might want to make being a part of a community of faith convenient and easy, the fact is that being a part of a church is. . . well. . . “complicated.” It demands commitment, time, effort and sacrifice—that is, if it really is going to resemble anything like following Jesus.

Recently, I read a sermon by Peter Marty, well-known Lutheran minister and writer, that makes my point well. In it, Marty uses two Quakers as examples of how the call of Christ actually complicates rather than eases the life of a believer:

The late Quaker philosopher Elton Trueblood understood this complicating nature of the Christian way. "In many areas," he wrote, "the gospel, instead of taking away peoples' burdens, actually adds to them." On a number of occasions, Trueblood told the story of John Woolman, a successful Quaker merchant in the 18th century who lived a wonderfully nice life until God convicted him one day of the offense of holding slaves. After that, John Woolman gave up his prosperous business; he used his money to try and free slaves and even started wearing undyed suits to avoid relying on dye that slave labor produced. Says Elton Trueblood, "Occasionally we talk of our Christianity as something that solves problems, and there is a sense in which it does. Long before it does so, however, it increases both the number and the intensity of problems."

What a powerful way to think about how complicated it can be to follow Christ in our culture!

As each of us at First Christian consider our own finances, talents, time and energy, we cannot escape from the fact that we must give of all of these things in service to God and people in need—at least not if we want to be faithful to Christ. In the midst of a busy schedule, how can I make time to volunteer to help others? With medical limitations, how can I give of myself to others? Out of the things that I want to buy in the coming year, what would I be willing to give up or forego to support my church and its ministries? Are there things in my life I don’t really need (an extra latte, a more expensive cell phone, one more purchase on Ebay, etc.) that I could let go of in order to use that same money to supply the basic needs of someone in my community (Open Door Food Kitchen, Juda House, Royal Family Kids Camp, etc.)? These are the tough questions that stewardship time should force us to think about?

Jesus never promised that following him would be easy or even fun, although he does promise that doing so will be fulfilling and joyous. How can that be? Well. . . “It’s Complicated.”

Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

100,000 for Health Care Reform

The United Church of Christ--a partner denomination with the Disciples of Christ and a denomination I have ministerial standing in--is gathering 100,000 "signatures" in support of health care reform. I signed it, so that means only 99,999 to go.

Be Careful What You Pray For: A Parable about Prayer (Dialogue Column 9.8.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter.

A good friend of mine named Sterling Severns is the pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Richmond, VA. Sterling and I went to college and seminary together and he is a dynamic person and minister. His church has changed dramatically over the last year in some amazing and entirely unexpected ways. I thought I would share the story of those changes with you as an example of how I believe God wishes to surprise all of us with opportunities to serve people on the margins.

Tabernacle Baptist Church looks the part of a stately, white, urban congregation in the “Capitol of the Confederacy”. In its heyday, Tabernacle was a thriving city church with a sanctuary offering seats for thousands each Sunday. With the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention only a few short blocks away, Tabernacle was the site for missionary commissioning services that connected it with the entire world. Times changed and so did the neighborhood around the church. Families moved to the suburbs and the rowhouses around Tabernacle were often subdivided into apartments. They filled up with yuppies, hippies and college students, few of whom were interested in a traditional Southern Baptist Church. The church membership dwindled to a small group of older members and those who remained were heard to joke, “The last one who dies needs to turn out the lights.” They prayed for God to bring them new members, especially ones with children.

Five years ago, my friend Sterling was called as their pastor. His two children doubled the size of the Sunday School. As the Southern Baptist Convention became more and more conservative, the church chose to affiliate with moderate to liberal Baptist groups which helped it be more open to the community around it. Sterling’s considerable gifts also helped to draw in new members. Things began to seem less desperate and more hopeful. Still they prayed for God to bring them new members, especially ones with children.

One day, an associate minister of the church received a call from an acquaintance who worked with refugees. She was asked if there were any Baptist churches in Richmond that would work with a growing population of Burmese Karen refugees that were being settled there in increasing numbers. Of course she mentioned Tabernacle. The church looked at the Karens as a mission opportunity and considered options of how to help these strangers in a strange land. At the beginning, the Karens were one group in need among many in Richmond. Meanwhile, Tabernacle members prayed for God to bring them new members, especially ones with children.

The Karen Burmese are a minority in the country of Burma (renamed Myanmar by its oppressive military government). They have experienced ethnic cleansing at the hands of the brutal government forces, who often ethnically cleanse villages and rape any women they find. The Karen in America came here legally as a part of international refugee resettlement programs. The problem is the groups put in charge of helping them find new lives are often underfunded or incompetent; such is the case in Richmond. Most refugees arrive speaking little or no English, with very little money or job skills and no knowledge of how to navigate the currents of American society. Interestingly, many of the Karen are Baptist thanks to the work of early missionaries in the 18th century, so their American brothers and sisters in Christ at Tabernacle found themselves gravitating toward these strangers who sang traditional Baptist hymns in their own dialects. Slowly but surely, the church members found themselves helping get children signed up for school and driving whole families to doctor appointments. Then they started an ESL class to teach the Karen English. Relationships quickly formed and the Karen began showing up on Sunday mornings at Tabernacle.

The members of Tabernacle Baptist Church began to realize that the families and children they had been praying for had arrived. But instead of the Caucasian middle class families of previous generations, God had provided families and children from Southeast Asia with a long list of needs. I’m happy to report that the members of Tabernacle opened their arms wide to the families God brought to them. If you visit on a Sunday morning, you will find around 175 people (around half Caucasian and half Karen) attending a service offered in three languages: English and two Karen dialects. Rather than looking in a bulletin or on an overhead screen, the members sing old Baptist hymns in their separate languages; the melodies have offered a common experience. Their Sunday School and youth group contain Caucasian and Karen children. Their meals and times of fellowship allow for adults to cross boundaries of language, nationality, and class. Together they are striving hard to be one church.
Grace comes in many forms, so be careful what you pray for.

Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Another good article featuring First Christian Church

In Saturday's issue of the St. Joseph News-Press, there was another good article by Erin Wisdom that featured our church along with others in downtown St. Joseph. (Erin always does a great job.) I'm grateful to Andrew Kar, our youth director, for representing us so well with his great quote, just as I'm grateful to Roger Lenander from First Lutheran and Missy Schafer from First Presbyterian for helping our three churches work together to share God's love with teens.

Faith and Conversion (Dialogue Column 9.1.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter.

I watched the news coverage following the death of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy with interest over the past week. It seemed to me that the assessments of Kennedy’s life pronounced by pundits, politicians and historians fell into one of two camps: 1. those who described Kennedy as the “Lion of the Senate,” a master legislator who helped craft most of the culture-improving bills of his generation, and a crusader for the underdog; and 2. those who described Kennedy as a spoiled dilettante whose political fortunes were handed to him by his rich family, a cad and womanizer who drove drunk resulting in the death of a young woman, and a proponent of big-government excess. How do we reconcile these two images of the same person?

As I heard the praise and criticism of Kennedy, I thought of the many parallels between him and George W. Bush. Even though there are significant differences between the two men—especially when it comes to their political ideologies and the fact that Bush is still alive—there are some similarities that I believe are worth pondering. Both men grew up as younger sons in rich politically-connected families, and neither man was expected to carry his family’s standard but both did to the highest levels of political power. Both were accused of being callow drunks who had their political positions handed to them on the basis of wealth and family rather than talent. Both are reviled by those on the other end of the political divide, but both of them were known for reaching across the aisle to accomplish their agendas. AND both credit Christianity with the significant changes made in their lives: Bush made a profession of faith with an evangelical minister and Kennedy found a renewed commitment to his Catholic upbringing. (Also--read Jim Wallis' accounts of his interaction with Kennedy.)

Those who despise Kennedy and view him as liberal destroyer of family values will bristle at the comparison with Bush; likewise, those who view Bush as a theocratic warmonger would reject the comparison with Kennedy. Yet, I feel there is a spiritual truth somewhere in-between that deserves to be examined. All but the most zealous of Kennedy’s detractors could at least applaud his work to expand America’s immigration policies beyond Western European Caucasians, his opposition to human rights abuses of regimes like August Pinochet and the U.S.S.R., and his support of people with disabilities. Similarly, all but the most virulent of critics could at least applaud Bush’s large increases in foreign aid to fight the AIDS crisis in Africa and the prescription drug program for low-income seniors. Except for the most partisan, I believe most everyone could give some credit to both Kennedy and Bush when pressed. What does it mean then, from a faith perspective, that each person could accomplish great things for the benefit of others despite obvious personal failings?
One thing I hope the legacies of Kennedy and Bush reveal is that the work of God to care for humanity is not limited by partisan politics. Despite those who would claim that God is on one side of the aisle or the other, if one understands every act of benevolence and healing as an outgrowth of God’s saving and healing activity, then it stands to reason that God can work through either a Democrat or a Republican. Another thing I hope the legacies of these two men reveal is that God can work through people even if they have made big, even tragic, mistakes. This is good news for those of us who have made some of our own. Finally, I hope their legacies point to the idea that God can help people to change for the better. We are not bound by the low expectations of others or even ourselves. With God’s help, we can turn away from destructive behavior that enslaves us and wounds those around us. The grace of God ignores the boundaries we erect.
Most of us will not rise to political prominence. We will lead ordinary lives far from the spotlight of fame and fortune. Yet, the grace of God can overcome the differences between us—political and otherwise—as we work to share love with humanity. The grace of God can work through anyone, even broken people, because God offers us on-going chances to change for the better. All these things are available to us, even if we do not come from a dynasty of wealth and power.

Grace and Peace,