Five Things Mainline Christians Need to Stop Doing

1) Running churches and denominations like businesses.

I’ve been told that if I really want to be a highly-sought after pastor I need to get an MBA. First, I’m very happy right where I am. Second, even if I happened to be looking for a new call, no thanks.

There’s nothing wrong with having an MBA. There’s also nothing wrong with pastors learning from the field of business management. I do some reading in the area from time to time myself, and appropriate what works for use in the church. But I’ll never get an MBA.

Why? Because it’s not my call. My church is filled with well-educated people, including MBAs. They use their gifts in our church all the time. But even if we didn’t have a single MBA in my congregation, I still wouldn’t need one.

The church is an organization. That is indeed true. We are a collection of human beings trying to build, plan, and use our resources well. But, unlike businesses or even non-profits, we aren’t here to sell a product or fix a problem. We are here for the worship of God, and for the service of God’s people.

We don’t do our work in isolation. We do it by being led by the Holy Spirit.

True, we can use things like budget spreadsheets, revised organizational structures, and every physical resource we have to work towards that mission. But if we are spending more time thinking about how to use those things, and how to manage the people who are doing so, than we are about discerning God’s will for us, we are utterly lost.

It gets worse when the most unhealthy aspects of corporate culture make their way into our life together. In my larger church life I was once ruled out of order when I called for a prayer of discernment before a major vote. Other times I’ve seen transparency go out the window, or a small minority make decisions without consulting a larger group.

Check out what the Bible has to say about the qualities needed for pastors and for overseers (or “bishops”). None of them would make for great corporate leaders. But they do make for good enough church leaders. When we function as business executives, rather than church leaders, we not only disenfranchise one another, but we say we know what God desires better than the gathered church does. That is hubris at its worst.

2) Neglecting evangelism and church growth.

I’ve heard pastors say that they devote a set amount of their pastoral time every week to advocacy around one particular concern. It could be 10% of their time is spent on the environment, or 20% on LGBTQ inclusion. Those are certainly worthy of concern. But when I ask them this, I’m often greeted with a blank stare: “And how much time do you spend on evangelism and church growth?”

Usually none. Not unless you count the evangelism that comes as a by-product of advocacy. That’s surely important, but our advocacy work should not be undertaken as a means to increase our membership. That’s disingenuous.

Instead, what would it mean for our clergy leaders to actually take 10% of their ministry time and to engage in the work of proclaiming the Good News, and inviting people to discipleship? What would it look like to invest in growing our churches by encouraging life-transformative programming that proclaims God’s love? What would it look like if we could positively describe why we are Christians without first saying how we aren’t like other Christians?IMG_8457

Billy Graham once said that if you want to figure out what you worship, look at your checkbook. If I were to update it for today I’d say that if you want to figure out what you worship, just look at your planner. How you spend your time in ministry will tell you what you worship. If you, your church, or your denomination isn’t spending much of it telling the story of God’s love in some way, that’s deeply troubling.

This is the one thing the church can do that no other organization can. We have a commission to spread the Gospel by proclaiming the love and grace of Christ. Can you imagine how the mainline could be renewed if we focused our attention on reaching out to those who are hungry for spiritual depth and discipleship that requires something of us? Our churches would be growing spiritually by leaps and bounds.

3) Paying little attention to faith formation.

Does your denomination have concrete resources for faith formation? Is time and energy invested in curriculum development for children? Are youth learning what it means to be a disciple?

In Glorify I quote a sobering statistic: only 45% of the youth who grow up in mainline congregations continue to claim our tradition as adults. That doesn’t mean practice our tradition; that just means that they will admit they are one of us.

That number dips down to 37% when we are talking about Millennials. These are the kids who were raised in our churches, and they don’t want anything to do with us. They are either disengaging altogether or finding new traditions, often in Christian traditions with deeper formation programs. What does that say about our effectiveness at making them disciples?

Add to that the fact that we’ve all but given up on our college students. Every mainline denomination used to have an active college fellowship program. You could step on campus and easily find Canterbury, Westminster, Wesley Fellowship, and more. Now college ministry is dominated by well-funded programs from conservative and fundamentalist churches.

True, you don’t make any money supporting college students. They are a really bad investment from a financial sense. But the churches that are succeeding in college ministry care enough to spend that money anyway. They are planting the seeds that will yield a great harvest in coming years. Meanwhile, we mainliners are so short-sighted that we are slashing funding for our young adults who need support.

Finally, we don’t do the work of helping adults to keep growing as disciples. This is especially true of the former “nones” who come through our doors. For those of us who were raised outside of the church formation is essential. As a new Christian I had no idea how to say the Lord’s Prayer. I needed someone to help teach me the faith in a non-judgmental fashion. But even if you have gone to church every Sunday of your life, if the last time you learned anything about discipleship was high school Sunday school, then we are failing you.

4) Engaging in interfaith dialogue without doing our own work first.

I love interfaith work. I think it’s absolutely crucial in our world. We need to be addressing our historical relationships to Judaism and Islam. We need to be standing against religious oppression of all faiths. We need to learn from one another. And we need to be hearing from those who are atheist and agnostic too.

But we can’t do this honestly until we know who we are, and whose we are.

You know how you can’t really love someone until you know and love yourself? No one should get married, for instance, until they know who they are and what they stand for first. Otherwise they will just become enmeshed with the other. That’s never healthy.

And yet, well-meaning mainline Christians will often engage in interfaith dialogue without first knowing what we ourselves believe. In that case we do a disservice not only to ourselves, but to those we meet who genuinely want to know more about us. If they ask us what a Christian believes, or what our own denomination believes, and we can’t give an answer, then really we aren’t there as equal participants. We’re just asking them to teach us.

At the same time, we also risk becoming appropriative. Just like Christians who appropriate the Jewish Seder for our own reasons, without full understanding, we risk appropriating the traditions of other religions and cultures as well. When we meet our siblings from other traditions on the path we should do so with both self-knowledge and generous spirits. And when they teach us about themselves, we should use that new knowledge in order to better understand them, not to make what is theirs our own.

5) Dismantling seminaries.

Seminaries have seen better days. Once communities of formation and learning, they’ve become optional in some mainline traditions. While some never receive any educational formation for ministry, others take their entire course of study online. After all, many say, I can’t be expected to quit my job and move my family.

IMG_8461Except, Jesus was pretty clear about leaving everything behind and following him. Over half my seminary classmates packed up families, took out student loans, and left lucrative jobs to do so. Is it convenient? No. Is it easy? No. But, it’s faithful. And it’s worth it.

Seminary is more than an academic experience. It is a place where a community is formed by worship, learning, and living together. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his words to a seminary that still formed during the rise of the Third Reich, wrote to the students about the importance of living in community. He believed that it would transform both their faith and their ministry to come. (See Life Together for more.) Surely, if any generation had an excuse to skip the spiritual formation of seminary it was German seminarians in the 1930’s. And yet, they not only formed an underground seminary, many also eventually went to prison for being seminarians.

No one is asking you to do the same. But perhaps making the small sacrifice of giving three years of your life in order to be formed as a pastor is worth it. Yes, you might have to change everything in order to do so. But if you think that ministry is going to allow you the luxury of staying in one place or doing things your own way, then you are in for a disheartening shock.

That’s why denominations, and their churches, have to support their seminaries and their seminarians. This means both financially and in terms of encouraging attendance and demanding rigorous preparation. The church needs clergy who know who they are, and what they believe. We need clergy who can live in community, and wrestle within it. And we need clergy who take the call seriously enough to know they are not yet prepared to undertake it.

Without clergy who understand that enormity of this call, we will never have leaders who understand the enormity of what God has called the church to do next.

If you found meaning in this post, you’ll love Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity. There is hope for mainline renewal, and this book can show you how to claim it for your local congregation, your denomination, and beyond: http://www.amazon.com/Glorify-Reclaiming-Heart-Progressive-Christianity/dp/0829820299/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453486699&sr=1-1&keywords=glorify+emily+heath

“Glorify” for Groups

Update, June 2, 2016. The Glorify group reading guide is now available, free of charge: Glorify Reading Guide

It’s been a few weeks since Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity was released by Pilgrim Press. I’ve been so grateful to hear the initial round of feedback. The book seems to have articulated something many have been feeling for some time.

IMG_6934One of the things I’m hearing the most often is that people want to use this book in a small group setting. My hope has always been that Glorify could be used that way. In fact, I’m working on a reading group study guide now that should be available for download soon. This will contain tips for classes, questions for group discussion, and other resources.

I’m also aware that now is the time in the church year when congregations are looking at summer small-group reads as well as Christian education options for the fall. In that spirit, here are three ways churches can use Glorify in your congregation.

Adult Education Sunday School

Glorify is broken into ten chapters, each of which (10-15 pages each) could easily be read by busy church members during the course of a week. Taking a chapter a week, Glorify would inspire a rich conversation in adult Sunday school classes throughout the fall.

Book Group Discussion

Many churches have book groups that come together to talk about a common read. Glorify could be read all in one sitting, or broken into its three parts for a multi-event group. The three sections (Finding Our Purpose, Being Transformed by God, and Transforming the World with God) provide a structure for shorter-term program of one to three sessions. The book is also a great read for “One Church/One Book” programs in which the entire congregation reads the same book and talks about what it can teach their church.

Confirmation, Youth Groups, or Campus Ministries

Glorify is a down-to-earth, conversational read that is appropriate for youth and young adults. It talks about the real social issues that matter to younger Christians, including LGBTQ inclusion, eradicating racism, and changing the world. It also provides a basic overview of mainline Christian faith and how it shapes our identity. The premise of Glorify is that we are transformed by God’s love for us, and so we in turn transform the world. One of the most amazing things about today’s youth and young adults is that they want to serve, and they want their faith to inform their work in the world. This book will help them to integrate belief and action.

If you want to order Glorify for a small group, you can do so directly from Pilgrim Press here: http://www.uccresources.com/products/glorify-reclaiming-the-heart-of-progressive-christianity-heath

Or, look for the book on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Glorify-Reclaiming-Heart-Progressive-Christianity/dp/0829820299/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453486699&sr=1-1&keywords=glorify+emily+heath

If possible I am also glad to talk about coming to your church to speak about the book, or connecting with a small group via Skype to answer questions and talk more.

Thanks so much for all the support! May Glorify be a blessing to the ministry of your church.

Afflicting the Comfortable: Another Take on Psalm 23 – Sermon for April 17, 2016

If someone were to say to you, quote a line from the Psalms, chances are good that the first answer that popped into your head would be something from Psalm 23. That’s not surprising. There are 150 Psalms, and yet this is the one we all seem to know. And often we can recite it, amazingly, in 16th century English, with “leadeth”, and “restoreth”, and “maketh” and all.

In six lines, the Psalm says something that seems to comfort us. It points to a God who is protective and giving. One who keeps us safe. One who leads us down the right path. And when I was a hospital chaplain, when I asked people if they would like to hear a particular passage from Scripture, nine times out of ten, they asked for this one.

When I talk to people about funerals, either their own, or that of someone they loved, they ask for this Psalm too. Because unlike perhaps any other piece of Scripture, Psalm 23 gives us comfort in the most difficult of times. The Psalm reminds us that our comfort comes from God. It comes from the God who allows us to say that, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”

So, to be honest with you, that’s why for a long time I could not stand this Psalm. After years of being a chaplain, I just sort of thought of it as the Psalm you read when someone was sick or dying, and I really only thought about it then.

I mean, really, nearly every time you hear this Psalm something bad is happening, right?

And that’s okay. I think in times of pain, in times when we are asking why, in times when nothing makes sense, the words we have relied on in our hardest times come back to us. Words like “the Lord is my shepherd”.

And that’s a gift. We need that assurance. We need to know that God is here with us, and that God will comfort us, and that we will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. We need to hear those words, because they are true. And they are true especially in our hardest times.

But, it would be a mistake to just think of this as the funeral Psalm, or the Psalm you read when times are hard.

When I was in college I heard a priest say once that the job of the preacher was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. That still resonates at some level. If you come to church and you are in pain, I do hope you find comfort in what is said here. But if you come to church and you are completely comfortable, and completely unmotivated to make this world better for others, then I hope you leave a little afflicted.

I’ve sometimes wondered if the same is true of the Psalms. I wonder if they too are meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

picmonkey_image
Like I said, almost every time I plan a funeral, the reading of Psalm 23 is requested. But the fact Psalm 23 has been relegated mostly to funerals is a tragedy. Because this Psalm isn’t about death; it’s about living fearlessly and in abundance.

The shepherd of the Psalm, who is God, is described as someone who can lead us through the scariest of places, all the while casting aside our fear. And God fills our cups, not just until there is enough, but until they overflow with so much goodness that we can’t help but share it.

That’s a good word for those of us who are so comfortable we could use some affliction. And, to be clear, that’s most of us, at least some of the time. We all have moments when we can use a little comfort but, whether we admit it or not, we also have moments where our cup overflows with abundance.

And so when our cup is overflowing the question that remains is who do we then follow? Who will be our shepherd through life? Will it be the one who has filled our cups to overflowing? Or will it be something else? In other words, can we really say with all honestly and conviction that “the Lord is my shepherd”?

Before you answer that, know that there are many shepherds out there you can choose. You can choose the shepherd of fear, who tells you that you will never be enough. You can choose the shepherd of anger, who reacts to the world with rage. You can choose the shepherd of greed, who tells you that you need more. Or you can choose the shepherd of narcissism, who tells you that you are the only one who matters on the path.

And there are countless other shepherds as well, all vowing for your time and attention. And, even if we believe that we are independent of their influence, the reality is that we are all following some sort of shepherd in this life. And, too often, they are leading us down the wrong paths.

And so, when we proclaim instead that the Lord is our Shepherd, we are saying something extraordinary. We are saying that we are not going to get lost anymore. We are saying that even as God leads us through territory that is so foreign and vast that it feels like we are in the “valley of the shadow of death”,you also know that you are still with God, and there is nothing to fear.

God does not promise us that if we follow we will always have an easy journey. Psalm 23 isn’t a warm and fuzzy affirmation of an easy life. But God does say that even when we are on those new and unfamiliar roads God will be there with us, leading us through.

And so, I also want to say this. What is true for individuals is so often also true for churches.

I think churches could learn from Psalm 23. Because in a time when so many churches are drawing inward, afraid of an unknown future, and clinging to the “hope” of austerity measures, and “wait and see” fearfulness, the Psalm offers us a radical alternative. Don’t live in fear. Live in faith. And follow the one who can lead you through the darkest valleys and make them seem like they were well-lit sidewalks.

Some of you know that my first parish ministry call was to a two point charge in Vermont. One church was relatively healthy, but the other was not. For nearly 200 years it had been a thriving small town church, and the center of the town. But those days were long gone. By the time I got there, my work was to help the church to close its doors and merge with the other church in a graceful way.

At that time a good Sunday morning was one in which the attendance was in the double digits. As in, ten people. Counting the organist and me. And it was rarely a good Sunday morning.

I wanted to understand why this had happened, and so did a lot of research into the history, going back even before any of the people who were left, because the truth was that the few who were left had come after the damage had been done. And as I looked deeper, I found out that there had been a time when the church’s cup had indeed overflowed in every sense of the word. But decades before, instead of sharing that abundance and using it in creative ways, fear had ruled the day. The church had turned more and more inward, and more and more fearful about its own future.

It was like as this cup overflowed they were trying to put all of that abundance and grace back in so they could hang onto it. They kept trying to build a bigger cup, instead of using what they had been given. They were so afraid of a future when they would not have enough that instead of looking at all they had as a blessing and gift to share with others, they saw it as something to fearfully store up for themselves.

And, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, decades later those fears came true. Just not in the ways they thought they would.

At the end of the church’s life they had a whole lot of money in the bank account, a nice building that was hardly ever open except on Sunday mornings, next to no one in the pews, and most importantly, no one in the community being served beyond the doors of the church.

That’s not our situation. At all. But it’s a constant reminder for me. I don’t believe anyone ever consciously chose or even wanted that future for that church. But somehow, over the course of decades, that’s where they wound up. And so, I promised myself that no matter where I pastored next, I would tell that story. Because it’s too easy to have the best of intentions, and to end up there.

And so, I always want to say to churches the same thing I want to say to individuals: don’t wait until your funeral to live out this Psalm. This should not be your deathbed prayer. This should be the proclamation you make as you rise every morning: the Lord is my shepherd…I shall not fear.

And so, whether on your own path or on this path we walk together, live out that kind of faith everyday. God has already given you more than you need. You have an abundance. You have enough. Don’t be afraid to use it. Live boldly, follow the Good Shepherd, and you, and we, will indeed live. Amen?

Gained in Translation: Sermon for Pentecost, 2015

Before I became a parish minister, I was a chaplain. I was working for a hospice on the South Shore of Massachusetts, and I had one patient down near New Bedford, where many of the older population still speaks Portuguese fluently.

Whenever I went to see this patent at their nursing home, this other resident on her unit would see me in the lobby and start shouting at me in Portuguese. And I had no clue what she was saying, but it was obvious to me that she was upset, and so I always just apologized and got out of there as quickly as possible.

One day I went back and the same thing happened. Only this time there were people around. And one of the aides said, “Do you know what she’s saying?” And I said, “no, but whatever I did I’m sorry.”

And then she told me that the woman was speaking Portuguese, and that she was a little confused. But she thought I was a relative of hers, and that when she saw me she wasn’t mad at all; she was excited. And she was yelling joyfully to me about how glad she was to see me. After that day I would always talk to her, and I understood now that when we talked, though I couldn’t understand her, she was happy.

Pentecost by He Qi.

Pentecost by He Qi.

I learned then that translation matters. It can change everything. Today’s story is about translation too. It’s ten days after the Ascension, when Jesus left this world, and the disciples are together, trying to figure out what to do next now that Jesus is gone.

And all of a sudden a rushing wind, with tongues of fire, fell on them. And suddenly, the disciples, all of whom were Galileans all just speaking the same language, were speaking languages that they had never known before. People from other places were nearby and they heard it and they could understand what they were saying, and they asked “how come we are hearing this in our own language”?

Some didn’t even believe it; they said “they must be drunk.” But Peter gets up and he says “look, it’s only 9am..we’re not drunk”. Instead, something new has come, and everything has changed.

In the church we call this the Pentecost, which is translated to mean “fifty days”, as in fifty days after Easter. And we call that mighty rush of wind that came down the coming of the Holy Spirit. And we call this the birthday of the church. This is the day when the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples, and the church was born.

I’ve always found that interesting. Because, intuitively, it might not make a lot of sense. Shouldn’t Easter be the birthday of the church? After all, it’s the day Jesus rose again and appeared to the disciples. Maybe you could even argue that Christmas, with the birth of Christ, should be the day of celebration? Or, maybe Maundy Thursday when Jesus tells the disciples how to love one another?

But most believe Pentecost is the church’s birthday. And I think it’s because that was the day the disciples went from being this sort of loose band of followers of Jesus, standing around wondering what now, to being equipped by the Holy Spirit to minister not just to their own, but to the whole world.

And I think it says a lot that on its day of birth, when the Holy Spirit came down, the first gift that the disciples realize they have is the gift of being able to speak in new languages. The ability to translate the message to others.

I told you that story earlier about translation, and how it helped me to know what was being shouted at me in Portuguese. But translation doesn’t always have to be literal. Sometimes we learn to speak, and to understand, the language of others even when we don’t have the words.

One night when I was on call as a hospital chaplain, I received a page, and I was asked to come meet with a man whose wife had just given birth and who now was not doing well. And he was an Orthodox Christian originally from the Middle East. He spoke English fluently, and had been in this country a long time. And we were talking and I asked him, as I always did in these situations, if he wanted to pray.

He said “yes”, and took my hand and I was about to start praying, as I always did, but instead he started. And in Arabic he prayed this impassioned, heart-felt prayer for his wife.

I have no idea what those words were that he was saying. But in that moment, without knowing a word of Arabic, I knew exactly what he meant. And I know that the Holy Spirit was with us in that moment.

If the Holy Spirit were to sweep into this place again today, and give us all a birthday gift, because we are all the church, I think we would get the same gift the disciples got. And I don’t mean by that that we would all be able to speak Spanish or Chinese or Russian or Arabic, per se. Rather, I think we would learn how to speak in new ways to those who haven’t heard yet about God’s love in language that they understand.

And you don’t have to leave the country to find people who haven’t. You don’t even have to leave Exeter. Just look at the news. A few weeks ago there was a poll out talking about how fewer and fewer people considered themselves religious now. It made the front page of major papers. And New Hampshire is the second least-religious state in the country. And “nones”, those who do not claim a religious tradition, are the fastest growing demographic group.

And yet here we are in the church, speaking a foreign language. There was a time when everyone knew what the Lord’s Prayer, the doxology, and all of our other church words meant. There was a time when most people knew our language. But they don’t anymore. And that is new, but it’s also not necessarily bad. Because it doesn’t mean that ours is not a language worth sharing.

For decades now too much of the church has stood still, angry at the world that no one understands us anymore. No one speaks our language. We complain about that fact, and we have plenty of things to blame, everything from parents to over scheduled kids to sports on Sunday morning, but the reality is that few people are going to spontaneously show up at our doors asking to learn our language.

But do you notice something about the Pentecost story? When the Holy Spirit comes, it’s the disciples who learn the new language. All the other people there don’t suddenly speak the disciples’ language: instead the disciples learn to speak theirs.

I think maybe the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us something. We can’t wait for others to talk the way we talk. Instead, we have to learn their language. We have to learn what is important to them. We have to be able to communicate in the ways that matter to them. We have to be willing to make the connections. It’s what the church has been doing since its first days, and it’s what we are still called to do today.

And, more importantly, we have to have something to say. Gone are the days when people are going to come to church out of obligation. And I think that’s a good thing. But what that means is that the people coming through our doors are looking for something deeper. They are looking for community. They are looking for meaning. And, more than anything, they are looking for a spiritual connection.

The Holy Spirit is what we in the church have to offer. We as Christians believe that God speaks to us and leads us through the Holy Spirit. It is our companion and guide through life. It is what gives us comfort when we need it, and courage when we are done being comforted. Jesus called it the paraclete, which means “advocate” or “helper”. The Holy Spirit is our advocate and helper. Why would we not want to claim that and share that?

That’s one reason that we are doing this Natural Church Development process, and we are looking seriously at what it means to reclaim “passionate spirituality”. Because in this world where so many say that they are “spiritual but not religious”, if the church can’t do “spiritual” well, we may as well close our doors. There’s no point unless we are gathered around something bigger than ourselves and led by a Spirit bigger than our own; a Holy Spirit, the same one that came on Pentecost all those centuries ago.

Because so long as we are actually trying to God’s will for us, so long as we are actually following where the Spirit leads us, we aren’t some forgotten dinosaur speaking some lost language. We’re alive, and we have something to offer. And there are people who want to hear about it. They want us to make the connections, they want us to be translators, they want to know. But if we try to hide that light, that fire of Pentecost, under a bushel, then what we have will be lost in translation.

And so, on this Pentecost, on this birthday of the church, we can make a choice. Because Pentecost didn’t just happen 2000 years ago. It happens still. And on Pentecost we are given an incredible gift in the Holy Spirit. It’s one that will never wear out, never grow too small, and never fail to amaze us if we only let it.

But here’s the catch: we can’t hold on to that gift only for ourselves. It must be shared. And if you have really received it, it will be shared through you. In fact, it probably has been already, and with God’s help will be again. You will be the translator of all God has to give this world.

And so this Pentecost, unwrap your gift. Delight in it the way you would any good gift. But don’t stop there. Share it with a world that has a deep spiritual hunger. Learn to speak the language of the ones who thirst for spiritual depth. And follow the Holy Spirit into all the places God has already prepared for you to go. You just may find that behind every corner a never-ending birthday celebration waits. Amen?

Growing in Good Soil: A Sermon on Passionate Spirituality for May 3, 2015

When I was in middle school a new church came to my town. It built a huge building on the outskirts of the city. They had rock bands playing for all the services. And they had big video displays with indoor pyrotechnics.

And once a year, to attract the teenagers, they had this group of traveling evangelists come in for this sort of modern day tent-revival. They were a group of Christian bodybuilders, and they would do things like tear phone books in half, or break handcuffs in two, all while Christian rock was blaring loudly. And they would then say that they were able to do these things not because they were strong, but because Jesus Christ was giving them the strength to do it.

My parents were less than impressed, and were clear they didn’t want me anywhere near the place. But, a lot of my classmates went and loved it. And that church grew and grew. In fact it grew so much that one of our neighbors joined and began having loud prayer meetings in their backyard. (I still remember my dad grilling on the barbecue and shaking his head while one was happening.)

Really, all that church taught me was what I wasn’t looking for in church. And so when I went looking for a church later on, all I really knew was that I wanted to find something as different as possible.

So you may be wondering what this has to do with today’s passage. Jesus uses a lot of metaphors to talk about our relationships with God. Here he uses the image of a growing vine and God as the vinegrower. And Jesus talks about how God prunes us. The parts of the vine that are growing well, and bearing good fruit, God allows to flourish. And the parts that no longer produce fruit, God cuts back in order to allow new life to grow.

It’s that image of God as a gardener that I really love. I’m only recently learning about gardening, and I’m learning about the importance of good soil and of cultivating what is thriving, and pruning what isn’t anymore. And I’m learning about what goes into making the whole plant grow.

I like that image because it’s so organic, and it makes sense to me. You let what naturally works well happen, and you make space for that. And if you do it well, you find that the whole plant grows healthy and strong.

I also like that image because I believe it’s true for churches too. And I believe it’s a good metaphor for a process our church is starting to undertake.

You may remember that back in January I was gone for about a week to Arizona for my annual continuing education time with the Next Generation Leadership Institute of the UCC.And this year we studied a program called “Natural Church Development”, which is a church growth program. And, frankly, I was skeptical. I’ve heard about a lot of consultants who promise to come in and help your church grow if you only pay them thousands of dollars. It rarely works.

But this seemed different. It wasn’t about selling anything. It was just a way of thinking organically about church growth, taught from pastor to pastor. And the success rate was impressive. 80% of churches who undertake and complete this program see a 50% increase in their growth rate. And so after talking with colleagues who had used this same program, I proposed it to the church council back in January, and they agreed that we should try it.

In February we had thirty of our church leaders take a survey. The program asks for only thirty people to take it, and so we were strategic about whom we asked, because we wanted a real diversity of people in terms of gender, age, background, and so forth.

The survey asked questions designed to measure what are called “quality characteristics” of churches. These are traits that they have found growing and healthy churches around the world, from Catholic to Protestant to evangelical to Orthodox all somehow have in common, despite their differences.

The quality characteristics of Natural Church Development. (Copyright NCD)

The quality characteristics of Natural Church Development. (Copyright NCD)

The eight characteristics are (and don’t worry…you don’t have to memorize these): Inspiring worship, gift-based ministry, empowering leadership, loving relationships, effective structures, need-based evangelism, holistic small groups, and passionate spirituality.

The principle of this program is that if you concentrate on those things, if you make sure that the soil you are planted in is good and that the parts of the vine that are growing well can flourish, your church will naturally and organically see growth.

So, the survey results back. And, I don’t know about you, but when I get an evaluation there’s always this minute of panic, like “what will it say?” And then there’s always this minute of wanting to be defensive, like “that’s not true…they don’t really understand”. But then, if I give it a little time, I’m able to see the truth of the feedback, and to say “okay, how can I use this to grow?”

So, when the results came back, I went through that process in my head. I agreed with the good stuff. The survey said our maximum factor, our strongest score, was in inspiring worship. We also did well in other areas like gift-based ministry, effective structures, empowering leadership and loving relationships.

But then came the other shoe, and what is called our “minimum factor”. That “minimum factor” is very important because that’s the thing in this process your church then turns to and decides to work on. That’s the gardening project, so to speak.

And for us, that minimum factor was “passionate spirituality”. Our score was not bad, but everyone does have to have a minimum score in one area, and that was ours. That’s where we have the greatest opportunity as a church to improve, and get even better.

But, for me at least, there was an issue with that. I heard “passionate spirituality” and I had some preconceptions of what that looked like. I was right back there in my hometown with the church with the screaming guitars and yelling evangelists and the exuberant prayer meetings. And my first instinct was to run.

Because I saw what happened to my friends who went to that church. I saw how their faith was exciting and new for a few years, and then they sort of left it behind. Or, I saw how others used what they learned at that church to bully people who weren’t like them by saying they were concerned for their souls. I saw how sometimes a person’s sincere Christian convictions seemed to be inversely proportional to how loud they were about their faith.

And, I don’t know about you, but I didn’t want our church to become like that. There are dozens of churches surrounding us where you can find that. But what there are not are many churches like ours where you can come with your heart, and head, and hands, and connect with God, and with the world in a thoughtful, often more quiet, way.

But then I had to go a step further, and I had to really examine what they meant by “passionate spirituality”. And I talked to others, and came to understand that my preconceptions were all wrong. I heard “passionate spirituality” and I automatically assumed it meant becoming something we are not. But what I found was something very different. I found that it was about being who we are, but even better.

It turns out that passionate spirituality is not about the way you worship. You can find passionate spirituality in mainline Protestant churches like ours, in Catholic churches with a formal liturgy, and even in quiet Quaker meetings.

It’s also not about specific beliefs. You don’t have to subscribe to a set view of the God, and sign on the dotted line. And it’s not about being loud or flashy or being the next big thing.

Instead, it’s about this. It’s about being passionate about your spiritual journey, the same way that you are passionate about the other things that matter in your life, and it’s about being rooted in your relationship with the divine, and able to connect that to all that you do.

I am passionate about my marriage, for instance. I love my spouse. I am dedicated to my marriage. I work on it, and value it and make it a priority. What you don’t hear me doing, though, is shouting out to everyone who will listen how awesome marriage is and how everyone needs to get married and if you want to do marriage right you need to do it the way that I do. In fact, if I did that, you might wonder if the marriage was really all that strong to begin with.

But, even if I’m not shouting about it, it’s important to me. It gives me life.

The same is true of my spiritual life. My spiritual connection with God is my guiding force in life. It helps me to make the big decisions that matter. It is always with me. And it is because of my faith that I live the way that I do, and make the choices I do on a daily basis. And it is only when I am being fed spiritually that my faith thrives.

Likewise, as a church, it is because of our connection with God that we are able to do amazing things. It is because of our faith that we feed the hungry. It is because of our faith that we care for the planet. It is because of our faith that we work for justice in the world. And it is because of our faith that we come here each Sunday, and we love one another.

It is because we are planted in good soil that we are able to do good things in the world. That soil is the soil of our faith. And we make it good soil by connecting with God spiritually. That is what roots us. That is what feeds us and gives us passion for the work we will do.

But when we let that soil grow dry, when we stop growing spiritually, when we stop nurturing what grounds us and roots us, we find that we are like a vine that has stopped growing, and one that will no longer bear good fruit.

I have known churches like that. Churches that are so busy that they forget why they are there in the first place. Churches that lose their connection with the spiritual, and lose the passion that once drove them. People don’t tend to stay long in those churches because they get so burned out trying to work in dry soil.

But I don’t think that’s us. I think we have good soil here. And I think it can be even better, and that as we grow spiritually what we have planted will grow as well. And in the end we will see it, and we will know that it was growing in us all along, just waiting for the soil to be even better.

And so, I’m excited about this journey. I hope you are too. And I hope that you will join me on Saturday morning for our retreat. We are about to do some gardening, and we need your hands to help till the soil, and plant the seeds. Amen?

How to Be a Pentecost Church: Five Pointers for Congregations

This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday in the church. It’s the Sunday when churches everywhere are filled with the color red, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, and we celebrate a story from the church’s earliest days. On Pentecost we remember how the Holy Spirit came to the early disciples like a “mighty wind” and rested on them with “tongues of fire”. Suddenly they were able to speak in the languages they did not know, and all the people gathered around them in Jerusalem, a host of nations, were able to understand what the disciples were saying.

There’s a tendency in the church to think that everyone is supposed to learn our language. But if you look at the Pentecost story, you find the exact opposite is true. The Holy Spirit could have easily touched everyone around the early disciples so that they could understand the language the disciples spoke. But instead, it was the disciples who were transformed. They were the ones who learned new languages, ones they could use to communicate with people using the words they already knew.

So why does the church sometimes miss the point?

29671_389906276786_3698836_n

No, really. This Pentecost stuff is going to be fun.

We often talk about how our church is very welcoming, but new members are few and far between. And often it’s true…many churches are extremely good at welcoming visitors who walk through the front doors. But the first place we should be meeting people is not inside our buildings. It’s out where they (and we) live.

The Pentecost story reminds us that witnessing to Christ is not about our own convenience. It’s about being radically transformed by the Holy Spirit so that we can speak the language (literally and metaphorically) of those God wants us to love and serve. Pentecost reminds us that we cannot sit ideally back and wait for people to learn our ways. We have to be the ones who learn new ways.

So how do we do that? Here are some suggestions:

1. Check out your social media presence.

If this seems like a strange place to start, that might be part of your church’s issue. I’ve heard countless people in churches deride what they see as an over-dependence on social media in younger generations. Facebook, Twitter, texting, and the like are seen as distractions and barriers to community.

But in reality, social media can be a wonderful way to build community. I don’t believe it can ever replace face-to-face interactions, but it can help to spread your message. If you talk to your Generation X and Millennial parishioners, in fact, you might find that a surprising number of them found your church via social media. The days of looking in a phone book for a church, or even just knowing where a church is located, are over. For many a Google search will be their first stop in their search for a new church.

So make it count. If your church doesn’t have a webpage, you need one now. You can get a domain name for $18 a year and build a page on WordPress, so there is no excuse. And, if you do have a webpage, give it an honest assessment. Is it up-to-date? Are your address and service times clearly displayed? Could a visitor determine whether or not they would be welcome at your church? Is there information about programming and what you believe? Is there contact information? Are there pictures of people and not just the building?

And don’t limit yourself to a webpage. A Facebook “like” page is free and a great way to spread the word about your church. Use the page to post updates, photos, reminders, sermon links, and more. Encourage members to “like” and “share” posts on their page. You’ll be surprised how a post can go viral in no time. When the daughter of one of my current church’s members won a silver medal in the Olympics this winter, for instance, we posted a photo congratulating her. That photo was shared by 72 people and reached over 5,500! It was a wonderful way for our church to share our celebration.

The Facebook picture that went viral.

The Facebook picture that went viral.

Finally, make sure that you have a “like” page and not a Facebook group for your church. A group is fine for discussion purposes, but it will not reach new people. They are not going to join a group of people they do not know. Instead concentrate on putting out clear information, inspiring links, and warm invitations on your “like” page. Make sure that your social media presence exists more for others than yourself.

2. Get out in your community.

Like I said earlier, you might be the warmest church in the world when people step inside of your doors. But for the vast majority of your community, you are just another building that they have never been inside. As untrue as it sounds to those of us who are churchgoers, church buildings are often seen as private clubhouses. Others might be curious about what is going on inside, but it’s going to take more than a little bit of curiosity to go in. This is especially true of the growing number of us who are younger and did not grow up in the church.

So instead of waiting for others to come to you, go to them. Get involved as a church in the community. Host events like concerts and lectures. Make your building as accessible as possible to local non-profit groups needing a space to meet. Host AA meetings. Welcome community groups. Provide hospitality to outside youth events. And don’t just be a landlord. Be a host. Consider sharing your building as a ministry to the community.

But more importantly, go outside of your doors. Get involved in community celebrations. Serve lemonade and cookies on the lawn if the town’s parade is going by your doors. Sponsor a Little League team. Volunteer at youth events. Go into retirement communities. Work with other congregations. Whatever it is, find out what matters in your community and then figure out a way to contribute. You can’t serve a community that you don’t know and love.

3. Enable your pastor to get out in your community.

The work of representing your church in the community is the work of the whole congregation. It is never just the pastor’s job. But, the reality is that the pastor can be a great ambassador. So, as much as possible you want to make sure they have your blessing to be involved in your community. So don’t keep them locked up in their office! Encourage them to go out in the world.

I am finishing my pastorate in a small community right now. During this time the church has nearly doubled in size. This is not due to me, but I believe it does have a lot to do with our church being more visible in our community. And that has happened in part because my congregation has blessed me by encouraging me to be involved in the community.

For me this has meant being the chaplain of our local fire department, as well as working with Habitat for Humanity, writing an occasional column for our local newspaper, and more. It has also meant holding community “office hours” in a local coffee shop. Once a week I stationed myself at a table for a couple of hours and bought the coffee for anyone who dropped by for a chat. People who had never come through the doors of the church before met me for the first time there. Finally, when a natural disaster came to our community in the form of a flood, the congregation didn’t want me in my office. They wanted me out on the streets talking to people and giving out energy bars and water. (They were there too, by the way.)

Not every church understands this, though. Once when I was in a pastoral search process the search committee ran through their list of questions about how I planned to grow the church. When it came time for me to ask my questions, I led off with what I thought was a softball question: “Do you want a pastor who is going to be actively involved in your community?” The response shocked me. Members hedged their answers, telling me they really weren’t sure. To them the pastor was “theirs” and had enough work to do with current members. It was clear for me this was not the right church for me. But what struck me was that due to their inward focus I was sure it was clear to prospective parishioners that it wasn’t the right church for them either.

Your pastor can be a tremendous gift to your community. Don’t keep them all to yourself.

4. Don’t assume everyone knows your insider language.

So let’s say everything is going right and new people have started coming through your doors. What do you do now?

Well, first, keep doing what you are doing in terms of being hospitable. Welcome people when they walk in the doors. Show them the sanctuary. Invite them to coffee hour. Make them feel at home. But, also, watch the “insider language” and help to translate what might be new.

I did not grow up in the church so when I started attending as a young adult I was keenly aware of what I did not know. Every Sunday we would get to a point in the service where everyone recited a prayer together. I didn’t know it, and I felt like everyone was looking at me as I stood there in silence. It was the Lord’s Prayer, and I had no clue what to say.

I learned it quickly by getting a copy and sitting in the privacy my home and repeating it over and over to myself. I didn’t want to be embarrassed anymore. But I remember that feeling. And so years later, when I heard members of a church talking disdainfully about how visiting younger people didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer, it hit me hard.

From then on I have always tried to print the words of the Lord’s Prayer in the bulletin for those who do not know it. The same is true of the Gloria Patri, Doxology, and other “well known” pieces. We should not give up these important parts of our liturgy, but we should be aware that as more people grow up as religious “nones” they are no longer a part of the common language.

Likewise, is your bulletin or worship leader clear about when to stand and when to sit? If you are turning to a certain page, do you announce it? Do you clearly state at the communion table that all are welcome, and let people know whether you are using grape juice or wine (an important consideration for many)? Or are your visitors just left on their own?

It’s important to make worship as accessible as possible. No one wants to feel like an outsider. It’s the surest way of making sure that visitors won’t come back.

5. Be willing to keep being transformed.

Here’s the secret no one wants to tell you about bringing new people into the church: they are going to change everything. I actually think more churches realize this than let on, and I believe that, subconciously, a lot of churches have chosen not to grow as a result.

When new people come to a church they bring with them new stories, new gifts, and new energy. They also bring new needs, new ideas, and new perspectives. And your church will be changed by them. Or else it will not be. And they will leave.

We often think of the church as “our church”. But it has never been “our church” It is Christ’s church. We are just the stewards of the church in this time and place. And when new people are brought into the church, they join us in that role. And even though you may have been their thirty years and they’ve been there one, they are equally important. And that can be frustrating.

There is a tendency to fall back on “we’ve always done it this way” in these situations. Resist that temptation. It’s wonderful to know our history (in fact, I think if we all knew more of it we’d find that we haven’t, in fact, always done it “this way”) but we cannot become a history museum. We must be willing to be transformed by the Holy Spirit, speaking in new ways through new voices. That’s what being the church is all about.

So when the young families arrive with their kids, let them teach you about what will keep their kids engaged. The old Sunday School models might not work anymore. When young adults come, let them shape their own programs. Maybe they want to meet for a “faith on tap” discussion at the local pub on a Wednesday night rather that for Bible study on Sunday mornings. And when someone brings that new idea to deacons that makes everyone tense up and want to say “but we don’t do that here”, give it a minute. Hear them out. And ask whether God is leading you into the future. It’s scary, but it’s also full of promise.

Most of all, this Pentecost Sunday, pray that the Holy Spirit will teach you to be a Pentecost Church. Open your hearts to the ways the Holy Spirit teaches us new languages. And then, let yourself speak them. Meet others where they are, and learn what God is already doing in them. And then, let yourself be transformed. You just may find that you, and the entire church, will be blessed.

 

“The Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated”: A Letter from the “Dying” Church

To my mourners:

Sometimes the dying are the first to know. While others believe you are invincible, you quietly go around collecting pamphlets from hospice and making final arrangements. But sometimes, more rarely, the dying are the last to know. While they feel alive and vital, others are picking out their headstone. Lately I’m feeling like I’m in the latter camp.

I hear that I am dying. This is a shock to me because I had no idea. I’m a good two millennia old so I think I’ve gotten to know myself pretty well, and I certainly have had tougher times than this. In my earliest days, in fact, my very existence was in question. So picture my surprise when I hear that those who have known me for only a fraction of my days are counting down to my demise.

150400_10100264762650368_2031715009_nI think what makes it all the more surprising is that many of the ones who are saying I am dying are not just observers. They are actually a part of me. A recent part, perhaps, but a part none-the-less. Because I, the church, am more than just another institution. I am, in fact, the body of Christ; the living and continuing presence of Jesus in the world. And all who believe in Christ are a member of this body, just like all believers in the past have been members of this body. To be the church is to be Christ’s body in the world.

With that in mind, let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that I am dying. Let’s say that death is even somewhat imminent. Let’s say that the body of the church, the body of Christ, is indeed about to die.

Well, here’s what I know about Christ’s body. It has died before, and it has risen again. Resurrection. That’s the whole message of Easter. Death occurs, but death does not win. The body rises stronger. And we, who are Easter people, should know that and not fear the end.

But beyond that, am I really dying? Because I’m not so sure that’s true. Yes, fewer people are attending church. Yes, as that happens some churches are closing down. Yes, the church’s influence in society is not what it used to be. But does that really mean I’m dying? Or does that just mean that the church is entering a new phase of life, just like it has before and will again? Maybe, in fact, a better phase?

Here’s the thing. There’s a difference between death and change. Just because I am no longer the way you (or your parents, or your grandparents) remember it growing up does not mean I am dying. Just because you don’t see what you want or like when you look at the church does not mean that death is imminent. Because, and this is sometimes hard to accept, as much as you may like to believe otherwise, the church is not dependent upon your comfort or approval for its life.

So here’s my question: Do you want to continue to sit and mourn around a death bed that I do not inhabit? Or do you want to be Easter people, and live in the Resurrection? If it’s the former, fine, but don’t call that church. Call it what you want, but don’t put the words “body of Christ” on that funeral.

But if it’s the latter, if you want to live as a Resurrection people, here’s a few thoughts on what you can do:

1. Read Scripture: I know, I know. There are many forms of revelation, the Bible has been used to justify some terrible things, etc., etc. But the Bible is the story of communities of faith learning how to live, and change, and grow together. And when we lose Biblical literacy we lose our story, and we lose our hope. And too many Christian have given up on really knowing the Bible.

We need to be able to talk about Moses and the Israelites taking the risk of leaving Egypt, getting lost, and then finding the promised land. We need the early Christians of the Book of Acts to tell us what it meant to be the church together in those early days. We need Paul’s letters to small local churches struggling to figure out who they are and what that means. We need it all.

2. Take risks:

Every local church I’ve known that has died has one thing in common: for too long in their lives they were risk averse. Maybe in the last years of their lives that changed and they were willing to risk everything, but they didn’t get to that place without years of choosing “safety” over choosing a bold witness to Christ’s love. No one wanted to rock the boat. No one wanted to risk losing a few members. No one wanted fail. And so, slowly, the local church became so afraid of making a move that it just withered in place.

But every local church I know that has thrived has one thing in common: they took risks. Not reckless risks. But risks. They took financial risks to expand growing ministries. They took leaps of faith when calling pastors and other staff, and did not try to find a candidate who wouldn’t make waves. They took risks when it came to social issues. And, most of all, they took these risks without sabotaging themselves because they feared their own success.

3. Reject negativity:

No one likes to be around negative people. (Well, possibly with the exception of other negative people.) And yet, the church is often a negative place. Church meetings are filled with anxiety about money or arguments about bylaws. Community life is uninspiring and tedious. And gossip and “parking lot meetings” are far too often the rule of life in the church. Who wants to be a part of that? Anyone who doesn’t enjoy drama won’t stay at a church like that for long.

More importantly, who is going to believe we are being honest about saying we have faith in Christ if our churches are like this? Because if someone says that Christian faith is all about redemption and new life and hope, and then turns around and shows someone a church that is full of pettiness and negativity, no one is going to buy it. Yes, Christians are human and make mistakes, but our default mode should be about living in God’s grace, not living in fear.

4. Recognize grace and practice gratitude:

This follows on the last point. Christians are called to recognize God’s grace in their lives. It’s sort of the point. It’s why you all sing “Amazing Grace” so much. But understanding grace on an intellectual level, and really knowing you have received grace are two different things. And here’s how you know that you really understand God’s grace: you can’t do anything but say “thank you”. Gratitude is the most natural response to grace, and it’s what the Christian life is all about. Christians do what they do not to earn their way to heaven, but to say “thank you” to all of the grace that God has already provided.

So why don’t churches live that way? Why is so much of Christian community life about the anxiety of not having enough? Why is it about mourning what we don’t have instead of celebrating what we do?

People in recovery, perhaps some of the most aware people in the world about the grace they have received, have a practice called gratitude lists. When everything looks like it’s going to hell, they sit down and write down what they are grateful for in their lives. Sometimes it starts small (I’m alive, I have enough to eat, I have enough for today) but often it grows into something more (I have more than I need, I have a community that loves me, I have meaning). What would it look like if your church made a gratitude list? Could you do it? If not, that may be part of the problem. Help those in your community to cultivate grateful hearts, and you will transform your local church.

5. Live for others, not for yourselves:

When you talk to churches in transition I ask them about their greatest challenge. “We need more people,” is what you will hear a lot. Some go further and are a little more blunt: “We need more people to join so we can pay our bills.” For some churches, too many, bringing new people in is not about welcoming them to a community of faith. It’s about ensuring the local church’s survival. And the reality is that people can see that desperation from a mile away. And no one joins a church, or any other organization, just to be another name on the books or another pledge card in the plate. And no one should.

What if instead of asking people to build up your church, you asked how your church could help build up others? What if the focus wasn’t so much on healing yourself, but on helping those who need it the most? What if your greatest priority wasn’t saving the church you know, but instead sharing that church with others and giving them the freedom to help change it?

And what if we lived together like the Resurrection is real, and is happening still? Because it is. And because we have work to do.

With love from the empty tomb,

The Church

P.S. – Of course one person cannot speak for the church. But if we believers are really the church, each of us can speak as a part of the church. So what do you have to say, church? Are you dying? Or are you ready to live?

“What We Share” – Sermon for May 15, 2011

Acts 2:42-47
2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

2:43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.

2:44 All who believed were together and had all things in common;

2:45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

2:46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts,

2:47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

I sometimes get asked how I choose what I’m going to preach about on Sundays. Sometimes folks think I pick a topic first and then select the appropriate Scripture. But that’s not what actually happens. Instead, I let the Scripture pick my topic. I preach using the lectionary, the calendar of readings I’ve told you about before which most mainline churches follow. Each week I’m given an Old Testament, Psalter, Gospel and Epistle reading.

On most Sunday mornings I preach to you from the Gospels. The parables of and stories about Jesus are usually a little more interesting, and more fun to preach about. But today I’m preaching from Acts. The book of Acts is the story of the earliest church and the way they lived together in the first years. This is a sort of “next chapter” of the Gospel stories. This is how this band of believers began to become something greater than just themselves

This morning’s reading from Acts talks about how they sustained themselves in the earliest days: All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

I really resisted preaching about this passage this morning. I hate preaching about money and about how you should be using the things you have. I make it a point not to know who gives what to this congregation. I don’t want to. And I make it a point not to harangue you to put more in the collection plate. Some weeks you just can’t, and there is absolutely no shame in that. I don’t tell you to give. It makes me feel like a televangelist. And so I say, in the end, don’t listen to any preacher who tells you what you should do with your money.

But as much as that is true, I remember something one of my seminary professors used to say. If you are scared to preach on a particular text, if it makes you uncomfortable, it means you probably need to preach on it.

The Bible says more about the correct treatment of money than it says about a lot of other things. More than it says about heaven. Far more than it says about sex. More than a vast majority of topics. In the end, the stewardship of money, which is how you use it, seemed to matter a lot to the people who wrote the Bible.

The interesting thing is not that they are saying “turn over all your money” to the church. If I said that, I hope you all would walk out the sanctuary doors and find a new pastor. Instead, we are told in this passage about what the earliest believers did. We are told about how they as a community survived in the hardest of times.
They took what they had, and they shared it with one another, and they shared it with those who needed it outside of the church, and they gave thanks for all that they had been given. In a very radical way, they cast their lots in with one another so that they could do ministry to those who needed it most.

There is a church in Washington, DC that takes up an unusual offering on Sunday mornings. They still have a collection plate, but people don’t just put something in. They tell the people that come to worship that if they are in real need, they are free to take something out.

You might think that would make the church and easy target. You could come and just sit on the back row and take everything out when it gets to you. But that’s not what happens. Rarely does anyone take more than they need. And usually, those who you might thing have nothing to give, give something instead of taking.

I’m not suggesting we start that here. But I do think there’s something to be learned there. The people give fearlessly. They give because others need. They give because they receive. They give because they believe something good is happening at that church and they know that they have to be the ones who ensure that it’s there for the people who need it the most. And they give without fear.

It’s hard to give without fear. Especially in this economy. I know how hard it is out there right now.I know there is a lot of anxiety.I know that the impulse is not to give now more than ever, but to try to keep as much as possible for ourself in case of emergency. My friends at non-profits tell me that they are having a particularly hard time making ends meet. People aren’t giving the way they used to even as more people are losing services that they depended upon. They are struggling to do more with less and often turning people away. In the end, the need is becoming greater and greater.

And I think about how the way we give is sometimes so different that was in this earliest church. I think about how when things were so bad for them, far worse than they are for those of us nowadays, they reached in a little deeper and gave to one another and the ones they didn’t even know.

And you know what happened? They didn’t go into the red. They didn’t lose everything. They didn’t die.

Instead they lived. Scripture tells us: the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

They grew.

Yesterday I was helping a friend move. We were nearing the end and she cleaned out her refrigerator. She threw out the products that were opened or about to expire, or already expired. I went and took them out to the dumpster and came back from more trash. When I went back there was a woman, probably in her 80’s, digging through the dumpster and pulling out the expired food. She spoke only Russian, but I could tell what was happening. This was the only way she would eat. I gave her some money, something I rarely do, and I went upstairs to try to get her some more food. When I came back she was gone. But soon another elderly couple appeared in her place doing the same thing.

I remember how that morning I had been looking at my bank account and getting frustrated that I wasn’t able to afford a minor want. It made me feel pretty ashamed that I was so worried about that, than about the woman downstairs who would dig through bags of trash to eat.

And I thought about how that was my work, because I was a Christian. And about how it was the work of the churches. And I thought about that neighborhood. So many churches. Churches I knew. Churches that held on to everything they had out of fear. Churches that thought they couldn’t help her because their membership was dwindling and so were the reserves. Churches that, unless something drastic happens, will be dead in twenty years.

And I read this passage. And I read those lines about what happened. About how they gave, not until it hurt, but until it felt good. And how they grew. The church as we have known it for centuries would never have existed without that first church making the decision to be fearless with what they had, and with the love that Christ gave them.

And so, that is my challenge to you today. How will we cast aside our fears and be fearless in Christ? How will we be owned not by the demons of “do we have enough” but by the love of Christ? How will we show the world outside these doors that grace is real, and that we can be God’s agents of it?

This morning the Psalm was Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” If we really believe that, if we really believe it when we recite it, then we have to believe that it’s true when it comes to stewardship. And we have to believe that in the end we are all here because someone in the church showed us grace of one kind or another. And in the end, it is not our fear, but our joy and our hope and our generosity that help us grow. Amen.