Monday, August 24, 2009

present or presence

Is it enough to be present in our community or should we also be a presence?
It might seem that the two go together, that f you have one than the other automatically is there too, but it seems that might not always be the case.
Back in May the church celebrated its 128th anniversary, and we’ve been at the same location for over 80 years. We’re definitely present. It’s a big building on a corner lot, and it’s pretty hard to miss, even if you’re not looking for it. but lately several people have made comments that lead me to believe that it takes more than being present to be a presence.
Being a church, we get more than our share of requests for money couched in terms of incredibly heartbreaking stories about the hardships that tend to crop up in peoples’ lives (and often just as incredibly hard to believe). Obviously we’re present, because on any given day people are coming to us and asking for a handout. But then there are the people who, when they happen to see us as we worship on the front lawn, make comments like “I didn’t know that there was a church meeting here, I thought it was an empty building”, or “we thought this was offices”.
It’s not enough to open the doors on Sunday morning and expect that people will flock in. There’s too much competition that didn’t use to be there when I was growing up in NY during the time of the ‘blue laws’.
Today there’s a lot more pressure to show that the church is relevant to their lives. And so we have to be a presence. The unchurched people in our communities need to see us making a difference. And we aren’t going to do much of a job of that if we sneak in on Sunday morning, and rush out as soon as the service is over. Face it, if it doesn’t mean any more than that to those of us who regularly attend, what is there for someone who doesn’t even know what they’re looking for?
Jesus was present, but he was also a presence, if we claim to be His followers, we ought to be doing the same thing. What can you do to be a presence, rather than just be present?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


I like to read, and frequently the books that call out to me are books that have interesting titles. I may or may not be interested in the subject matter, but interesting titles have a way of yelling ‘Buy Me! Buy Me!’ One of interesting titles that I’ve seen lately has me thinking about where church actually takes place. 'When the Church Leaves the Building'* by David Fredrickson, is a title that makes me wonder about the future of the Church as we know it, and what impact changing the way we do business would have on eternity.
It’s not unusual to engage people in deep theological discussion, discussions that are Jesus centered, and really don’t leave any room to doubt that the other person is as much a Christian as anyone else. And then in the course of the conversation we ask a horribly personal and apparently offensive question like, ‘so where do you go to church?’ After the pregnant pause we hear all the good reasons to not step inside the building where organized religion runs rampant destroying people’s lives. Of course for many people this is just an excuse because everyone knows that the best tee times are on Sunday morning at 11:00, precisely when churches throughout the world have conspired to start their worship services and ruin pleasant Sundays on the golf course.
So what happens when the church leaves the building?
From an administrative point of view, important things don’t happen. We no longer have a way of counting members and tracking attendance. Offering envelopes must be getting lost because the giving seems to be down. Pastors and staff don’t have a good way of tracking what’s being done or taught, and people simply don’t care about the building and grounds like they used to care.
From God's point of view, important things do happen: the Gospel takes over as the primary reason for being and lives are transformed. And the first lives to be transformed usually belong to people who have been sitting in buildings for far too long and are now out in the world with people that don’t regularly attend church. Then as a result of those transformed lives, other lives are transformed too. People who are afraid to go into the church building get an opportunity to know Christ. People who at one time dared to go into the building and as a result of their effort or curiosity were rebuffed, snubbed, or worse, asked to leave, get to experience the love of God in a non-threatening situation. People who don’t think they have the proper clothes to attend church services are dressed just fine for a hot dog roast, or an afternoon playing football in the park.
Is it church when we go to a nursing home or assisted living facility or a jail or transient shelter and people who, for whatever reason, can’t get to a ‘real church’ hear about God's love for them? Is it church when we hand out hotdogs and water or warm clothing and cold and hungry people get warm and fed, and as a result are a little more willing to listen to you share Christ?
So from my perspective, yes, it’s still church. Even without the building and the altar we can worship** the mighty God who we serve. We don’t have to have hymnals and Bibles present. If we don’t light candles and there’s no organ, God will still honor our worship.
Jesus didn’t tell the disciples to sit in a church building with all the accouterments on Sunday morning wishing that they were on the golf course. He didn’t say stay and do nothing. What he told them was to go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that He had commanded them.
‘All the world’ goes a lot further than to the exit doors of our church buildings. Is it church without the building? You decide.

* I’ve read the book, and liked it, but I’m just talking about the title.
** Don’t hear what I’m not saying: I’m not telling you to go golfing on Sunday morning; it’s important to fellowship with other Christians and fellow believers, and even those who are heavily involved in feeding others need to be fed. But some pretty authentic worship can happen away from the traditional building. Just sayin’!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


The mind is a dangerous place to go alone. Once you get there there’s usually nothing to do but think; and for most of us thinking is what gets us in trouble. To make a long story longer, I visited with my mind recently, and we had quite a discussion about being human. Being human is not necessarily a bad thing, but it takes on some interesting twists as it plays out in the world in which we live. I wear a lot of hats including chaplain and pastor. That’s a good thing. I try to follow the examples that Jesus modeled as often as possible. As I read through the Gospels, it often seems to me that Jesus had a tendency to meet people where they were.
You might have heard someone, maybe me, say that God loves us just the way we are, but that he loves us too much to let us stay that way. And therein lies the dilemma. I go into the homes, the assisted living facilities, the work place, the community, ready to meet people where they are, and all too often some very human people, when they find out that I’m a pastor, become saints. The flip side is the normally nice human people who go out of their way to try to shock me with the bad language and inappropriate behavior. Sorry, I’ve heard the ‘b’ words, the ‘s’ word, the ‘f-bomb’ before, and while I try to avoid using them, they usually don’t shock me anymore.
My point here is that all too many good Christian people, not to mention the rest of the world act like they’re saints, while I’m going out ready to talk to sinners. Jesus said that it was the sick that needed a doctor not the well, but when you’re sick and don’t tell the doctor what’s going on she has a tough time knowing what to do to help.
President Obama may prefer to sit down with a bottle of beer for teaching moments; that’s his prerogative; I’m more likely to invite you to have a cup of coffee or a soda, but the important thing is the reaching and teaching moments. There are differences in the way that people see things, and there always will be differences, and that’s a good thing if they become a conversation starter.
And so, to those who want to accuse me of being human: that’s a good thing so bring it on. I may have a little more book knowledge than many, and therefore should know better than to act like a sinful human being, but the fact is that regardless of the knowledge, regardless of the title, I am still a human being, and that supersedes all the books in the world.
So don’t let it surprise you if I act like a human being, and by the way, you can act like one too. !


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Nurture or Growth?

The question keeps coming up, at least in my mind, should our focus be on nurturing or growing. Should evangelism and outreach be our focus, or should we spend most of our taking care of our faithful attendees, the people who are already in the pews? Is our focus inwardly or outwardly directed? The two questions have to be asked in tandem: ‘where are we?’ and ‘where should we be?

And of course, there’s no easy answer, we have to do some of each; so the real question is: what’s the right mix? With the congregation that we have here, there’s probably a little more nurturing going on than at a many other churches along the Wasatch Front. The demographic breakdown of our church family means that there is a need for some things that a church filled with younger people might not need as much of. The fact that we are an older group also means that there are some things that we can’t do as well as we used to, and most of us, when it comes down to it, aren’t interested in going on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon and shooting the rapids along the way.

Sometimes when I read blogs and books written by the pastors of mega churches, I think how fun it would be to have the multiple services, the multi-site churches, the big staff, the 50-100 first time decisions each week, the quarterly baptism ceremonies with several hundred people getting baptized in a river or lake. And then I realize that I would miss the contact and the friendships with the members of a smaller group. It’s nice to know everybody’s name, to know what people do or did for a living, to know who to call on when something out of the ordinary needs to happen.
But again, it’s important to have the right mix. If we spend all our time nurturing, we’ll be fine until there is no one left to nurture. If we focus totally on growth, those who aren’t getting their needs met tend to leave, and that often happens before the growth occurs.

And even the idea of growth tends to be misinterpreted. We want to grow the kingdom, and hope that along the way, we grow the local church; it’s just that not every church is the perfect match for everyone who wants to connect with a church. God is not going to bless full throttle attempts to fill up the pews downstairs and in the balcony, there has to be something more. I believe He will bless our attempts to grow the kingdom, and one of the ways those blessings will be made manifest is that we will see more people attending the weekly services.

We’re all a part of this together, the pastor, the board, or one or two individuals can’t do it all, so put on your thinking caps and ask yourself three questions:

1) What is our current focus as far as nurturing and growth?
2) What should that mix be?
3) What can you as an individual do to help us as a church arrive at that perfect mix?