Thursday, February 22, 2007

I am sure that most of you reading this are aware of a term called "church growth." It is not often that you talk positively about "church shrinkage!" But let me digress.

It all goes back to about seven years ago as I dreamed, prayed and worked hard on the design of a worship environment for our new sanctuary. You have to understand, we were about 400 strong in a room that seated 450. We strained to get people seated, the parking lot emptied and usually chastised people for coming to more than one worship gathering! I lovingly and sometimes not so lovingly asked our core group of folks to "sit up front, park way out, and give up your seat!" Oh how I longed for bigger parking lots and more seats!

When we were nearing our move it was pretty clear that our evening worship group called Exchange would need to do something really strange. We would close off half the new space so the 300 or so could fit better for community rather than be scattered among the 1400 seats. We did that, it worked well and the community grew for all kinds of really good reasons. We eventually opened up the other seats and gave some space. Good church growth!

However, our Sunday morning community, called EPIC suffered from some "shrinkage" for some really bad reasons. Wow, what a bummer and what a challenge! We had filled up our space pretty well for a couple of years. Then gradually and in some spurts the numbers dropped and people were comfortably spread all over the place. For years our leaders and staff struggled with some constant comments of; "we don't feel as close, we don't know anyone, something just isn't the same."

Now I will not even begin to say that space is the ultimate reason for all of those things. But in my 37 years of pastoring I have learned a few things about space. It can and does many times dictate "feelings." Close if a proximity thing you just have to design at times. This is true whether you are teaching, small grouping, or worshiping. If interaction and relationship are key it is important for people to be close; not too close of course, but close.

It is sort of like when I used to be at home with my parents around the dinner table; seven of us. When all five boys were gone, I notice mom and dad moved their usual chairs and got closer. Not because they had to, but because they wanted to. I sometimes watch good teachers in a large room move their students closer. It just kind of makes sense.

BUT, we like birds, nest! I find my space, my spot, my seat and I like it. All of us are like that. In one of my classes at church the other night it was a real object lesson. We have 22 students that have met for 8 weeks. We all have "our seats." On this one particular night, my friend Ed came early and sat in my seat up front. He said he needed to in order to help the speaker. Well that was ok, but you know, it felt kind of weird for me to move a row back. But the real amazing thing was the "dominoes" that fell! In the end, we all sat in different seats! There was a real different "feel" that night. Not good or bad but just different. Yet the difference brought some new interaction with other students-----that I believe is good.

I am going to do a really huge thing in a couple of weeks at EPIC Sunday Morning worship gathering. I am going to centralize our seating by cutting it in half. We are going to try a bit of "closeness" for 5 weeks or so and see how it feels. Now dont' get me wrong, I know initially it won't feel good or even be perceived as good. But like in the class, I think given some time it will do the same kind of thing. People meeting and talking with some new people and maybe even feeling a little closer.

I remember visiting a church in Indianapolis a few years back with my wife Sandy. We kind of looked the room over, chose two seats we thought were nice. In a few minutes a very unhappy women approaced us and said, I quote, "you are in my seat." Hum, I didn't know people owned seats in a church! My mistake for sure.

May I call on our community to grow a little by shrinking! Let's be courageous and see what this new environment might do to help us relate to each other God maybe a "little" better. Maybe not a big thing, but who knows, could be.

I sign out today as "the big bird" in the stressed flock hoping we can nest in a new spot!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Missional Journey

In my journey to transform my own thinking about "doing church" if you will, it has become even more challenging to think about mission. I don't mean missions in the traditional sense of the word, but "Mission" in the sense of the purpose of the local church. A local church on mission must look and act differently than one that is totally driven by programs and performance.

I realy liked the steps a church in Texas took in order to revitalize their congregation:

1. To be honest about our current condition. This can be hard for a church with such a storied past.

People kept asking: Why have our long-term members left? When are things going to get back to the way they were? What's wrong with us?

Such questions can squelch even the most sincere brainstorming sessions. The hard truth we've tried to communicate through all of this is that the glory days of the past are exactly that—past glory days. We're not to try to return to them. Garnett will never again be the church it once was. We have to do the difficult thing of letting go of our former glory in order to allow God to do a new thing in us.

2. To relinquish our rights as members to a church building that we are no longer able to pay for by ourselves. The Garnett Church of Christ building is becoming the Garnett Event Center.

Already, several other churches are using our facilities on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon: a Messianic Jewish community, a charismatic Hispanic church, a rock church called Rolling Stone, and a new church plant.

3. To recognize that the most life-giving activities of our church aren't necessarily going to happen in our facility. Church leaders in event-driven and personality-centered churches tend to gauge success by headcount, the number of people who show up. This is what leaders talked about, and subsequently members tended to judge success by how pews and collection baskets were filled.

With Michael Frost (author of Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture) and Alan Hirsch (The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church), we have been forced to ask new questions: What if events of church, personalities of church, and Sunday assembly went away? What would be our view of the Christian life? What would we do as Christians, and who would we be?

4. To learn to be missionaries in our own culture. "we want to be a better neighbor to you and this community." And really, that's the first step to becoming missionaries: getting to know our neighbors' needs.

That's what we're determined to do: equip our congregation to be Christ to neighbors, co-workers, and family members, rather than trying to coax people into signing up for every church program possible and burning families out with church involvement.

Anything aside from a Christ-centered approach is out in favor of teaching one another how to be incarnational presence of Christ, in practical ways in our jobs, neighborhoods, PTAs, and sports teams.

These four steps are challenging; much easier said or written than done!

A way that the missional church is described by some is in "dimensions."

1) upward focused- on God in worship that is passionate
2) inward focused- on community among believers taht is demonstrated in relationships of love and compassion
3) outward focused- on a world that does not yet know God

I have especially been wrestling with the two great obstacles to becoming missional.

1) self-preservation
2) church growth

These obstacles are qute common in making any kind of major change in a local church.

Self-preservation is a huge anchor to the past and to our comfort zones.

Church growth is a huge wall that prevents us from crossing over to transformation rather than attraction.

I have always tried as a leader to help followers see the "both and" as opposed to the "either or" of choices. The three dimensions of a missional church are totally right on and make the local church a powerful force in society. It sort of deflates when only one or two of the dimensions are real.

I know the journey I am on to become more like the original intent of the church rather than the cultural wrapper it now comes in is a marathon and not a sprint! Seems like it is composed of small baby steps. I hate that! But I realize turning around a large congregation like the one I am leading just doesn't react quickly to major changes.

As is always the case, it needs to start with leaders and then work its way to followers. I am reading, praying and intentionally trying to activate plans that will make me more missional. This in turn will be the catalyst for change among followers.

Forgive me Lord when my worship is passionaless. Forgive me Lord when my relationships are not marked by love and compassion. Forgive me Lord when I care more about those who know God rather than those who do not. Break the stronghold of self-preservation in me! Crusth the tendency to be more concerned about attracting people to a building than I am about engaging them in the community.

Daniel Henderson said, "I often tell pastors that the only way to see a turnaround in the church is to focus first on personal renewal and leadership renewal, and then congregational renewal and that will result in mission renewal and structural renewal."

So let it be!