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.