This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Starfish Christianity.

            I just finished a book called The Starfish and the Spider, by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom.   This is basically a business-management-futures kind of book, and most (but by no means all) of the examples in it come from the business world.  The message is that decentralized structures are becoming more normal, successful, and definitive in today’s culture.  Any organization still following the old model of top-down centralization is likely to be in big trouble soon, if it’s not already.
            Phyllis Tickle includes this book in her bibliography of Emergence; that is how I found it and why I read it.  We in the church have a great deal to learn from books like this one.  We have been suffering from the same obsolete ways of thinking and organizing ourselves that are now crumbling and passing into history.  Hence the present situation of main-line denominations.
            The image of the starfish is of a life-form that is so decentralized that, if you cut off a leg, both pieces grow into whole organisms.  There is no “head” which, if cut off, causes the animal to die.  The cells of a starfish are able to make their own decisions without waiting for instructions from a central brain. 
            Brafman and Beckstrom (B&B) also use historical examples, such as why Cortez easily toppled the centralized Aztecs, yet never was able to best the decentralized Apache.  The internet makes decentralization even more powerful.  They explore the now classic battles between record companies and Napster to show how and why this works.
            Anyway, in the church this has great resonance.  Jesus’ original movement had a starfish quality.  Pilate thought he could kill it by cutting off the head… but the movement simply spread. 
            Under Christendom, the imperial take-over of the church, lasting from the 4th through the 20th centuries, the church rejected Jesus’ organizational model and adopted a top-down, centralized, authoritarian one.  This persisted even through the Reformation in different ways.  But now it is failing us.  (It failed Jesus long ago, when it allowed and rationalized violence, exclusion, and greed.) 
            Today, with Christendom evaporating, the church can be open to ways of doing things that are resonant with the Starfish ideas of Emergence, and, more importantly, the very similar values and practices we receive from Jesus and Paul in the New Testament.
            B&B give 5 legs of a Starfish organization:
1)  Circles.  Peers gather in groups for conversation.  Sometimes these groups are small.  But they can be extremely large when we’re talking about a group on the internet.  The point is not size so much as the equality of participants.
2)  The catalyst.  There is usually one person who has the original idea and sets it free in the circle for development, elaboration, expansion, and growth.  For Christianity, of course, the primary catalyst is Jesus Christ.  For the ongoing church, the catalyists might be low-profile leaders in small groups.  More on catalysts below….
3)  Ideology.  Basic organizing principles, norms, and goals that unite and focus the circle, usually articulated by the catalyst.  Christianity might think of this as a doctrinal foundation, but that has the danger of making it too rigid and intellectual.
4)  Preexisting network.  Circles don’t work in a vacuum.  They take advantage of preexisting relationships, technologies, and organizations.  Jesus was a Jew working in a Jewish context.  Paul was a Greek Jew who worked within the larger context of the Roman Empire and took full advantage of it.
5)  The champion.  The idea is spread by an energetic, enthusiastic “evangelist.”  If Jesus is the original catalyst in Christianity, Paul is the champion.  (They don’t say much more in the book about the champion, which is curious.)
            The role of the catalyst is important enough that B&B spend a lot of time explaining it.  They give 12 characteristics of an effective catalyst, which I reproduce here with some explanation for the ones that are not self-explanatory.

a)  Genuine interest in others.
b)  Loose (and very broad) connections.  (Ie. a substantial “rolodex.”)
c)  Mapping.  (An understanding of social networks and how individuals fit into them.)
d)  A desire to help.
e)  Passion.  (Cheerleading for the ideology.)
f)   Meets people where they are.  (Not demanding that they change as a condition of participation.)
g)  Emotional intelligence.  (Knows how to forge emotional bonds.)
h)  Trust.  (For the network and the people in it.  Non-controlling.)
i)  Inspiration.  (Being a good example of the principles in your own life.)
j)  Tolerance for ambiguity.  (Not needing to have everything defined and nailed down.)
k)  Hands-off approach.
l)  Receding.  (Able to turn the agenda over to others.)

            As a further clarification, B&B give this helpful contrast between the catalyst and the CEO:

            CEO                                                            Catalyst   
            boss                                                             peer
            command and control                                  trust
            rational                                                        emotionally intelligent
            powerful                                                      inspirational
            directive                                                      collaborative
            in the spotlight                                            behind the scenes
            order                                                            ambiguity
            organizing                                                   connecting

            The church needs to cultivate catalysts.  It also needs to ditch its CEO’s.  Many great and effective pastors have functioned as catalysts in this sense.  These are the folks we need to lift up and learn from.
            I am beginning to envision a “Starfish Christianity” that emphasizes being local, decentralized, flat, distributed, networked, and integrated into the culture.  This means that some common elements of Christianity become more problematic: clergy, buildings, hierarchies, bureaucracies, and so forth.  The Starfish Christianity of Emergence will be small groups, spread out, relating to each other in mostly informal connections; they will gather around the Word in the power of the Spirit, and seriously help each other to follow in Jesus’ way of healing, liberation, peace, justice, forgiveness, and love.    

Monday, September 27, 2010

Creeping Congregationalism.

            Some may remember when this term, “creeping congregationalism,” was a common epithet in Presbyterian circles.  It was usually said with some disdain, like it was an infectious disease, something to be eradicated as thoroughly as possible.  We would roll our eyes over the persistent ignorance of church members who didn’t understand the subtleties and benefits of Presbyterian connectionalism.
            Creeping congregationalism was what we called it when Presbyterians appeared to think and act like Congregationalists, rather than like good Presbyterians.  When members of a congregation think they get to fire their pastor, or that they have the right to sell church property on their own, or that the congregation can vote to overrule a session decision, or many other issues, we could identify creeping congregationalism.  We thought we were defending the unique “middle-way” of Presbyterianism by separating ourselves from, on the one hand, the democratic, congregational impulse prevalent in American culture, and on the other hand, the hierarchical structures by which some denominations, like the Roman Catholic church, are composed. 
            It is no coincidence that Presbyterians did not have a similar name for a creeping hierarchicalism.  Not that we aren’t historically allergic to bishops.  But as the church did actually become more bureaucratic, hierarchical, centralized, and corporate, many of us were encouraged to view creeping congregationalism as the bigger problem. 
            I am frankly beginning to wonder about this.  Especially at the local level, I am starting to ask forbidden questions.  Like: What is so bad about a local congregation having more flexibility and autonomy over its own mission?  Now, no one knows better than I that many congregations are utterly clueless about their situation and future.  There are some spectacular and wonderful congregations out there.  But at the same time, many congregations have no more thoughtful agenda than the vague wish that it be 1956 again.  They generally keep using the same failed programs, continually expecting different results.  They seem to expect ministers to have the power to change reality.  And their main concerns are the building, their friendly social contacts in the church, and keeping everything as it was as much as possible.  I know this.
            But presbyteries are not exactly bursting at the seams with creativity, imagination, and effectiveness either.  If anything presbyteries tend to be even more mired in “the lessons of the past.”  They still suffer from the Presbyterian pathology of imposing on everyone general rules based on a few experienced disasters or feared worst-case-scenarios.  They are often suspicious of change, innovation, and anything different.  Their theological diversity can easily militate in favor of undefined, lowest-common-denominator theologies.  And they can be full of entrenched interests, personality squabbles, and gripped by a palpable inertia.  There are some notable exceptions, but as guardians of standards, rules, and procedures, presbyteries can be very effective extinguishers of the Spirit, especially when the Spirit breaks out in smaller or unconventional congregations.
            We do find congregations that are willing and able to explore change and move in new directions in discipleship.   Even if it means letting clueless congregations continue to be clueless, we have to loosen up our system so the churches that actually want to follow Jesus can do so.
            The current connectional system has failed.  We now see a movement to being more congregation-centric in many presbyteries.  Twenty years ago it was assumed the churches were supposed to support the work of the presbytery, synod, and General Assembly.  Now it is just the opposite.  The point of presbytery is to encourage and resource the mission of local congregations.  Many presbyteries at least pay lip-service to this ideal, even if their thinking and structures are still reflective of the earlier model. 
            Supporting the mission of local congregations is going to have to mean affirming and strengthening the ability of congregations to make their own decisions.  It will have to mean trusting them.  This points to a polity that gives more power to congregations and sessions.  “Creeping congregationalism” is no longer a preventable disease; it is the wave of the future.
            As the post-modern mix resolves into the recognizable characteristics of Emergence, we will see in the church more decentralized, local, distributed, flat, and networked structures, replacing the neat corporate pyramids of Modernity.  Congregations are going to be more independent.  The thing that will characterize Presbyterian communities will not be the presbytery so much as the session, and its representational framework.  Connectionalism will be less vertical, that is, less of a ladder between lower and higher governing bodies, and more horizontal.  The important connections in ecclesial life will be between congregations.
            In fact, the effect of vertical connectionalism is often to pit local congregations against each other for “market-share” and scarce resources.  It encourages denominational “silos,” where we pretend we still have a monopoly on religion in our communities as in the old Christendom model.  In spite of their rampant waste and reduced commitment, larger churches thrive at the expense of smaller ones.  Yet smaller churches consistently demonstrate higher levels of commitment per member.  I know of one presbytery that keeps its per capita assessment low by closing small churches and selling their property.  This sort of thing is toxic. 
            Horizontal connectionalism will see churches working intentionally and enthusiastically together, sharing and exchanging resources and expertise, cutting out the regional “middle-man” and its constrictive, regulatory, competitive, centralized, subsidize-the-wealthy regime.  Larger churches will sponsor and learn from smaller churches.  Different kinds of churches will influence and shape each other in broadening ministries.             
            This increase in congregational responsibility and authority is not identified with either “right” or “left.”  For one thing, chapter 8 (the property clause) is doomed.  The rationale for having “all property held in trust for the denomination” is quickly losing intelligibility.  Why should congregations not be able to affiliate with other congregations that share a common missional vision?   Why should the presbytery, which has done nothing to maintain or improve the property, have a say in its final use?  Chapter 8 represents an obsolete, hierarchical mentality that believed Presbyterian identity was established vertically by strong relationships with regional and national institutions.
            National ordination standards are also endangered.  Congregations are increasingly led by the Spirit to develop and empower the leadership they need to accomplish their own mission.  We already see some standards fraying at the edges with immigrant and non-majority populations.  The kind of license we give to these congregations has to be extended to all congregations.  Standards that actually hinder and obstruct mission will have to go.  We cannot refuse to reach out to this or that group because it offends some people bearing the name “Presbyterian” who may be far, far away.
            Congregations and session will also mess up, often dramatically, if given more responsibility.  But it’s not like this doesn’t happen under the present system.  And it’s not just a matter of weak COM backbones either.  I have seen COM’s received and imparted wisdom fail as well as succeed.  My point is that if giving congregations and sessions more freedom enables a few churches to soar in mission, even if others continue to swirl down the drain to oblivion, it will be worth it.  The worst thing we can do is limp along with the present system.
            There will remain a role for regional networks of churches.  Managing conflict, providing a larger perspective, vetting and training leaders, providing a clearing-house for larger missional endeavors, etc.  But the real action will be, as it really always has been whether we acknowledge it or not, in the congregations.                

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

All Ministry Is Interim Ministry.

{I send this in to the Outlook.  We'll see if they print it.  Meanwhile, feedback is appreciated.}

            The good news of Jesus Christ has an inherently transformational character.  It means change and transition.  Jesus’ comes into the world for healing, liberation, salvation, and deliverance… all of which are about change.  Jesus’ ministry was anything but stable.  He moved from place to place, and he challenged the status quo at every turn.  Jesus empowered people to think and act in ways that expressed the Kingdom of God, which was a reality very different from what prevailed in their society.
            The time in which we live is also characterized by pervasive and fundamental changes.  Phyllis Tickle calls our time “the Great Emergence.”  She says we live in the latest in a series of major cultural shifts that take place roughly every 500 years.  Her view certainly explains the situation in which we find ourselves culturally.  In our time, the old paradigm has gone, and the new hasn’t yet gelled into a recognizable form.  Our whole culture and world is in transition; these days everything is “interim.”  Change is now our cultural context and we will have to adapt to it in any case. 
            This environment of comprehensive change affects our churches.  For one thing, the shifts we are going through are so profound and pervasive that the old model of the “permanent” minister is less and less operative.  Because we live in a culture of transition, all ministry today is transitional; it necessarily has a temporary, provisional, and “between” or “on the way” quality.  The great value of Interim Ministry is that it has always addressed issues of transition in congregations.  There are therefore many lessons we may learn from Interim Ministry that apply to all ministry in a time of pervasive change.
            At the same time, these changes in church and culture require that we rethink Interim Ministry itself.  Our traditional understanding of Interim Ministry was built on the assumption of a temporary period of transition between two stable states.  The goal of Interim Ministry was to get a congregation through this period of flux and arrive at a time of stability again, with a new Pastor. 
            But that model does not account for either the transformational character of Jesus’ mission, or the pervasive changes affecting our culture generally.  Churches no longer actually settle into any traditionally recognizable, sustainable, stable state.  For the sake of a dynamic ministry in Christ’s name, every new minister needs to be prepared to keep positive change and adaptation happening, no matter how much congregations may crave stability.
            The positive spirit that Interim Ministry brings to the church is its inherently transformational and future orientation.  At its best, Interim Ministry changes a congregation’s focus from past to future, and opens up a congregation to the new things the Spirit is doing, and will continue to do, among them.  Churches will thrive once they lose the assumption that the transition time is temporary, and that stability is the goal. 
            I repeat: all ministry is now “unstable” and transitional.  Maybe we can actually see this time of change as a gift from God that makes us better able to undertake mission in Jesus’ name, for he too was about change.  Instead of being an institution focused on preservation and stability, we seek to anticipate Jesus’ coming commonwealth by living together according to his life and teachings, by the power of the Holy Spirit.  In short, in a time of great change we are better able to understand Jesus as a change-agent; Interim Ministry is the best source we have for managing change in the church. 
            Here are the traditional Interim Tasks, reframed in a way useful to all church leaders in a changing world.

1. Coming to Terms with History.

            According to the standard model of Interim Ministry, the first of the Interim Tasks is “coming to terms with history.”  It is essential for a church in transition to establish its independent identity by evaluating and reconsidering its own past and story. 
            In practice, this often meant a reappreciation of the roots and heritage of a congregation.  It might also have involved reconnecting to standard forms of Presbyterian worship, polity, theology, values, etc.  The church was encouraged to develop a longer view of itself beyond the circumstances of the most recent, now departed, Pastor. 
            In a time of radical transition and change, however, our history is not necessarily a positive thing to get in touch with.  Too many churches are so cognizant of their heritage that they lose sight of the world they are situated in today.  Church becomes an exercise in nostalgia or even grief over some perceived golden age.
            “Coming to terms with history” now demands a more critical look at a church’s past.  The entire history of our churches was in that old historical paradigm that is now gone forever.  Our churches thrived very comfortably in that paradigm; but the question remains as to what value practically any of that history has for us today.  On the one hand, we can find many examples of “what not to do.”  On the other, we may discover examples of ministry that we had disregarded, marginalized, or forgotten, but which have now acquired a new relevance.  We may dust off these stories, and bring them back into our common, active memory.   
            Unless we sever the chain tying us to the dead weight of our past, the church is like the nursing home inmate who still thinks it’s 1956, and has clearer memories of those days than the present faces of his own grandchildren.

2. Discovering a New Identity.

            Along with reviewing the past, it is also essential for a church in transition to have a clear understanding of the present situation.  Thus the second Interim Task had to do with a church’s identity and context. 
            In practice, this task focused most on gathering accurate demographic data.  The church looked at itself and its surroundings in great detail, identifying both congregational gifts and possible target populations.  The idea was to wake a church up to the changed and changing character of its environment.  Realizing that, for instance, it is no longer located in a sleepy, white, middle-class town, circa 1948, but in a bustling multi-ethnic, urban, 21st century neighborhood, is something many churches need to face.
            As superficially beneficial as this approach may be, it still ignores a more important and primary theological question: “Who are we, and what is God calling us to do, as God’s people in this time and place?”  Ministry now involves drawing people into discernment and conversation about their own callings from God.  Where does our passion as followers of Christ meet the pain of a broken world?  Churches will focus on the needs in the local and global communities, seeking to share in the ways God brings healing and transforming energy into these places.   And they will support and encourage the diverse discipleship of their participants in addressing those needs.
            Since transition is now our general context, churches will want to evaluate their mission continually.  Waiting to do this only when compelled by presbytery after the departure of a Pastor is not the most fruitful approach.  It is not even enough to address these issues intentionally every three or five years.  Today, all Pastors, not just Interims, have to help a congregation to locate, articulate, and activate how they are called to participate in God’s mission in a certain time and place.  Indeed, this is a task for all Christians.  Understanding what God is calling people to be in the present context has to be a daily discipline of discernment.

3. Shifts of Power/Leadership Changes.
            A change in pastoral leadership is what defined a church in transition.  Usually this means significant changes in the non-pastoral leadership in a congregation as well. Therefore, the third Interim Task paid particular attention to developing new leaders in the church.  
            Interims have always known that effective new leaders are open to a future significantly different from what the congregation has been used to.  This is a given in interim work.  There is no room for either the conviction that we can go back to the way it was, or that we need to keep everything the same.  These opinions are a potential minefield that Interims try and neutralize before the arrival of a new Pastor.
            A similar openness to the new informs all ministry today… only now it is, in the first place, a perpetual element of church life.  Congregations have to recognize and empower new leaders all the time.  This grows naturally out of the focus on identifying people’s particular callings.  Once God places something on our hearts, it is imperative that we have the space to turn that calling into a ministry that attracts support and impacts the needy world.  Thus it is the Holy Spirit, not an institutional structure (like a Nominating Committee or a Session) that creates leaders in the church.  
            Secondly, the very character of leadership in the church is flattening and spreading out.  We have always depended on top-down, centralized systems of organization.  But these are being rapidly replaced by organic networks, empowering people to follow their own callings.  Authority is now broadly welling up from God’s Spirit working in people, rather than coming down in a focused stream from a hierarchy/bureaucracy above. 
            This new model of leadership actually takes the priesthood of all believers seriously in ways we never before imagined.  Leadership is no longer for the chosen few.  Training in seeking, finding, and implementing a calling from God is something that engages all God’s people.  The church becomes a place of encouragement and feedback as followers of Jesus implement in the world what God is calling them to do.

4. Rethinking Denominational Linkages.
            Churches with stable leadership sometimes lose their sense of connection to their own denominational structures.  When they go into transition, the denomination sees it as an opportunity to exert its influence and remind the congregation of this relationship. 
            So, the fourth of the traditional Interim Tasks was to reconnect the church to the denominational structure, tradition, and resources, thereby strengthening connections and linkages with the wider church.
            Denominations, especially the old “main-line” ones, are on very shaky ground these days.  Churches sometimes find presbytery and synod irrelevant and even detrimental to their mission.  Too often the denominational structure is a gauntlet of inertia, suspicion, old habits, and entrenched interests that must be navigated by a church requesting support in doing anything innovative, different, or “outside the box” in ministry.
            Presbyteries are learning at least to give lip-service to the idea that they exist to support the mission of local churches.  Increasingly they now have to back up these words with real actions, putting the health, needs, and mission of congregations ahead of the presbytery’s own issues.  Perhaps, in our context of wall-to-wall changes, it would be at least as fruitful to help churches find and develop new networks for effective, transformational, and creative ministry.  Christians now benefit from building links  across denominational lines.
            The new way of seeing this task in terms of all ministry is in the development of a wide array of productive and creative networks, both within and beyond the traditional denominational boundaries.  A Pastor must have the skill and connections within the denomination to shake loose needed resources and assist in changing obsolete and restrictive policies.  In addition, the Pastor must also learn to build ecumenical and even interfaith partnerships for witness and mission.    
5. Commitment to a New Future.

            Transitional ministry is about bringing a congregation through change so it is ready to accept new leadership with enthusiasm.  In traditional interim work, the focus gradually shifts to preparing the congregation to receive the new Pastor. 
            The most beneficial way of looking at this task is to realize that Interim Ministry has an inherent focus on the future.  It is not about the new Pastor so much.  Not only is he/she really temporary, but the non-pastoral leadership of a church will have a more central role.
            Interim Pastors have always felt able to say and do things that permanent Pastors might felt a need to be more circumspect about.  Congregations also give Interims more license, based perhaps on the Interim’s temporary status.  The most effective Interims are able to bring a congregation past this sense of temporariness, and inspire the people to an openness to change that becomes part of the church’s own ongoing identity.  
            The insight that “all ministry is interim ministry” means that even “permanent” Pastors are called to have the orientation towards the future that good Interims have.  In short, all Pastors will want to find the courage to be active change agents, leading the people of God into a new future.  In practice this entails a kind of ruthlessness about ridding ourselves of whatever holds us back from effective mission in Jesus’ name today.  Keeping aware of and connected to these reframed Interim Tasks will help.  

            Finally, it is important to note that these tasks are not five discrete and successive “steps,” so much as aspects of a comprehensive approach to ministry and mission.
             Ministers need to be paying attention to all of them, all of the time.  In short, ministry in a time of radical change has to be a matter of constant adaptation and adjustment.  We rethink our history and context, keep developing internal leadership and external partnerships, and lean ever forward into God’s future, as a matter of daily practice.
            Interim Ministry is where we have developed some tools and ways of thinking that are now showing their value for ministry generally.  Using these approaches, reframed for a changing context, helps the church both navigate through a time of upheaval and confusion, and do so in a way that reflects the transformational mission of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Church Growth, Part 1.

            The world is changing rapidly.  Many churches are in trouble because the world in which they had learned to thrive has largely disappeared.  Traditional ways of thinking and acting just don’t gain as much traction in today’s environment as they used to.  This situation has become acute since the financial meltdown of 2008, in which large parts of the endowments, on which churches were depending, evaporated.  Thus we have churches that used to be vaguely aware of a problem coming down the road, that now face an immediate crisis of viability.   They are suddenly and frantically seeking ways to gain new members.
            First of all, a church that wants to gain members because it needs more givers to help pay its bills is already finished.  People outside the church don’t care about maintaining an old building, no matter how many warm memories it has for long-time members.  “We need your money!” is hardly an attractive slogan.
            What potential members do care about is participating in a community where they find healing, acceptance, support, and love, and where they are given opportunities to live out their own callings from God.
            Secondly, churches that say they want new members, but at the same time expect these new members to simply take over the maintenance of the current worship styles, programs, and facilities, are deluding themselves.
            New people will have different backgrounds and experiences.  They are likely to seek different modes and expressions of mission and ministry.  “Come and keep this place the way we always liked it,” is hardly attractive either.
            And yet from inside the church this is often exactly the mindset.  We have this institution.  It needs to be maintained.  We don’t have sufficient resources to do that ourselves anymore.  So we need to bring in new people to do it for/with us.
            The fact that this approach has not been particularly successful should not surprise us.  Everything about it is wrong.  Once we see the church as an institution to be preserved we have killed it as a community of Christ-followers.  It is hard to find anything Jesus was interested in preserving or maintaining.
            There are institutions that are concerned with maintenance and preservation.  People are even willing to pay money to keep them in business.  Museums work like this.  Now, I love museums.  But a living church is not a museum; Jesus does not institute a place where people may come and observe some carefully preserved historical or artistic artifacts.  Rather, the church is intended to be more like a dojo or a zendo: a place where people come to learn a skill.  It is more like an artist’s studio, than an art gallery.  It is more like a campfire around which we share in conversation, than a classroom where we receive a body of information.
            Let’s review some of the ways our mindset has to change.      
            1.  The church is not primarily an “institution.”  It is a living community of those who trust and follow Jesus Christ. 
            2.  We do not possess it.  The Holy Spirit possesses us and forms us into God’s people. 
            3.  Maintenance and preservation are not the mission to which Jesus calls us. 
            4.  It is not up to us on our own to do this mission; it is a gift from God. 
            5.  The whole nature of our invitation to others is a call to witness to the transforming love of God revealed in Jesus. 

            The first thing Jesus calls on his hearers to do is “repent” (Mark 1:15).  Repentance has to do with changing both the way we think and the way we act.  We have to change the direction of our lives.  This means getting over the mindset that sees the church as an institution to be maintained and preserved.  It means beginning to see - and remake - the church as a living community of witnesses, who trust and follow Jesus.
            The primary point of church life is not gaining more members.  An organism that grows for the sake of growth is cancer.  Rather, Christians are called to live together faithfully in love and justice.  The early church knew this.  When Christians live according to Jesus’ life, example, and commandments, it becomes a visible witness in the larger community.  People see it and want to be a part of it.  Growth happens as a by-product of the church was doing what it was called to do.  
            Therefore, the most important component in church growth, the one upon which everything else depends, is that the church be a place where people encounter and experience the living presence of Jesus Christ.  That’s the first thing we have to get through our heads and into our behavior.  Job-One is to actually be the church.  The first step in growing a church is creating a supportive community rooted in this transformative good news of God’s love for the world revealed in Jesus.   The church is thus a community centered on Christ, and embodied in practices of prayer, healing, forgiveness, learning, compassion, justice, peace, equality, and love.  If churches actually did this, the biggest problem we would have is where to put all the people who want to be a part of it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Getting reliable information about Islam these days is very difficult.  The atmosphere is polluted with misinformed, hysterical, paranoid, bigoted, and mean crap.  This was especially true leading up to 9/11, with the “Ground Zero Mosque” and Koran-burning controversies.  There are a lot of sick people out there, motivated by fear, rage, pain, hate, and a lot of other mental illnesses, and we are allowing them to frame the conversation, on both sides.  The media fans whatever flames they can find because of course they feed on nastiness and violence… which is to say that we do, because the media only give us what we will buy.  The more outrageous the action, the bigger the feeding frenzy all around.

From the Islamic extremists whipping crowds into hysteria and violence because some lunatic in a tiny church in Florida wants to burn copies of their holy book, to the folks who froth against an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero… it’s all stoking of bad emotions, usually for someone’s political and/or economic gain. 

If we want to learn about Islam we will have to actually get to know some Muslim people.  I suspect many of the people expressing fear and anger about Islam don’t care to acquire any accurate knowledge about it.  The point is not learning anything about Islam, it is feeding their fear and anger.

Last week Susan and I attended a wonderful, beautiful, delicious, and joyful Iftar dinner with our Muslim friends.  Iftar is the meal they have each evening when they break the Ramadan fast, after sundown. These folks, with whom we have been sharing an interfaith dialogue for a few years, are humble, kind, gentle, simple, hard-working people.  They are a joy to be with, and they have been more than generous and kind to us.  Their attitudes towards us and Christianity generally has been nothing but inquisitive and respectful.  We have even been given unique opportunities to tell the story of Jesus to folks who really never heard it before. 

Now, someone can say that the gentleness and kindness of these people is all just a false front, and their real agenda is world domination: BE AFRAID!  BE VERY AFRAID!  But I suspect that the people who would say such things probably don't know any Muslims.  

In most of the junk that is thrown out there purporting to tell us “the truth” about Islam there is never much evidence that any actual Muslims were consulted.  Anyone can sift through the Qu’ran for the most offensive pieces, taken completely out of context, and lift them up as the supposed essence of the whole religion.   

It should go without saying that the Bible can also be read through this kind of hysterical, paranoid, and mean lens.  One may examine the Bible and find the most alarming and negative passages, and use them to portray "Christianity."  

But that would not be real, lived Christianity.  The same kind of charges these people make against Islam can be made against Christianity as well.  Our Scriptures also make universal claims and damn others to hell, God knows.   There is frankly at least as much historical evidence that Christianity is a violent religion bent on world domination and the condemnation of all others, as there is concerning Islam.  From the Crusades, to slavery, to the Holocaust, our track-record sucks.  Imagine drawing conclusions about all of Christianity and all Christians from the teachings of Torquemada and Jerry Falwell.  

I just prefer to believe my own experience of actual people, rather than something clearly designed to promote at least fear, and could easily lead to hatred and violence.  If we want to learn about Islam, we need to develop relationships with actual Muslims.  

Meanwhile, we are subject to a Iot of garbage oozing out fearful, angry white  people who presume to call themselves Christians.  History has shown that there is no class of humans more capable of committing unspeakable mayhem and horrible atrocities than fearful, angry white people who presume to call themselves Christians.