Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Spaghetti or Koinonia

I have been thinking quite a bit about what “community” means. Partially because we have successfully navigated through the season of Lent and are now in the Easter Season. Like most churches we have the spike in attendance on Easter Sunday. (One congregation that sends me their newsletter has a “low Sunday potluck” on the Sunday after easter since there is such an attendance drop)

This year was no different for us. Typically we have about 150 adults on a Sunday and about 45 kids in Sunday School. On Easter we had 283 (But whose counting?? :-) As I looked out over the congregation I noticed that we didn’t have a whole lot of visitors. We have found ourselves in this strange area where we have quite a few families that come one sunday a month or maybe two. When we all show up at the same time there is around 250 of us.

So as we as a congregation are taking steps to build a “community” (see “So how’d we get here?” post) What is it that seems to keep these folks from connecting more fully but not willing to leave all together?

As I think about it (and most of this post is just my processing, please post any comments you have!) I think there are some principles of church growth that apply. We see ourselves as a much more friendly place than we are in reality (reality seems to be a tough place for us to live) We do a great job of welcoming and making those who wander in feel at home. 4 weeks later - not so much. We’ve been trained to be friendly to visitors just like the books say, but after your not “new” say 4-6 visits we tend to ignore you and a year later I hear lots of “what happened to that couple.... what's their name?.... you know the woman with the thing and her husband... with the kids... you know .... what happened to them?” I assume that's part of it. Is it just that the demographic that we are seeing come are just more sporadic? Could be...

For 20-30 something year old parents with small kids and who have little Church back ground or are trying to rediscover something of a faith they value, one Sunday a month might be pretty good. ... I don’t think I buy that one.

I guess I’m continually challenged by the fact that I don’t believe a life of faith in Jesus Christ can be lived in isolation or anonymously. I’ve always been troubled by what a lot of congregations call “koinonia groups” (If your congregation has them I apologize) They trouble me because in my experience with them, they have little to do with “koinonia” in my opinion. Usually they have more to do with superficial spaghetti dinners and photocopied fill-in-the-blanks Bible studies. Not the groups that share their lives and build communities of support and growth. When crisis of faith or the dark night of the soul closes in, I don’t feel like its those superficial groups that provide an anchor or link back to Christ’s body.

My fear is that as I see these people tentatively connected to us, they are on there way to disappearing rather than testing the waters to join us in a deeper way. I may be wrong.

I hope God reveals to us more what it means to genuinely care for each other, and that we would be a community that embodies Christ to one another and our world.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Prayers for my sister

Some of you know the problems my sister has been having over the last few years with nerve damage in her head and face.For those of you that don't know, my sister Nancy, has had severe pain on the side of her face and temple for a few years. At first the pain was spuratic, but has increasingly become chronic. Even her hair hurt. After several specialists and chasing down any diagnosis that might bring some relief, she was accepted into the Mayo Clinic last month. PRAISE GOD they seem to have come up with a diagnosis and treatment. The scary part is that it involves brain surgery to move an artery that is pressing against the trigeminal (sp?) nerve at the base of her brain. Nancy has been in such pain for so long I pray that this gives her relief and her life back! She will be flying back to AZ to undergo the surgery on the 28th.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

So, how'd we get here?

A few of you have been asking how life at Orchards UMC is going since the change in our Worship format, and a few of you have been asking how we got to the point in making the change so I thought I'd offer this:

Back in September of last year the Administrative Council members, and some of our congregation members who have held offices for some time in the past gathered to discuss what the future of our congregation looked like.

Part of the motivation for the meeting was give us some information I had learned while at an Alice Mann seminar regarding her book Raising the Roof, I had been invited to attend by our conference. As part of that discussion we looked at the statistics from our church over the last 20 years. We noticed that there was a trend that had developed roughly every 5 years or so. The congregation would have periods of growth and reach a “glass ceiling” in terms of attendance at around 190. We would hold that # for 6 months to a year, then slowly decline over the next two years back to between 150-160. There would be a change in Pastors or some other event, that would generate some momentum and we would start the cycle over again. We noticed that we had just come through a year and a half with attendance average of 180 and were beginning to see the decline.

There were quite a few possible reasons for the cycle ranging from pastoral leadership styles, to facility limitations, to the state of the economy and neighborhoods we serve and our structure, all of which play a role. Much of the day was centered on breaking this cycle we found our selves in. A huge part of the process is defining who we are, and who we want to be.

It seemed that breaking that cycle left us two viable options. The first was be a church of around 150 people... not just a church of 150 but a healthy church of around 150 people. Instead of ramping our resources and energy into increasing attendance, what would a healthy congregation of 150 look like. We talked about becoming a church that was spiritually mature, involved in the social holiness that is the bench mark of our tradition, and equipping individual members to be ministers with OUMC as their home base. The second alternative was to shift the structure of our church to move towards growth. Those conversations revolved around breaking our group of 150+ people that seemed to be too big to have meaningful relationships with each other and grow, into several smaller groups (or cells as some consultants refer to them). The idea was that three groups of 50 people have a better chance of building genuine relationships with each other and more potential for growth. This second option had a lot more emotional implications to it. It meant having to give up the notion of “knowing everyone in the church” (which we were already too big to do) It meant smaller groups that shared their lives and spiritual journeys together, instead of the anonymity in worship with a larger group. Some of us loved the feeling of being part of that larger group, and even had a very deeply held belief that a worship service with an attendance of 160 was “better” than a service of 50. The hardest part was that this shift meant that our church would need to be defined by something other than our Sunday Morning Worship Service, which had been our identity for about 125 years. Our identity would have to refocus to our relationships with each other outside the worship service. That meant building a community of spiritual friends that met in each others homes and shared their lives. As we talked we realized that that refocusing and creation of smaller groups also allowed us to do the things we thought a healthy smaller congregation would do.

So the gathered group decided to pursue the more difficult and emotionally charged path of breaking our single cell up in the hopes of building genuine community with potential for growth, rather than remain the smaller congregation. We asked our Administrative Council to adopt a three service format that allows us to give our kids an entire hour together for Sunday School (Extreme Faith Explorers as we call it) and allow us to create some Adult Education classes. Now instead of a single group, we have three made up of about 50 people each beginning to build relationships with each other (actually its about 70, 40, 40) We are embarking on more gatherings in our homes, worship services that not only foster meaningful worship times, but facilitate building a community of spiritual friends. Our prayer is that we wouldn’t be identified by the building we use, or the time that we worship, but by the spirit of God that draws us together and out into our world. It is a big step for us and in some ways a bit painful as well... Change always is.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Lent, Coca-cola and Hope

Welcome to decreased blood pressure day as I like to refer to it. It’s the first day back in the office after Holy Week and Easter. One of the things that they don’t tell you in training for the ministry, is that in most ministry structures the pastor is going to be doing so much stuff that the sacredness or specialness of some of the seasons we celebrate are going to be somewhat muted, and in some cases set aside all together.
Colleges who have larger staffs than I, or many more volunteers than I , and more organic “loosy goosy” structures seem to note the same experience. I have the same problem with the sabbath. Sunday’s are not the relaxing day devoted to God and health that they should be, for obvious reasons. So for me my sabbath is Monday. (and please don’t make comments about Sabbath being saturday and that I’m a Bible perverter because I don’t keep “the Sabbath” as God commanded, unless you are blind and handless because they caused you to sin and you removed them, or celebrated the year of jubilee anytime recently... I’m still working on my bank on that one)
I need to turn a corner here quickly, I didn’t mean for this to be a rant about the business of clergy during holy seasons, I wanted to reflect a little on my experience of Lent this year. (and by the way Easter worship services were AMAZING at Orchards UMC this year!)
As before mentioned, Lent was wacko crazy for me this year. I serve on the board of Ordained Ministry for the conference I am a part of, so as Lent began I was spending considerable time reading volumes of written materials, watching video recorded worship services, and reading bible studies prepared by our candidates for ordination, not to mention several days of travel to interview those candidates with the board. I also serve on the board of congregational development for the conference I belong to and we re in the midst of some rather milestone marking refocusing for our conference, that I believe, if our church’s and clergy take it seriously, could make a major impact on the way we “do ministry” in the Pacific Northwest Conference of United Methodism. Also my local congregation is in the midst of redefining itself and part of that redefinition is the way we respond to God’s call through our stewardship, and specifically our financial stewardship, so working with some wonderful and incredibly bright and caring people from my local congregation on this issue was another set of responsibilities on my plate. So Lent was for me a bundle of meetings, and scheduling calendars, doing the pastoral work my church needs from me and squishing in some personal time to keep my own soul and family healthy. Grace abounded for me this Lent, because I sure wasn’t adding anything to my life and routines that I could in anyway be mistaken that I was some how earning God’s grace (hmmm avoiding heresy by apathy and diversion... I think I see a book in the future, now if I can work revelation and demons into it I’d have a hit!)
So with all that being said there was one discipline that I was being faithful to during this lent; “self denial” - not through anything monumental but simply by giving up Coca-Cola. I admit it is small, and for the most part I give up coke for lent as something I can joke around with the kids of my congregation about. I have been greeted by cases of coke on my door step, or passenger seat of my car or piled on my desk on Easter morning by wonderful parishioners. This year in the midst of the business and hustle and bustle of life and work, that simple act of self denial reminded me that there was something bigger going on in the world. On those evenings when I had to run through the drive through at McD’s and I would order Ice Tea or water instead of a coke , it reminded me that it was Lent and that there was something at work in the world that is so easily missed. In that very simple reminder of “oh ya... Its Lent ..I’ll have Water thank you” God’s spirit touched my heart, and the assurance that God’s grace through Jesus works in my life even on those busiest of days was incredibly real.

I hope your Lent was eye opening and renewing, and I hope your Easter was filled by the spirit of the God who loved us enough to come get us.

:::lifting a Coca-cola glass::: SALUTE