Friday, December 11, 2009

Does Your Marriage Strengthen Your Faith?

I think the idea that a shared faith life can strengthen your marriage is pretty common, but I've been musing about the reverse:

Do you intentionally look to your marriage as a "platform" from which you pursue your faith? Put another way, is your primary life partner your primary faith partner?

I came to this from a curious direction. I think a lot about small groups and house churches. More recently I encountered suggestions for "Three is Enough" groups as well as "Church of Two." One thing that seemed to be in common across all of these is that you have to begin by finding one or more people to team up with, and then spend some time building a significant relationship of trust. With that foundation established, you can work together to pursue your faith with support, encouragement and sharing of ideas, insights etc.

Eventually, I wondered why not start with an established relationship of trust that a great many of us already have in place: our spouse? And I'm not talking here about sharing a life of faith as a way to strengthen the marriage, though it certainly will. Rather, the focus is on intentionally turning to the marriage relationship as a resource for pursuing faith. After all, there we hopefully already have someone who knows us well enough to "speak into our life" as they say. Hopefully, with enough trust built up to be able to "speak (and hear) the truth in love." And generally, someone you can get quality time with fairly easily (even though we often don't.)

Wouldn't that be easier than trying to find someone, find a place and time to meet, and start building a deep, faith-based relationship?

I'd love to hear from others who have though about this, or better yet begun to live that way. What have your experiences been? What kind of practices have you found helpful (or not.) What challenges have you encountered?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

How My Mom Introduced Me to God

Part Advent craft for the family, part spiritual autobiography - how's that for a multi-purpose blog post?

One Christmas season when I was a child, my mom had the family do a special activity at home. She set up a little doll-size manger with a small pile of straw next to it and invited us all to "prepare a place for the baby Jesus." We were to add straw one piece at a time over the weeks of Advent. And we were to only add straw when we had done an act of kindness for someone, anonymously.

These good deeds were to be kept secret. It was just between us... and God.

It was a nice activity, and fun in a way that appealed to a young boy who got permission to be sneaky for a change. I don't recall that we ever did it again in the years after that, but by the 25th I do recall there was a decent amount of straw in the manger for the Jesus doll to lie in.

Looking back, it has seemed to me that something really significant got catalyzed in my spiritual life back then. The experience of sharing a secret with God - and essentially engaging in this "spiritual practice" over several weeks - was, as far as I can recall, my earliest clear encounter with God as an actual "other" I could relate to. My first sense of the "Thou" in my "I-and-Thou" relationship (thank you, Martin Buber, for giving me that language some years later.)

So this year, I decided to bring back the manger. I made a little video of how to build one with my daughter Rebecca that you can find below. I think she's already got a stronger spiritual sensitivity that I did at her age, but if this helps to encourage her growth (or mine, or any of the rest of us in the household), well, it's all good.

And anything that encourages more intentional acts of kindness is worth a shot!

Blessings on you and yours this season. May you all share good secrets.

How to Make a Manger from Timothy Thompson on Vimeo.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Sticking Point: Social Density

A Facebook group I belong to associated with Luther Seminary recently started a discussion on this question:

What are the sticking points of your community of faith that keep you all from becoming a missional congregation?

I thought I'd take a crack at that and here's what I posted:

The sticking point? If only there were just one! I see a host of impediments to the emergence of a missional culture - everything from clericalism and Biblical illiteracy to the hyperindividualism and consumeristic ethos of our civic culture. But there does seem to be one factor that exacerbates all the others and is the place I keep coming back to when I try to decide where to invest my energies.

There is a general lack of substantive relationships.

You can easily unveil this by looking at the one-anothers that describe healthy Christian community. For example, how common are relationships in our churches that are substantive enough to allow people to actually "admonish one another?" Not very.

Culture change - like faith itself - travels from person to person like a virus. You can stop a virus cold (so to speak) by isolating people from each other. Similarly, our community relationships are generally too distant to support a culture-change epidemic. We don't "breathe each others air" enough to transmit anything.

Our primary gatherings may look like good places to catch something - Sunday services are something of a crowd scene. But there is very little relational contact that can take place in that setting. You may catch a cold by passing the peace, but you won't catch a missional culture that way.

Invest in small groups? Of course. But that's typically done as an add-on to Sunday services, as icing on the cake of everything else that's already entrenched in conventional congregational life. Most of our time & energy goes towards the large gathering which tends to have a small impact on a large number of people. Small groups, that have a larger impact on a smaller number, get the leftovers. That's a fundamental mis-alignment. (To see it graphically as a napkin diagram, go here:

To switch metaphors from infection, think in terms of a nuclear chain reaction. To make that take place, the atoms have to be at a high density, packed very tightly together. Then as the neutrons fly, they release even more and the reaction multiplies.

Our "social density" is not high enough to support a "chain reaction" of missional culture change. In contrast, that's just what you see when the Church is "packed very tightly together" under persecution, often resulting in "explosive" growth.

So if I had to pick one factor above the others to focus on, I guess it would be social density. That's why I continue to be drawn to the house church movement - an eminently Lutheran expression and a subject for another time!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Sustainable Pastoring, Sustainable Church?

One of the blogs I follow is by Todd Heistand. He is a tri-vocational pastor (not counting the additional two vocations of husband and father!) and his community is called The Well which is in Feasterville, PA. (Not to be confused with The Well in Orange County, CA that I have blogged about previously, which is a community intentionally transitioning into a network of cells.)

Todd recently posted a very open description of his weekly schedule and wondered aloud about it's sustainability long term.

In my mind, I think he's raising a broader question, not about the sustainability of pastoral life per se but about the sustainability of a congregational life that's built upon unsustainable leadership expectations. Maybe part of the problem is what we assume is required for congregational life, in particular, weekly large-group presentational worship services.

Here is how I presented the question to him:

Todd – I echo the comments above, grateful for your transparency.

I also wonder about sustainability, but from a different angle. If this is what it takes to provide leadership to a missional community, then is the model itself sustainable for the Church?

I’ve mulled this over quite a bit and my thinking has been strongly challenged by the simple/organic/house church expressions that I’ve encountered. It’s left me wondering if we’re encountering a stumbling block in our assumption that we have to offer a large group gathering every week. I do think people should be gathering weekly, but that could be in the home/small groups. But what if the larger community gathered, say, monthly for something more like a traditional worship service with sermon, liturgy, music etc.?

So my question to you is this: if your community went to a monthly gathering, would that make enough difference in the workload that your current tri-vocational + family lifestyle would be sustainable over the long haul?

If you're interested, you can follow that conversation on his blog though I'll probably cross post some of that here as well. But I'm interested in hearing from my readers.

What do you think about the sustainability issue, both pastoral and congregational, and my suggestion to have weekly small gatherings supported by a monthly larger service?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Advent Conspiracy

If you'd like to share some ideas on ways to make Christmas more meaningful this year (and less stressful) click on over to this little blog I set up for my congregation and friends. There are links there to the main Advent Conspiracy site, as well as one to Rethinking Christmas. Good stuff!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Workers - Video

The confirmation students at my church presented The Workers in a dramatic version, and added impact by setting it into our contemporary context. They did a great job, as you can see in this video.

The Workers from Tim Thompson on Vimeo.

The Workers - Conclusion

As the line advanced, the workers became more and more angry. John felt deeply ashamed at the way they were treating the owner; grabbing the money out of his hand and making angry remarks. Finally, there were only three of them left to receive their wages. The first one stood before the owner defiantly with arms crossed. "So!" he said, "You think my work is no better than what you get from some bunch cripples and weaklings? You think a whole day in the sun by me is worth as much as an hour in the shade by some lazy beggar? Is that what you're trying to say with your lousy money?" Then he grabbed the money out of the owner's hand and said; "Let me tell you something. I'll take this money because I worked for it and I deserve it. But I'll rot in hell before I waste my time working for you again!" and he stormed off.

Then, the second man stepped up to the owner and stood before him. He calmly took the money out of the owner's hand, turned the coins over in his palm, and then let them fall between his fingers into the dust at the owner's feet. "I don't need your money." he said, looking him right in the eyes. "My pride is worth more than a lousy day's wages." "Oh?" said the owner softly, "And is it worth more than the hunger of your wife and children, who have no bread to eat?" The man's face flushed with rage and he stood there stiff before the owner. Then he spat on him, and walked away.

Now there was no one left but John, and the owner of the vineyard, and John's eyes were brimming with tears. "I don't know how they can say those things," he said, "when you've done nothing but good to them, and to all of us! You came into our town and offered us work when we were nearly starving. You gave us food and water while we were working, and time to rest. You even hired people who couldn't work the whole day, or could hardly work at all, and then gave every one of us a full day's pay! I... I just want to thank you." he said, taking his hand, "Thank you, for all you've done for us today." And then he turned, and brushing a tear away from his eye, he began to walk home.

But the owner said to him; "Wait!" And when John turned around, he saw him smiling with his hand outstretched, holding John's pay.

"You'll need this to buy bread for your family." he said.

John smiled and took the money, and then the owner of the vineyard said; "John, the harvest is great, but there aren't many workers. Come back again tomorrow. There will always be work for you here."

So John went home and shared the good news with his family. And from that day on he worked gladly in the vineyard, and he and his family were never hungry or thirsty again.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Workers - Part 3

When the call came to go back to work, John got right up. Rested and refreshed, he was eager to work, and his body felt strong again. As he was heading out into the fields, he thought he heard someone calling his name. He turned and looked, and in the distance he saw still more people coming from the town to work in the vineyard. And there near the front, calling and waving with his one good hand, was Philip. John smiled, and waved, and wiped gently at his eyes as he headed back to work.

For the rest of the day, John worked in one of the outer fields, and as he brought in his last load, he was again filled with amazement. He saw young children and old people working in the vineyard. He saw Philip harvesting with his one good hand, and even the poor beggar from town who couldn't walk had been given a job dipping water from the well for those who were thirsty. It was almost too much to believe. It looked like every man, woman and child in town had been given work to do.

John stood by, staring and lost in wonder at the scene until he realized that the steward had been ringing a bell to call the workers in to receive their pay. Now he was already lining them up, according to how long they had worked, with the ones hired last at the front of the line. John hurried over, but he ended up being the last one in line anyway. Everyone was pretty quiet after the day's work, but once the owner started handing out the pay, a commotion got started at the front of the line. The word spread like lightning. The owner was paying these people a full day's wages! And some of them had only worked for one hour. Now everyone was excited, and the people in front of John in line started to say; "Imagine how much we'll get if he's paying those others a full day's wages!" But as the line advanced, they found out that the owner was paying everyone a full day's wages, regardless of how long they had worked.

Now the workers near the end of the line, who had been in the vineyard all day, started scowling. Their mood grew dark, and they muttered, and some even cursed the owner under their breath. John could hear them in front of him and it bothered him. Something didn't seem right about them talking that way. After all, the owner wasn't cheating them! Why couldn't they be happy for the other people from the town?

One of them was saying he couldn't believe the owner wasn't going to pay them more than those other people. John replied cautiously; "But, didn't you agree to work for a regular day's pay?"

The man snapped back; "Oh! And I suppose you think it's funny that he's made fools of us all, working so hard when they get off so easy!"

John didn't say anything more after that.


Monday, November 23, 2009

The Workers - Part 2

Near the center of town, there was a corner where the people who were looking for work would go, and if someone needed workers for the day, they could come there and find them. When John arrived, there were already several people standing there, and before long there was a small crowd. A few were being hired here and there, but with so many people out of work it looked like there might not be enough jobs to go around again today. But then a man came walking in on the east road, and he stood up on a step and said; "I am the owner of the vineyard to the east, beyond the river. The time has come for the harvest and I need workers. Any of you who want jobs can go now to my vineyard and the steward will give you work to do."

John was overjoyed! He could hardly believe it! All these people hired by this one man... could it really be true? He wasn't going to take any chances, so he was off like a shot, running down the east road. And as he ran, watching as the sky was beginning to brighten ahead of him, he laughed at himself, because he hadn't even thought to ask how much he would be paid.

When he got to the vineyard, his eyes opened wide and his mouth fell open. The vineyard was enormous! No wonder the owner had hired everyone in the marketplace, there was so much work to be done! He wished so much that he could send word back to Philip in town... maybe even he could get some kind of work here today. But he didn't have time. The steward was making job assignments, and John went right to work with a crew in one of the nearer fields.

After he had been working for quite a while, he paused to wipe the sweat from his brow, and he noticed that in the distance, another big group of people was coming from the town to the vineyard. "Well!" he thought, "This is certainly a great day for the hungry people in town! The owner is still hiring even though the morning is half over." He wondered if Philip might be in this group, and he wanted to go and see, but he had to let it go. He turned back to his work.

Midday finally came, and there was a break for lunch. John was feeling pretty weak by now, and as he walked towards the well by the owner's house, he couldn't help but think about the bread he had left at home that morning. "Maybe..." he thought, "one of the other workers will take pity on me and share his lunch with me." But when he got to the well, he couldn't believe his eyes! There was the steward of the vineyard handing out big loaves of bread and fish to anyone who wanted them! The owner of the vineyard was feeding all of the workers, and there was more than enough for all of them! John ate his fill for the first time in a long time, and rested under a shady tree.

Part 3

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Workers - Part 1

Somewhere back around 1991 I wrote a dramatic interpretation of Jesus' parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) in which I added some extra characters to the story. I recently had the opportunity to share it with my current congregation and thought it might be something others would appreciate as well. I'll post it in for installments. Hope you like it & would love to hear comments.

The Workers - Part 1

It was dark, still an hour at least before dawn, and the air was cold and quiet when John woke up. He listened, searching the silent hour for the sounds of the approaching day. Outside, he heard distant marching as the Roman guards patrolled the streets. Inside his one room home, he heard his wife and children breathing deeply in their sleep, huddled together with him on the floor. John wished that he could go back to sleep, but his thoughts wouldn't let him rest. He knew what this day held for him: the desperate, desperate search for work ‑ any kind of work ‑ that went on day after day. Oh, how he ached to have a real job! He remembered the days when he had been working at the granary, together with his brother‑in‑law Philip. It was so wonderful to have a steady job, to be able to sleep securely, knowing that there would be food on the table. But then that day had come, when one of the grain carts collapsed, and crushed Philip's hand. The foreman blamed Philip for the accident and fired him, and when John tried to stick up for him... he lost his job too. Now they had to find work wherever they could, always living from one day to the next. And some people wouldn't hire John because they thought he was a troublemaker. And Philip... well, it's hard to get a job with only one good hand.

Although it was still dark outside, John was beginning to hear a few voices out on the street, so he got out of bed. His empty stomach growled, and he looked at the few pieces of bread they had left, but he decided not to eat any. "We're almost out of food again" he thought, and left the house to search for work.

Part 2

Friday, November 13, 2009

SOAP Journaling: A Resource for Biblical Reflection

Early in 2003 I encountered a simple devotional resource that I've been using ever since. Created by Wane Cordeiro of New Hope Christian Fellowship, it's called the Life Journal, but I always think of it as my SOAP journal because of the acronym it works with:
S - Scripture
O - Observation
A - Application
P - Prayer
Simple enough. On the blank pages of the journal, you write down a verse or passage of scripture that hits you in some way. Make a few observations about it - maybe the context of the verse, or questions it raises - whatever you'll need later to recall what was going on and why it caught your attention. Then you write about how this applies to your life. That's the kicker... it keeps you mindful that you're not just reading to read, but to be changed. This is underscored (literally) by the phrase printed lightly at the bottom of each page of the journal;

"How will I be different today because of what I have just read?"

You finish up with the P for prayer, writing a prayer that relates to your entry.

Then comes my favorite part. There are pages at the front for you to create a Table of Contents of your journal, recording date, text, title of your entry and keywords. Over time, you generate your own library of biblical reflections that you can return to and rediscover through the index you generate.

One other thing I love to mention about the Life Journal is the daily reading plan it includes. There's certainly no shortage of reading plans out there, but Cordeiro has structured this one to present the Old Testament narrative chronologically. For example, you read the sections of Kings and Chronicles that deal with the same incidents on the same day, rather than reading all the way through Kings and then some weeks later going back over those events in the Chronicles version.

This has several benefits. It makes the sense of following a story much clearer. It also lets you see how the different authors sometimes bring strikingly different perspectives to things. (For the most glaring example I know of, compare 1 Samuel 24:1 to 1 Chronicles 21:1.) The narrativizing of the readings also allows Cordeiro to sprinkle the Psalms throughout and this often makes them easier to understand as well. Similarly, he's placed the prophetic books in their narrative context vis-a-vis the historical books. The New Testament readings are also re-sequenced somewhat, though I confess I haven't caught all the logic at work behind his arrangement there. Reading about four chapters a day, the plan takes you through the OT once and NT twice in a year.

Plus they're cheap - $6.50 each, less in bulk.

It's a good tool. I highly recommend it.

Home-Based Faith Formation

An interesting conversation has been taking place on Facebook that I wanted to share with you. Here are some excerpts:

Chris: I'm amazed at how many congregations are challenging parents to invest in their kid's faith formation. Almost viral actually!

Melissa: Why are you amazed? That's a good thing, right?

Chris: It's a GREAT thing!

Tim: (That's me) I think it's great too. Sadly, somewhere along the line we got into a mode culturally in the church of "outsourcing" faith formation from the home to the sanctuary.

Melissa: That's what I thought! I am so happy to be teaching my children & husband about FAITH.

Susan: And watch how parent's faith will grow expotentially as they teach their children:)

Lisa: And maybe the parents will start investing in their own faith formation as well.

Tim: Being forced to teach is one of the most effective ways to learn. So home-based faith formation will absolutely be the best thing for both kids and parents. Clergy (and congregation) can then serve in the "equipping the saints for ministry" mode ( See Ephesians 4). Also, HBFF sets you up for both "vertical" and "horizontal" transmission as in viral infections. Vertical is from one generation directly to the next. Horizontal is among peers: imagine couples sharing ideas & issues with each other about how to raise their kids. In the peer-to-peer conversations all kinds of ideas, values and beliefs can get transmitted.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Catalyzing new communities? Thinking about it?

Those of you who are looking for kindred spirits to connect with as you plant or dream of planing new missional communities may want to check our TransFORM. It's a newly forming Ning-based social network. Here's a chunk from their About page. If you join, I'd be delighted to connect with you there.

TransFORM is an international, trans-denominational missional community formation network:
  • international — primarily focusing on the United States context, where the majority of our members/partners live and work, but intentionally involving international partners, as well
  • trans-denominational — working across denominational lines, in partnership with existing denominations, as well as with independent non-denominational groups
  • missional — participating with God in God’s holistic mission to restore all of creation
  • formational — contributing to the formation of vibrant communities of practice that in turn contribute to the formation of robust disciples of Jesus Christ
The purpose of TransFORM is to bring together men and women who are on the verge of starting new communities (i.e., community catalysts) or are already cultivating new communities and to give them the encouragement and resources they need to get started and be sustainable:
  • by providing training in missional community development, practical start-up issues, and theological engagement
  • by connecting community catalysts with potential support structures
  • by helping community catalysts negotiate complicated and challenging support structure relationships and hurdles
  • to link community catalysts with mentors/spiritual directors
  • Organize regional gatherings to bring together missional practitioners with those interested in forming new missional communities
  • Partner with denominations/networks/groups to put on these regional gatherings and provide other resources and connections for community catalysts
  • Develop other resources to encourage missional community formation
  • Build and sustain momentum, share best practices and other learnings, provide mutual encouragement and exchange of ideas, and develop emerging leaders

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Well - A Congregation that Became a Network

From time to time I come across examples of conventional congregations that literally left their buildings in order to transition to a network of house churches. One such example is The Well, which is based in Orange County, CA but has recently branched out by planting a community in Denver Colorado. You can read their whole story to date here but I've lifted out a couple of tasty tidbits for you below. The story is told by their pastor, and the first excerpt comes shortly after he had come to the congregation which was still in a building.
I soon discovered that although the church had almost a million dollars in the bank, the money was untouchable. They were convinced that cash would someday buy land so they could build a new building. Perhaps they forgot that a million dollars would not even get them an acre of ground in Orange County. Nonetheless, the funds were off limits, and I was left to figure out how the church could afford its $5,000 per month rent. I felt like I was steering a sinking ship, filled with untouchable cargo that would surely capsize us sooner or later....

I got online and decided to Google the words “house” and “church.” My heart started to race as I saw thousands upon thousands of websites and articles listed before me. I dove in and couldn’t read the blogs and articles fast enough, especially those by house church advocate Wolfgang Simpson. I was immediately obsessed and terrified all at the same time. I had no idea what this surge of energy and excitement meant, but I continued to seek out more information. I talked with a man named Mike Goff who had already begun a house church. For three hours, he described how his church family would meet in each other’s homes for corporate worship and fellowship—and then go fix the neighbor’s fence together....

We realized that the Church was everyone’s responsibility, not just the pastor’s. And everything a “normal” church did—missions, study, growth, evangelism, and so on—each person could do, because their change of venue did not negate the responsibilities and privileges of any other church....

So what do I do now as “pastor” of The Well? Since our beginnings in 2005, my part has transitioned from spiritual guru to church planter. As new branches of The Well form throughout homes in Orange County, I will typically stay for a couple of months until the gathering has a solid foundation, and then let go....

But not every church plant is the same. In fact, there is one gathering whose door I have not even darkened, because I have a sense that my presence might actually snuff out what God is doing there. The Church is certainly not about me....

I am now convinced that many other congregations in America are being held back from actually being the Church because of something as simple as a building. While mortgage payments, capital campaigns, custodial duties, and even well-structured programs are not bad in and of themselves, those things can tie us down and prevent many from following God’s footprints....

Like Lazarus, do you hear God calling you to, “Come forth!”? Is it time to strip down to the bare essentials and see your local body resurrected to become church all over again?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Celebrate Kisten by Alleviating Poverty

October 17th is a significant day for two reasons. It's my wife Kisten's birthday as well as the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

That may seem like an awkward pairing, but it's not. Let me tell you why.

Kisten cares about the poor. When she turned 50, as a part of that celebration she asked friends and family to donate rice to the hungry in Vietnam as her birthday present. Her goal was to give one ton of rice for her birthday, and she did! In the photo at right, you can see her holding a 25lb bag of rice. She's standing in a little "cage" I built to show visually what a ton of rice would look like.

So once again, I invite those of you who know Kisten to celebrate her life by helping her to bless people living in poverty.

Any way you choose to do that is fine of course - follow your heart! And you don't need to tell us about it, although that's a delight and an encouragement to hear. If you want, you could post an anonymous comment on this blog for that. But if you do want a suggestion, here are two that I know are close to her heart.

Our friends at the Catalyst Foundation work tirelessly to bless the poor in Vietnam, and Kisten has served on one of their Aid Expeditions. (Our family is going on the Fall 2010 expedition together.) Among their projects is a focus on whole communities that live in garbage dumps like Kien Giang and often lose their daughters to the sex trade. But that is slowly changing as Catalyst builds schools there and works to develop those communities to break the cycle of poverty. You can give to them directly, or in connection with America's Giving Challenge here.

Closer to home, Kisten and our family have provided Christmas gifts to financially troubled refugee families through the Southeast Asian Ministry (SeAM) of the Saint Paul Area Synod. We've done this each year for several years, and it's been an amazing blessing to us as we are able to meet and spend some time with the families each time as we bring the gifts. To hear their stories and receive their hospitality is priceless. If you live in the Twin Cities, I encourage you to take part in this great program. They are taking registrations now to match families with donors in time for the holidays.

So there you go - a birthday celebration gone global in the best way. I hope you can join the party. And before I forget...

Happy birthday, honey! I'm glad you're here.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Mainline Decline and a Radical Response

Phillip Clayton, who teaches at Claremont School of Theology and leads a Transforming Theology project, recently posted some reflections from a conference that explored the reasons for mainline denominational decline. The article concluded:

"Effective answers to the current situation will require us either revivify the older beliefs and institutions or to invent radically new forms of Christian community."

Well, I had some thoughts, both on the why of decline and on a radical response, so I put up two comments on his blog and thought I'd share them here as well.

First comment:

Re. the original question “Why? … what has changed..?” to account for the decline, I offer this analogy.

Consider a pond. It grows larger when the inflow exceeds the outflow.

Mainline denominations (like my own Lutheran tribe) previously grew through immigration from the old country and childbirth. (My believing parents had 6 children: 400% church growth!). In addition, societal pressures “herded” people into church as a necessary entry point into civic community, as you noted in point 1 of the initial post.

All of these have changed and no longer feed people automatically into our congregations. The “tributaries” have largely dried up. One additional tributary is conspicuous by its absence: Evangelism. It seems never to have been a substantial feeder to the mainline pond. It’s been easier to rely on the other tributaries.

On the outflow side, there has also been change. People still die, of course, presumably at more or less the same rate. (If anything there’s been increased longevity which prolongs the life of the pond.) What’s changed is the erosion of the banks that have kept the water in place. The pond “leaks” like never before. Again, this is related to the sociological landscape you mentioned in 1 above. It is no longer a scandal for people to leave the church and have no formal “institutional” spiritual life.

So: less inflow, more outflow; shrinking pond.

Second comment:

Re. your second question: “HOW radical do the changes need to be to respond to the reality of the situation that the mainline is facing today?”

Pretty radical I’d say.

For starters, we’ll have to discover how to do evangelism in our current context. Just doing evangelism at all will be a big leap for a lot of us! (Among Lutherans, it’s often noted that we invite someone to church, on average, once every 20 years. Maybe 30.) Add to that the fact that our context is radically different than what we’ve known and it’s a tall order.

But more than that, I think we need a radical revision in the way we “do church.” (That really should be “the way we be church” which is unfortunately awkward to say.)

Conventional congregational life – across the denominations and across the decades of decline – centers around a weekly large group gathering. For most, this is their primary if not sole experience of Christian community. Yet in these gatherings, it is essentially impossible to experience the “one anothers” that are truly at the heart of being a people sharing a life of faith together. That kind of substantive community requires smaller groups to flourish.

We invest vast amounts of time, energy and money into maintaining a weekly event, in the hope that substantive community will arise around it.

We need to invert that. We need to invest primarily into nurturing small, self-reproducing faith communities where people actually grow as disciples. That’s a radical change.

Whether this results in larger gatherings arising from the small communities or not is secondary, icing on the cake.

Can existing, conventional congregations can make that kind of transition? It seems doubtful, though it would be exciting to try. Whether they can serve as a launching pad for new expressions of Christian community seems more likely, and I’m hopeful there. But whether they can or not, I think these communities are on their way, thank God. We need them. We have a lot of Kingdom work to do!

Driving as a Spiritual Practice

Christine Sine has collected a whole set of posts from people about "What is a Spiritual Practice?" It includes reflections on a whole host of things from running and throwing parties, to smoking, sex and yes, driving.

The driving post caught my attention and I encourage you to check it out here. The author finds six different ways in which we can recognize the spiritual dimensions of this daily activity that often feels empty... something we just have to do in between important things.

I wanted to add one of my own, so here is what I wrote as a comment there:

Just found your wonderful post by way of Christine Sine’s collection on spiritual practices.

I stumbled into driving as spiritual practice first by way of confession.

I noticed that when I merge onto the freeway, I often get irritated if people don’t make at least some effort to let me in. Then when I’m in the right lane, I get irritated by people trying to merge if they don’t take the initiative and end up making me speed up or slow down! I am totally self-centered, and change my sense of the “rules of the road” so that it’s always the other person’s job to make the merge work!

What a sinner. ;) I thank God I can laugh at my self-centered self.

But since then, as I’ve made it my job to intentionally facilitate other people’s merges, I’ve started to hear a phrase from John 14:2 “I go to prepare a place for you.” The phrase is curiously out of context, but even so it has become a part of my spiritual practice of driver’s hospitality.

And, lucky me, I get to engage in this practice over, and over, and over, and over again… every day!!

And blessedly, I am generally less irritated now.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Greenhouse Training, September 25-27

(Please note: since this post was originally put up the organizers have decided to re-scheduled the Greenhouse training. Please let me know if you'd like to be informed directly when a new date has been set. FP)

I'd like to invite anyone living in or near the Twin Cities to join me for the Greenhouse Training we're hosting at my church in September. It's a Friday evening, Saturday morning and afternoon, and Sunday afternoon September 25-27.

What's a Greenhouse?

In a nutshell, a Greenhouse training does two things:
  • Helps participants to reground their thinking about Church in "organic" terms as a simple, living organism that readily grows and reproduces. Much of the time at the training is spent exploring how that looks in practice, both as outreach and as discipling believers.

  • Invites participants to follow up on the training by gathering monthly through the following year for encouragement and supportive accountability as they begin to pursue this kind of "missional living" in the context of natural relationships.
I attended a Greenhouse a year or so ago and highly recommend it from that experience. The cost ranges from $110 to $150. It's worth it.

For more general information, registration etc. click here. For more of my thoughts and opinions about it, read on.

Although the Greenhouse training has good content in several areas, that's not the reason I suggest you go. Frankly, good content isn't that hard to find these days and you can buy a lot of books for the price of this registration. What makes this worthwhile is that it pulls together three things that I think are key to Kingdom work - whether you're talking evangelism, discipleship or social ministry for that matter:

Simplicity. Lots has been written about simplicity, ironically. Simplicity is vital for something to be easily transmitted and replicated. That goes for churches as well as viruses. The Greenhouse training works with a very simple expression of church, simple in both written and in human forms. That's good.

Substantive Relationships. Relationships where people feel safe enough to get below the surface of life are foundational, both for people to come to faith and for believers to mature in faith. This is one reason why conventional congregations struggle so much under the burden of maintaining a weekly large group gathering that inherently can't facilitate those kind of relationships. The Greenhouse training focuses on equipping people for exploring faith together in groups of 2 to 4 as normative. It offers one simple tool for people to use in self-facilitating such groups, but only as an example or as one resource they recommend.

Intentionality. This truly is the linchpin. Even mediocre ideas that actually get implemented will probably show more results than great ideas that are left on the shelf. I think the Greenhouse folks know this, which is why the real goal of the training is not simply to deliver good content to people. It's to lay a foundation for the formation of supportive accountability groups. (That's my term. They call them Greenhouse Monthly Gatherings which sounds much more fun and friendly and is probably a better term for that reason.) At the end of the training, they invite those who are interested to begin meeting monthly to encourage each other as they work to live out what they have learned. And note how the monthly meeting is not the main event. Rather, it plays a supportive role to the weekly gatherings of people in groups of 2-4, most of whom have not had the Greenhouse training. That's the kind of flip-the-pyramid strategy that sent me off to learn about house churches in the first place, two years ago.

This is good stuff and these are good people. If you can get to a Greenhouse I think you'll be glad you went, and if you can join us at Gethsemane in September I'll be delighted to met you.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bumpercar Bishop Caption Contest

The photo below got put up on Facebook and I shamelessly ripped it off to post here. It's the bishop of my denomination, Mark Hanson, down in New Orleans for our national youth gathering. I actually worked with Mark some years ago and he baptized my first daughter. He's a great guy.

So - he's having a good time, we can too! How about a little caption contest, eh?

"Bishops just wanna have fun" perhaps?

How about "Lutherans: not nearly as boring as we used to be?"

Whatcha got for me? ;)


Friday, June 12, 2009

Evangelism as Fundraising: Let's Not

I belong to the Emerging Leaders' Network (how's that for self-aggrandizing!) and a friend there started a discussion about the risk of doing outreach & evangelism as a fund raising strategy when the church is having a hard time making budget. I just had to offer my two bits on that and thought I'd share it here as well:

Here's a small step we're tying to make where I serve.

In our little brochure about membership and in conversation as it comes up, I always present membership this way: Everything of value that this Congregation has to offer, it provides free of charge to anyone who wants it: Baptism, Communion, Sunday School, Bible Studies, worship services, pastoral care and so on. So "membership" provides no additional benefit. Rather, becoming a member is what you do when you want to get on the "supply" side of the equation and join us in keeping all this stuff available to others for free, just like it was for you when you arrived. The only thing you "get" with membership is extra responsibility.

I compare it to enlisting in the Army or Peace Corp: a voluntary choice to join an organization that serves others, because you believe in its mission and want to take part in achieving it.

That also sets up a great point I love to share with prospective new members. When you "enlist" in an organization like that, then they have a responsibility to equip you for the work you will be doing - basic training, as it were. So we as a congregation have begun to provide "Equipping Workshops" for new members (open to everyone, of course) to fulfill our responsibility to them when they join.

On a completely different track, though, and with apologies if I'm being a gadfly, I can't read your post without thinking that there would be a lot less temptation to link evangelism and finance if we could break our dependence on buildings, programs and professional clergy (like me), as if that were the only or even a relatively effective way to be Church. I spend a lot of time thinking about the house church model, which you can easily imagine, would have a very different outlook on both evangelism and stewardship.


Friday, May 1, 2009

More on Relationships - Movement towards Depth?

Brian made a comment recently voicing concern over the apparent lack of depth often seen in Christian relationships. Here's a sample:
I'm not so sure many people inside church buildings or w/n the crumbling Corpus Christianum know much about relationship as commitment or that relationship entails an ethos of sacrifice. It seems that many Christians opt toward relationship as mere convenience rather than as an expression of faith; buying into the cheapened notion that love is merely a feeling & not much else beyond that. Many Christians have not yet learned to love into relationships when it is inconvenient to them.
I have to say I share that concern, especially because the struggle for substantive relationships seems so deeply rooted in the hyper-individualism that is so characteristic of our age and culture.

With that in mind, you can see why this quote from Phyllis Tickle caught my attention in an e-mail this morning:
"I don't think anybody knows exactly where the Great Emergence is going, much less where the Christianity, emerging/emergent, coming out of it is going to go exactly, but there are some contours that are clearly visible right now and can be described. ... It is definitely communal, even to point that about a quarter of it is probably engaged in a form of monasticism."
I certainly don't see monasticism emerging as the dominant form of Christian life. But I'm sure that the impulse that's driving that expression to grow these days - a hunger for and willingness to pursue substantive relationships - is being felt by many more than just the ones acting on it in that way. So that's encouraging. And there are people at work to nurture that impulse and help others act on it. Karen Sloan is one example. You can watch a video of her discussing it here on TheOozeTV.

What are others seeing in terms of greater dissatisfaction in the Church with "thin" relationships and a willingness to explore ways to find depth again?

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Event Alert: Twin Cities House/Organic Chruch Conference

We interrupt our current series of posts for this important announcement: a really good conference is being organized for June in the Twin Cities for people interested in the missional movement showing up in simple-, house- and organic-church expressions.

The official site for the conference will be Matthew Berry's Raw Religion, but at the moment I've found the most information here on Katie Driver's Backseat Driver blog.

Among those who will be taking part are:
These are all folks I've heard before and highly recommend.

Spread the word, and if you'll be going let me know. I'd love to meet up there.

Friday, April 24, 2009

What the Bishop Said, Part 2: Relationships over Programs and Structures

As I mentioned in the first post of this series, I'm exploring four "core values" offered by my Bishop Peter Rogness, to lift up the ways I see them align with a house church expression. Peter's first value is this:

Relationships are more life-giving than programs or structures.

It's tempting just to write QED and move on to the next post, but I'll expound a bit anyway.

He's absolutely right of course. Relationships must have primacy over programs and structures, and the latter should be evaluated on the basis of how they contribute to the former. Sort of a "Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the sabbath" kind of thing (Mark 2:27). I'm convinced we desperately need to make the changes that would reflect having relationships as a real priority.

So, how do we act on this value?

In conventional congregations, it's going to be tough sledding. Most of our resources there are invested in large group activities that are inherently less able to nurture relationships, Sunday morning worship being the most prominent example. (I've written more about this fundamental mis-alignment here.) Programs and structures are already in place - dare I say entrenched - and institutional inertia is a hard force to overcome. Not to mention the chronic challenge of funding even when we're not in a historic recession. But this re-prioritization is important work and it needs to be done. At a minimum, there needs to be an emphasis on nurturing small groups or perhaps "counting conversations" as Reggie McNeal has suggested. Kudos to Peter for putting relationships at the top of his list.

But there is another option: start fresh. Start new communities that are centered on the primacy of relationships from the outset and let them generate the programs and structures they need to support that kind of life. New communities, where the small group is the primary expression rather than a programmatic add-on. In a word, house churches.

It's not an either/or situation. I do not believe we should abandon conventional churches rather than take on the hard work of re-aligning their priorities. But I do believe we should add another strategy, and invest at least some of our time, energy and funding in an approach that's naturally aligned with the primacy and priority of relationships.

If we want to take Peter seriously, and I believe we should, I think that's what we'll need to do.

Friday, April 17, 2009

What the Bishop Said: Four Values that Point towards Lutheran House Churches

Recently I heard my Bishop speak, and just about everything he said made me think about house churches.

Peter Rogness is my Bishop and a very fine Bishop he is, IMHO. He was speaking to a gathering of local ELCA clergy and shared with us the four core values that he envisions guiding the shared work of our congregations. It's good stuff! Here they are:
  • Relationships are more life-giving than programs or structures;
  • Outreach is fundamental;
  • We are “repairers of the breach;”
  • Being Lutheran is an asset.
As he was introducing each of these to the group, I was doodling/taking notes on a plate. Each time he introduced a value I found myself thinking; "Well, that fits with house churches." (It's sort of a mental reflex for me now. No matter what anyone says about anything, I'm likely to be thinking about how it relates to house churches.)

So for the next few posts I'm going to take each of those values in turn and talk about how I see it pointing us towards an emphasis on a house church expression. Stay tuned!

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Simple Resource for a Simple Church

Brian over at Faith Practice & Simple Church Movements has posted a wonderful little brochure (still a draft) that offers a description of simple churches. It includes a set of three norms for this kind of church life that are oriented towards practice rather than doctrine.
  • A Rhythm of Presence speaks to the relational foundation, being present to God and each other in ways that are significant and active.

  • A Movement of Renewal speaks to the outward focus of working to bring peace and justice - God's shalom - more fully into the world.

  • A Culture of Blessing speaks to enacting grace in love and gentleness no matter what you do (or is done to you.)
Beyond being explicitly centered on Jesus it is presented without any doctrinal core or theological boundaries. Some may find that to be a weakness, but for the purpose helping to nucleate a broad spectrum of faith communities instead of cloning the one you have I find it to be an attractive strength. I think this comes through most clearly in this one comment in a section of final thoughts; "Communion & baptisms should become a consistent expression of your simple church."

I invite you to take a look at his work and give him some feedback as he continues to develop it. Below are the first couple of introductory paragraphs.


This simple church brochure is designed for Jesus-centered & Spirit-led communities that revolve around three essential norms of expression: rhythm of presence, movement of renewal, and culture of blessing.

Simple churches share life together through prayer & deep conversation, over meals, in play & recreation, & through adventure in serving those in need. Simple churches actively seek the care of the last, the lost , and the least in our world – always with a gracious invitation to
join us if you’d like & yet whatever your decision we will still treat you with dignity & respect . . . we will treat you as Jesus himself.

And while this brochure does not place an emphasis on restricted religiosity as typified by many fundamentalist expressions of religion it does have a central focus on following and imitating the practices & teachings of Jesus & the rhythms of the Holy Spirit - envisioning the renewed reality of a people unleashed to collectively utilize their gifts & talents not toward service of money, consumerism, & self but in service of the Kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of constantly. (Read more...)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Renew Community, Lansdale PA - Worth A Look

My daily Google search on the term "House Church" led me to Renew, a network of house churches in Lansdale PA. Judging by their website, these are people I'd like to know better.

A couple of things caught my eye:

A post on the rhythm of their house church life described gathering 2x a month for "Exploring" together, once a month for service, and once more for some form of celebration, which is not a fancy term for a large group Sunday-style worship gathering. Rather, it's as they say; "While followers of Jesus are seldom accused of throwing great parties or being known for being celebratory people, we should have a reputation for this!" Amen to that!!

In previous posts I've talked some (I think) about theological minimalism. So I was pleased to see that the only thing they list under "What We Believe" is the Nicene Creed. That's refreshing.

Apparently they don't - yet - have a public or large group gathering up and running. When they do I'll be interested to see if they feel compelled to offer it weekly or not.

Anyway, if you're interested in "who's out there" or looking for signs of hope on your journey to a different way of being Church together you might like to check them out. And if you live near them in Lansdale... lucky you!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Twin Peaks: Resource Allocation and Effectiveness in Promoting Spiritual Growth in Conventional Congregations

Dontcha just love that title? It's just like the stuff I used to write back when I was a molecular biologist.

I have an observation.

In conventional congregations, the larger a gathering is, the more resources are invested in it. For example, the typical Sunday morning worship service consumes the vast amount of the resources available. This is true I believe in terms of staff time, funds and physical space. (It's probably true of member time investment as well, to the extent that they invest their time in their spiritual life.)

Here's how that looks:

(You'll notice that I drew that on a napkin to underscore the sophistication of this analysis.)

Thus far, I've restated the obvious.

I also have a hypothesis: The smaller a group is, the more effective it is in promoting spiritual growth (to the extent that the group focuses on spiritual life).

So on one extreme you have spiritual friendships, marriages, mentoring relationships and "two or three are gathered" accountability groups. Next up come the familiar "small groups" and Bible studies. At the other extreme is, well, Sunday morning worship.

Here's how that looks:

The obvious question here is; "What's wrong with this picture?" To which I would respond; "Well, it looks to me as if resource investment in conventional congregations is 180 degrees out of alignment with the strategies that are most effective in promoting spiritual growth."

But here's a more interesting question: "What would congregational life look like if we realigned our resource investment to reflect this?"


Friday, March 13, 2009

The Magic Purse

So, shameless sell-promotion is okay when you're not selling anything, right? I mean, what's a blog for?

I wrote a short story a while back called The Magic Purse. It's a little fable about scarcity and abundance. Over the years a number of people have downloaded it from a collection of stewardship resources hosted by Luther Seminary and told me that it was helpful to them in their congregations. Cool!

For the last couple of weeks I've been having some more fun with it at my current church. I've used it as the basis for a contest for kids, inviting them to write alternate endings and to create illustrations. It's been fun to see their work! I've created a little website in support of that where you can read the story and the alternate endings and see the illustrations. So if that's intriguing to you, or you're looking for a stewardship resource to use in a creative way, check it out. I think you'll like it.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Merging Faith, Work and Traffic

Guess it's time for my "monthly" post. Harrumpf.

One of the most fascinating blogs I've encountered is Experimental Theology put out by Richard Beck. He's a gentle writer and brilliant thinker who blogs on faith and science, psychology, philosophy, fuzzy logic, game theory... you get the picture. Oh, and he's done an extended series on Calvin and Hobbes. If you read his blog, be prepared to look up Malthusian on a regular basis.

In his most recent post he shared a chart showing how Americans spend their time:

He brought it up in the context of a discussion about the impact of the rise of the bourgeoisie on the life of Christians and the Church. Some of the comments continued to explore that, but a couple of folks, myself included shared some less philosophical reflections. I wanted to share what I wrote with you here:

I also am interested in how the life of faith is integrated and expressed in each slice of the pie. (Harry Wendt of talks directly about that, even using a pie-chart motif as well.)

For example - as I drive and have to deal with people trying to merge into my lane on the freeway, I've started to hear an echo of John 14:2b "...I go to prepare a place for you." Clearly not what Jesus had in mind, and yet it has made driving in traffic a place where my spiritual life manifests in my own experience and (usually) in my outward behavior as well.

If I was a truck driver, that could open up the bulk of my work life to concrete spiritual expression. Alas, I'm merely a pastor!

But it makes me wonder, how else can we merge work life and faith life in whatever we do, for our own sake and the sake of others?
Concrete spiritual expression for a truck driver - say, that's a good one! Amazing the stuff that pops out when I try and write with my "erudite" voice. ;)