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

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Gaining Members or Making Disciples?

     We have this idea that a successful church is one that is gaining members, and that the more members a church has or gains the more successful it is.  That is certainly the way we talk and act. 
     The Psalmist on the other hand writes, “Turn my heart to your decrees and not to selfish gain” (Psalm 119:36).  In Jesus’ ministry one thing he avoids is any hint that he is seeking, let alone compromising his teaching in order to attract, more members, or even disciples for that matter.  Several times he deliberately makes his ministry more demanding, difficult, and unattractive for people.  He often seems frustrated by the following he does have.  In a famous portion of John 6, he seems content to be abandoned by almost everyone but his original 12.
     One of the justifications often given for the church seeking to gain members is the Great Commission in Matthew 28.  The risen Lord instructs his apostles to make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Trinity and teaching them to obey his commandments.  But his commandments nowhere value the accumulation in itself of increasing numbers of members.  I have already made the point in another post that disciples are not the same as members.  So what does it mean to “make disciples” and how is that different from “gaining new members”? 
     Jesus makes disciples by calling people and teaching them.  We know what he tells his disciples/apostles to do.  Basically, they are to do the same kinds of things Jesus himself does: healing, casting out demons, building communities, preaching, and teaching.  Disciples are to do those specific things, and teach others to do them.  In this way they are to represent, even in some sense be, Christ in the world.  In this way they become members, in the sense Paul uses the term, of his Body.
     Most churches, when seeking members, do not act, think, or talk as if they are calling people to anything resembling discipleship, according to Jesus’ descriptions of it.  Beyond requiring a verbal affirmation of Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior, congregations today do not teach or expect, let alone require, people to become disciples of Jesus in any real way.  They do not teach, expect, or require members to actually do much of anything.  Even showing up at Sunday worship is apparently too much to ask.  (Churches tend to have far more members than regular attendees.) 
     Indeed, were a congregation to enact such requirements I am fairly certain that a presbytery would strenuously object on the basis of a shallow, out-of-context reading of G-1.0302:No person shall be denied membership for any reason not related to profession of faith.”  This would mean that we understand the profession of faith to be empty, meaningless, and unassociated with any action or behavior.  This is not the way the new Testament understands faith.     
     In G-1.0304, however, we see a list of 11 specific things members of congregations are supposed to be doing.  The list is not optional or merely suggested.  It simply assumes that these are things every member of a church is about.  A lot of these are responsibilities congregations have divested themselves of and assigned to professional clergy.  This practice of hiring someone else to be a disciple instead of you is foreign to the New Testament, to say the least.  In reality these behaviors are expected of all disciples of Jesus Christ.
     My point is that presbyteries should not be evaluating churches on the basis of membership numbers or growth.  Rather, congregational vitality is measured by the character and quality of discipleship exhibited by the participants in a church’s mission, as exemplified in G-1.0304, not to mention the explicit commandments and instructions of the Lord to his own disciples in the gospels.
     In other words, a presbytery has no business dissolving a church because it does not have “enough” members or money, when these are not categories that the Scriptures or the Constitution care about in the least.  At the same time, where discipleship is happening, and where members are fulfilling the demands of the 11 categories, why would a presbytery not feed such a congregation with needed resources?  Indeed, should not a presbytery actively encourage churches to make disciples rather than just gain members?

Friday, November 15, 2013

Another Rant About the Church and Money.

            There is not a hint in the New Testament that disciples of Jesus are to be measured, evaluated, judged, or disposed of according to how much money they have, or don’t have.  This seems so obvious as to be ridiculous, of course.  Jesus says we can’t serve both God and money, we have to pick one or the other (Luke 16:13).  And Paul talks about the love of money being the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10).     
            But some church groups behave as if they have chosen money over God.  Granted, few churches these days would be so crass as to admit to treating an individual decently or not according to the person’s wealth, consciously at least.  Yet I am pretty sure that were an affluent person and a poor person to show up as visitors on the same day, in many of our churches people would give preferential treatment to the former.  I am sad to say. 
            But this bias towards wealth – or more accurately, against poverty – is most definitely prevalent in the way denominations deal with their constituent churches.  We habitually care more about how much money a church has, than how well they are doing mission.  We will gladly let a church with money do just about whatever it wants: new steeple, pipe organ, stained glass, six-figure salary for the “Head of Staff,” etc., no matter how empty and ineffective may be its actual mission.  And we will just as willingly close a church doing effective, innovative, and faithful mission, for no other reason than that it ran out of money.
            In fact, a church can even lose money hand over proverbial fist, but if it is rich enough to absorb the loss and keep paying its expenses, the church will hear no criticism.  And, of course, conversely, a church can see an increase in giving to it is mission, and still draw the ire of presbytery if the increase is deemed insufficient.
            Furthermore, because of misuse of the infamous “trust clause,” a small church may be prevented from – or even punished for – doing creative mission by a presbytery with leadership chronically deficient in energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.  The trust clause means that a significant portion of a small church’s resources – its property – is subject to presbytery’s whim.  Such property may not be sold or encumbered without approval of a presbytery.
             Churches, however, that have significant cash reserves, may do as they please, no matter how counter-missional a particular initiative may be.  Indeed, a church may even be positively hemorrhaging members, but if they have cash they need no presbytery approval to do anything not liable to invoke the Rules of Discipline.  But a small church that wants to support its mission by the liquidation of a manse, or the selling of an acre of real estate, is subject to the withering scrutiny of a presbytery whose leaders may be mired in the mindset of the 1950’s, or unwilling or unable to appreciate the style and/or content of the congregation’s mission.  (“Too evangelical.”  “Too liberal.”  “Too unusual”  Whatever.)  Indeed, some in the presbytery may even want the church to close, so that, when its property is sold off, the proceeds may be used by the presbytery to pay staff or even reduce the per capita apportionment.  (I’m not kidding.  There are apparently presbyteries that use the money gained from sold church property in this way, thus incentivizing the closure of churches.)
              The truth is, that a church that is doing the most effective mission is never the church that has the most money or is the most profitable.  This is because of what Jesus says.  Churches and people don’t get rich by serving God.  By definition, serving God means giving away what you have (Luke 14:33), not storing your wealth (Luke 12:16-21), and not ignoring the poverty in your midst (Luke 16:19-31), and so forth.  A church that makes a profit has effectively denied the Lord Jesus and chosen to serve money instead.  There is no complicated assessment that needs to be done to determine this; just count the cash.  Indeed, the most effective churches are far more likely to be those that habitually lose money because what resources they have are all going to mission.  Every dime sunk into an endowment or frittered away in paying for a building is robbed from Jesus.
            This is assuming that we are defining “effectiveness,” and “success” according to Jesus’ teaching that the mission of his disciples is witnessing to the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:15) by service to the needy (Matthew 25:31-46, etc.), peacemaking (Matthew 5:9), healing (Luke 7:22), and disciple-making (Matthew 28:19).  It’s a big assumption, I know.  Not all that many churches, let alone presbyteries, are able to wrap their minds around this concept, even though it is screamed at us from virtually every page of the gospels.
            I pray that the day comes soon when we evaluate churches by the quality and effectiveness of their mission, and find ways to get our resources to the places where mission is happening (or at least give them access to the resources they already have).  And I also look forward to the day when we stop evaluating churches by how much money they have.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The "Connectional" Church, II.

This is the second of two posts on what it means to be "connectional" in the church.

The Rise of Horizontal Connectionality.

            The church now needs to cultivate a horizontal connectionality at every level.  Congregations are networks of disciples who support each other in living out their callings in the world.  Presbyteries are networks of congregations doing mutual support, encouragement, blessing, and sharing of resources.  And likewise up to the more inclusive councils of synod and General Assembly.  This would enable us to forge bonds of respect, appreciation, and love that are much stronger than in the vertical model, which was, frankly, more impersonal and coercive.  And it would hopefully militate against the corrosive inequalities that now grow between churches.  The function of a presbytery, then, would not be to do mission supported by its churches, but to support the mission being done by its churches.
            Now, after 32 years in the church I know as well as anyone that not all congregations even know what mission is, let alone have any interest in doing it.  This dearth of missional intelligence is widespread among churches regardless of size and wealth.  There are too many churches that haven’t had a missional thought in decades, and whose only wish is that someone come along and make it 1956 again.  They reduce everything to a matter of “getting more members.”  This imploded mentality is a product of vertical connectionalism.  In the first place membership itself is a vertical, corporate category; it defines us by our relationship to an institution, not each other.   But most importantly, mission always used to be a concern of those farther up the corporate ladder, and usually happening far, far away.  The recovery of the idea that local churches have a mission at all (beyond serving their own members and sending money to mission agencies) is relatively recent.
            Clearly, any shift to a horizontal approach must be accompanied by a serious, honest, and challenging discernment of what constitutes faithful, missional, effective, and courageous discipleship today.  Since the criteria for this will not be handed down vertically, it will have to be done by prayerful study and reflection on Scripture, openness to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, and careful examination of the present context.  In fact, this Word and Spirit of God will emerge in the center of our life, replacing the former vertical interfaces, and becoming the unity we share.  This will take the rightful place at the center – individually, congregationally, and in more inclusive councils.
            The horizontal connections between churches must reflect a horizontality in the local congregation.  That means that integral and essential to moving into a horizontal connectional model is the building of relationships and the empowering of individual disciples in the congregations.  It means the “flattening” of local church structures so that the main focus is not on the professional up front, the Pastor, but on the people.  Just as presbyteries no longer do mission “for” the churches, so now no longer must ministers do mission “for” the congregation.  The primary task of the minister now is training people for mission, and aiding in their coordination and connection in carrying out their mission. 
            And this is the same job I see for presbyteries relative to congregations: training, coordinating, connecting.  (If we try to horizontalize presbyteries without doing the same at the congregational level, presbytery will fail to grow beyond the “clergy association” appearance it so easily falls into today.)
            In the book of Acts, it is clear that the model practice in the new communities of the Way is to pool resources from the constituents as they had been blessed by God, and distribute those resources wherever there is need (Acts 2:44; 4:32).  This model shows us a strong horizontal relationship which begins with the constituents’ directly relating to each other, and then extends to where the gathering acts as an integrated whole in a redistributionary way, receiving and giving according to a calculus of need and equality.
            In a horizontally connectional system, the network will identify, lift up, feed, and learn from those places where mission is happening.  Instead of being in competition with each other, congregations will support and resource each other.  Instead of applying and waiting for resources to be granted from above, congregations will be able to help each other directly, based on relationships and not mediated through a superior entity. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The "Connectional" Church, I.

This is the first of two posts on the meaning of "connectional" in the life of the church.

The Collapse of Vertical Connectionalism.

            Connectionalism is a word that we Presbyterians use to describe how we are all, well, connected.  I have heard it all my life.  I think at some point church leaders were trying to discourage the scourge of “creeping congregationalism” by extolling the manifold benefits of being in such a well-organized denomination. 
            Unfortunately, that connectedness has nearly always been understood in an exclusively vertical way.  That is, we are connected up and down: members to churches to presbyteries to synods to the General Assembly.  It was yet another expression of the now defunct but strangely persistent corporate model of the church.  Local churches were kind of like retail outlets of a national brand.  The actual “selling” mostly went on locally; much of the mission giving traveled upward, the authority, coordination, regulation, leadership, and identity was transmitted downward.  The tone of mission was set at the top, where the resources are published, to flow down to the other mission agencies.  The corporate flow-chart would have had the little congregations at the bottom, with lines going up to the presbytery indicating to whom they “report;” but no lines connecting them to each other.
            In this model very little attention was given to any kind of horizontal connectedness.  Maybe this tendency goes back to where we had individual Christians, sitting in linear pews and all facing the professional Leader/priest “up” front rather than each other.  This vertical connectionalism always weakened any horizontal connections between people or churches.  I remember what a trauma it was in some congregations even to introduce something as benign as passing the peace.  Acknowledging, even (gasp!) physically touching another person – andy horizontal connectionality – was too dangerous.  It was much safer for Presbyterians to be connected vertically through that one guy up front, with whom everyone individually shook hands on the way out, than to be related directly to each other.
            Indeed, building on this neurotic fear of connecting horizontally, congregations became like retail franchises, thinking of themselves in competition with each other.  For congregations even to talk directly to each other, let alone share practices, leadership, and assistance, was a rarity.  If one church had a problem with a neighboring church, the complaint would go up to the presbytery, functioning as the corporate district manager, not directly to the neighboring church.  (We still act this way.  As a Stated Clerk I occasionally receive calls from people complaining about their Pastor or the sessionof their church.  My first question is always, “Did you talk to them about it?”  And the answer most of the time is “No”.)
            After a while, I grew tired of listening to talk of how great our “connectionalism” was, when all it meant was sending money up the corporate ladder, or arguing over the content of the Book of Order, or disputes over the various pointless pronunciamentos of the General Assembly on social and political issues.  Meanwhile, the idea that I should understand connectionalism as having a direct relationship with the Presbyterian congregation in the next town remained incomprehensible.  We would see some of those people at the presbytery meeting, or on presbytery committees.  But in real life they were our adversaries in a dog-fight over market-share.
            Small churches might occasionally get together, pool their scant resources, and share some programs out of necessity.  But to suggest that large churches might help smaller churches did not make any more sense than that a big, Walmart should help one of the struggling downtown mom-and-pop stores.  (I worked for Barnes and Noble in the 1980’s when they were systematically ordering the closure of small stores, even profitable ones like mine, because of a new strategy, directed from the top, to have only big-box stores.)  Better to write off and close the smaller, or drive them out of business, so the successful one could pick up even more customers.  Something about economies of scale.
              In the church there was this veneer of mutual support and encouragement, over a reality of “sheep-stealing” and larger, successful, multi-programmatic churches picking off the dissatisfied or disgruntled members of smaller or troubled ones.  Frankly, in many communities it was easier, safer, and more fruitful to make connections with churches of other denominations, than with fellow Presbyterians.
            What we end up with is an ecclesiastical arrangement that mirrors the gross inequalities in the larger economy.  The resources are locked up in a few large, wealthy churches, while everyone else is struggling, cutting back, going to part-time ministry, yoking, merging, etc., and sometimes eventually closing.  When it is suggested that some horizontal sharing happen, the retort is to ask why the obviously “successful” churches should waste their money by dumping it into “failed” churches.  They suggest we close the unsuccessful, unprofitable churches and give their members to the successful ones?  Makes perfect business sense.
            This arrangement is breaking down now, thank God.  The vertical understanding of connectionalism doesn’t really hold so well anymore, as indicated by the difficulty presbyteries have collecting the per capita assessment, and by the reduction in giving by churches to undesignated General Mission.  But if the verticality is eroding, it has yet to be replaced by a creative horizontal understanding of the church.  This means that we are losing connections with each other altogether.  Connectionalism is collapsing into a destructive reflection of the independent-individualism pervasive in our culture.  In others words, it’s increasingly every congregation for itself.  Nothing could be further from the gospel than this.

The second post will explore what a horizonal connectionality will look like in the church. 

Friday, November 8, 2013


                         Man, I did love this game.  I'd have played for food money.  
It was the game...  Shoot, I'd play for nothing!”
--Shoeless Joe Jackson, in Field of Dreams

            That statement perfectly expresses what it means to have a calling, a vocation.  Joseph Campbell famously told his students: “Follow your bliss.”  Do what you love.  Ministry is a vocation.  It is something that gives to those called to it such joy and fulfillment that ministers would often do it whether they got paid or not.  We do it for the love of the work and of the One who calls us to the work.
            In the misbegotten “corporate” era of the church – the 1950’s through the 1970’s – we realized that many ministers were working for love… and often being taken advantage of by unscrupulous congregations.  (Just as ballplayers were abused by team owners in Joe Jackson’s time.)  So we developed minimum salary standards, medical insurance, pensions, and so forth.  In fact, presbyteries began to see themselves in part as “unions” for ministers.  Some of this was good and necessary.
            The unfortunate word attached to this development was “professionalization.”  That word meant that a cancerous demon entered the church: “the love of money,” which in 1 Timothy 6:10 is identified as “the root of all evil.”  Increasingly we adopted the mentality that ministers, like middle-management bureaucrats, are measured by the amount of money they make.  We stopped assuming that ministers were working because of their love for God and people; and we started thinking that ministers as “professionals,” were motivated by money, just like other professionals.  Churches imagine that, like a corporation, they have to offer bigger salary packages “to attract the best talent,” because the best, professional, talent cares mostly if not exclusively about money.  This degenerates into the assumption that higher paid ministers serving in large, wealthy churches are “better” at their work than lower paid ministers serving in small, poorer churches.  We also talk about “career tracks” in which ministers start at the “bottom” in small churches and gradually work their way up to better, that is to say, more remunerative jobs in big churches. 
            In other words, we replaced our understanding of calling with a corporatized, money-oriented mentality.  It is so bad right now that many simply don’t believe God would call good ministers to small churches, I guess because God wouldn’t be dumb enough to call a good pastor to be poor.  Pastors, like everyone else, are assumed to be in it for the money.  Not because God called them, or because of the joy and love of serving God and God’s people.  When we come across someone who really does serve God out of love, who doesn’t care about the money, our suspicion is that they are either fools or working some angle we haven’t yet figured out.  We assume that ministers do what they do for the same reason that hedge fund managers to what they do: for the money.  And if they were as bright as hedge fund managers, they would be doing that.  It is an attitude that is fundamentally toxic to the gospel.  In fact, it shoves the gospel into the trash and replaces it with the “values” of Capitalism.  At least in this part of our life together, we have replaced the gospel with the root of all evil.  That can’t be good.
In all 2000 years of Christian history,
there has not been one single saint
who was in it for the money.

            We have to cut this cancerous mindset out of the church.  We have to take definitive steps to remove the love of money from having any influence at all in the decisions we make as a church. 
            We have to stop the delusion that God agrees with our mercenary equation of salary with quality.  Ministers whom God calls to serve in small, poor churches, are not less faithful or effective than those whom God calls to serve in large, rich churches.  In fact, in my experience it is usually the opposite.  Some of the best pastors I have ever known worked in small churches.  And some of the least effective pastors I have ever known managed to land sweet positions in large churches.  God emphatically does not follow our Capitalistic way of valuing ministers or measuring competence in ministry.  Neither should we.  I propose we develop a system whereby all churches pay into a fund according to their wealth, from which all ministers are paid equally or by seniority, no matter what the size or wealth of the church in which they serve.  This will have the beneficial effects of both terminating the absurd idea that better ministers receive bigger salaries, and at the same time hopefully weed out from the ministry anyone who may still be in it for the money.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Members or Disciples?

            In his remarkable book, The Emerging Church, Bruce Sanguin talks about the difference between being a member of a church, and being a disciple of Jesus Christ.  The Presbyterian Church in particular has been talking about membership almost to the exclusion of discipleship.  There does seem to be a kind of assumption that members of churches are also disciples of Jesus.  And the New Testament does talk about membership, a little.  But Jesus calls disciples.  He does not attract or even invite people to be members of his movement.
            The new President of Princeton Seminary, Craig Barnes, has mentioned how obsolete our understanding of church membership is today.  He noted that membership is a residue of the corporate model of the church, a category developed mainly so we would have “a way to tax people”.  People today, especially younger people, are not interested in membership as we present it.  When a person who has been happily active in a church for weeks or months is asked to become a member, and they ask why, all we can offer is some lame reason like, “Then you can vote in the annual meeting,” or “Then you can be elected an elder.”  These are not things that many participants in our churches understand, let alone care about. 
            Neither do disciples. 
            While the New Testament talks about being “members” of Christ’s body, membership in the church today is more institutional than organic.  “Membership has its privileges,” is the way one credit card company used to talk about it.  There are plenty of organizations out there that understand themselves to be in the business of primarily serving their members.  Too many churches and their members have this idea as well, as if the church existed to serve, cater to, satisfy, and otherwise placate the members.  Sanguin relates the story of a minister friend who attempted to move his congregation to a discipleship paradigm.  When the members complained, Sanguin quips that they “didn’t want the church.  They wanted Club Christendom back.”  Club Christendom has members.  Jesus Christ calls disciples.
            Declining churches frantically scramble for ways to attract new members.  What they should be doing is following Jesus’ own Great Commandment and making disciples, teaching people to obey his commandments.
            Unfortunately, denominations generally don’t count disciples or reward churches for making disciples.  They count and value members.  They don’t care in the slightest whether a church is teaching people to obey Jesus’ commandments.  They care whether the church is gaining members and money.  Denominations today would enthusiastically trade a church of 20 disciples for a church that gains members.
            How is a disciple different from a member?  Sanguin lays it out:
            “Members pay their dues and want to know what they are getting for their money.  Disciples are making an offering of all their resources and what to know how their money is being used for Christ.  Members expect a regular visit from their minister – after all, they’re card-carrying members!  Disciples expect to visit the sick, the imprisoned, and the lonely.  Members help ‘the minister’ out.  Disciples discern and deploy their own gifts for ministry.  Members focus on institutional maintenance.  Disciples focus on mission.  Members fill bureaucratic slots in the church system.  Disciples serve according to their Spirit-given gifts.  Members have an organizational affiliation.  They talk about how many years they have been members.  Disciples express their allegiance to Christ in a dynamic faith community and want to talk about the difference their community of faith is making in the world.”  (Sanguin references a book by Michael W. Foss, Power Surge: Six Marks of Discipleship for a Changing Church, for this insight.)
            When we concentrate on gaining members, we put ourselves in the same category of institution as a Masonic lodge, a bowling league, a Cub Scout troop, or a Rotary Club.  In different ways, some groups like this are desperately trying to attract new members.  Our culture is moving against joining and membership.  The church is just one more institution trying to stanch membership loss.
            But what if churches actually started to do what they are called to do?  What if they invested their energy in making disciples instead of gaining and serving members?  What if we taught, lived, rewarded, supported, and became known for the quality of our discipleship?  What if we focused on what Jesus did and commands us to do?  Take Luke 4, where Jesus quotes Isaiah, saying that his mission is “to bring good news to the poor… proclaim release to the captives
 and recovery of sight to the blind,
 to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”?   And look at Luke 7, where Jesus validates his own ministry by showing how “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”  What if this was our identity?  What if we did and were known for this kind of behavior and practice?  What if we were known for our prayer, generosity, forgiveness, inclusion, healing, and blessing?
            So all the denominational hand-wringing about membership loss is beside the point.  The fewer people churches have who think of themselves as members of Club Christendom, the better it is for the mission of the church.  The point is not gaining members, but making disciples.  If we’re doing that, we are doing what the Lord Jesus commands.  Let’s ditch Club Christendom and turn to follow Jesus.