Would I be stating the obvious if I were to say that doing church ministry today requires something different than 25 years ago? What about even 5 years ago? The reason why this is true is that the context of ministry in the 21st century is different that anything we have ever seen before.
We are living in a era of high velocity change. Alan Roxburgh, who is a consultant advising churches, says that “American Culture is changing so rapidly that it may be called a ‘dis-continuous' culture.” Some have described our world now as a “permanent white water society.” Technology is changing so quickly that the information students learn in technical colleges in their first year of study becomes obsolete by their third year of study.
We are also living in a time that is referred to as post modern. This describes how our culture is in the middle of a major shift in how it understands truth. Before this shift, we believed truth was a constant. For example: we believe the Bible is true, so if we follow its teachings, it will work for us. Now truth is relative and based on experience. People will only believe that the teachings of the Bible are true if we show that they actually work in our lives. Personal experience trumps established truth.
Not only are we living in a time of post-modern, high velocity change, we are also now living in a time that can be characterized as post - Christian. The Christian Era was ushered in when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and declared the Roman Empire to be the Holy Roman Empire. Almost overnight the Church went from persecuted minority to the center of life and culture. This position of privilege continued for 2000 years. Yet in the last 30-50 years something has changed. The rise of religious pluralism and secularism along with the breaking down of the physical barriers of time and space has pushed the church from the center of North American culture to the edges or margins. There are even those who have said that the society we now live in has no edges. Things are changing so rapidly that there is no center and no margins. For much of the emerging culture, the church and its ways of doing things has become simply irrelevant.
So we as a church find ourselves stuck between what was and what will be. We feel this tension of wanting to hold on to what we know and understand while at the same time realizing that to be faithful and successful in today’s culture means adapting to a new way of life. The challenge we face is relating the timeless message of Jesus to our dramatically different time in a relevant manner.
Healthy churches acknowledge that our context has drastically changed, and they are willing to explore new ways of doing ministry that take the new context seriously. They realize that what used to work in the past will usually not work in the new context, because we have new challenges that we have never faced before. We have entered a period of time where we have to do “trial and error” ministry. We have to be creative in trying new things knowing all the while that what we try might not work. If something doesn’t work, we chalk it up to experience and try something new. As we try different new approaches, something will eventually click. This kind of trial and error ministry requires a deep trust in the promise of God that not even the “gates of hell” will prevail against the church (Matt. 16:18). If the church will prevail through the attacks of hell, it certainly will survive some experimentation whether done successfully or not.
So let me leave you with a thought provoking question: How do we reach people with the gospel of Jesus in this high velocity, post-modern, post-Christian world?
This is the key question that we are all trying to answer one ministry attempt at a time.
Grace and peace to you.
Lee Zehmer is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Lexington, NC; Moderator of the Church Growth and Transformation Committee of Salem Presbytery; and the Vice-President of Lay Pastor Ministry, Inc. He lives in Lexington with his wife Brooke, a principal in the Rowan Salisbury School system and his youngest daughter. He has recently sent his eldest twin daughters to their first year at Wake Forest University.
As moderator of Salem Presbytery, I recently had the honor of serving as a commissioner to the General Assembly (our recently-adopted manual makes this part of the moderator’s service). This year’s GA was less drama-filled than some in recent years, but a number of events merited notice, such as the election of a team of two women, Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston as co-moderators, the election of J. Herbert Nelson as stated clerk - the first African-American to hold the office - and the addition of the Belhar Confession to The Book of Confessions. Besides these we enjoyed moving moments of worship, and we met people from all over the country - around the world, in fact - and from many walks of life.
I served on the Immigration and Environmental Issues Committee, which dealt with the question of divestment from fossil fuels. Many Presbyterians believe faithfulness in our stewardship of creation requires this step. Our presbytery concurred in an overture to this effect. At the same time there were commissioners from Texas, for example, who expressed concern that many members of their congregations would feel personally blamed if the Assembly took such measures. More than one of these presbyteries is already reeling because of steep membership losses in recent years. Another member of the committee was herself the spouse of a coal miner. The committee did recommend divestment, though the Assembly adopted the committee's minority report, which I signed, calling for limited divestment and targeted reinvestment in alternatives to fossil fuels.
When the Assembly resumed plenary sessions, hearing and acting on committee reports, the pace was grueling, with business on the longest day lasting from 8:30 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. Interesting as so much of the business was, it grew to be too much.
When I returned to Statesville and to our church office, I felt as if I had stepped from one world into another. I faced immediate pastoral concerns, something of a backlog from my time away, and we were dealing with details and inconveniences of major renovation of parts of our physical plant. What was the connection between these concerns and the life of the larger church, with its highlighting change, increasing diversity, A Thousand and One Worshiping Communities, a new way forward - under the impact of losses in membership and resources - and Vision 2020? Indeed, during the Assembly itself I had sometimes wondered about the connection between these matters and congregational life in places where we still feel challenges in recruiting volunteer leaders - elders, teachers, youth advisors, and mission volunteers - as well as paying bills and keeping the doors open. I will say outgoing moderator Heath Rada stressed the importance of our church’s congregations, the need to support them and provide resources for them, the locus of mission on the ground.
Our stated Session meeting early that very week helped me think further about these things: one of our elders, Sloan Goforth, unprompted, had planned a devotion on the Belhar Confession. David Parker, an elder from our congregation who, endorsed by Salem Presbytery, had stood as a candidate for co-moderator of the Assembly, shared something of his experience. We found deeper interest in our experience than I might have anticipated. I realized many commissioners in one way or another must have been experiencing the same thing, trying to share the experience and to bridge whatever distance there is between the highest and lowest councils of our church. We plan to continue sharing the experience as an adult track of our Vacation Bible School next week.
What's worth sharing?
- Steve Scott, Pastor, First Presbyterian, Statesville, NC
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
~ 1 Corinthians 12: 27
In our small but mighty church, we are committed to worshipping as whole body—young and old, silent and speaking, calm and fidgeting. We try to welcome and engage everyone because we believe we worship more fully together.
We have a vision of lips singing as only lips can sing while hands lift, grasp, and carry as is their strength. We imagine minds blossoming with wisdom and ears straining for understanding. We see wild, unkempt hair bouncing in the wind of the Spirit and hearts beating in time, pumping the life-blood through this fully engaged body of worship. And it is unspeakably beautiful. And it is terribly hard.
We don’t always enjoy the gifts of other members of the body – especially when they differ so vastly from our own. An ear is not made for dancing, so when she listens to the soft thuds and heavy breathing of a body in motion, she doesn’t grasp its joy. A foot is not designed to see, so he doesn’t recognize the glorious interplay of light and shadow through which he walks. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need each other. It doesn’t mean we aren’t part of the same body. It just means we are different—and that’s okay!
If the whole body were an elder with a penchant for tradition, where would the sense of adventure be? If the whole body were a frazzled family just trying to get it all done, where would the sense of peace and patience reside? If the whole body were a toddler waving his arms in joy one minute and weeping with frustration the other, God save us.
But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as GOD chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” (1 Cor 12:18-20)
We are the Body of Christ and sometimes part of the body has to take a bathroom break in the middle of the service, but that does not make her worthless. Sometimes part of the body can no longer climb the stairs to the sanctuary, but that does not make him obsolete. Sometimes parts of the body might need an oxygen mask, or a hearing aid, or translation, or crayons, or an extra explanation, but that does not make them a nuisance and it certainly shouldn’t keep them out of worship.
In a healthy body, all the parts work together towards a common goal. Shouldn’t we begin by uniting all the members of our church body in common worship? Here are some ideas to get your started:
Encourage families to bring children to worship - out loud, every Sunday. Our words have power. When we say, “we love and you and want you here” it matters. Children cannot love worship if they aren’t there. Kids learn liturgy, songs, and prayers from within the community. It also helps to point out the rest rooms, the coloring sheets, the family worship area, the assisted listening devices, and any accommodations you’ve made to welcome the various members of the body.
Get an induction hearing loop for your sanctuary. This is life-changing technology for folks with assisted hearing devices. It transmits the sound from your sound system directly into the hearing aid or cochlear implant. (And it’s surprisingly affordable).
Offer tools to help active, movement oriented folks of all ages engage worship - like coloring prayers (not just for kids anymore), outlines to take notes, play-dough, or even ribbon sticks to wave during music.
Karen Ware Jackson pastors and leads worship accessible for all ages at Faith Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), a small, dynamic congregation in Greensboro, NC. As the mother of two preschoolers who worship front and center, she knows firsthand the joys and challenges of parenting a child while leading an inter-generational congregation. She blogs about parenting, pastoring, and engaging all ages in worship at www.karenwarejackson.com.
What makes a church healthy? What are the some of the indicators? Is it how many persons attend worship? Is it the size of the church’s budget or the number of giving units? Is it the number of people participating in bible study and Christian education events? Is it the excellence in preaching or the Sunday music ministry? Is it the church’s receptivity and inclusion of guests and new comers to worship and church programs? What makes a healthy church?
I must admit that for most of my 30 plus years in ministry, I used the answers to some of the questions above as tools to evaluate the ministry entrusted to me as a Teaching Elder. These questions are still helpful in accessing the vibrancy of the congregation. However, recent publications, such as the book, Missional Renaissance-Changing the Scorecard for the Church, by Reggie McNeal, underscore the fact that the church is called by the Spirit to continue the mission and ministry of Jesus to the world. God loves the world. God is concerned about the world. God calls the church to transform the world. Church health must consider how faithful the church is in fulfilling our mission in the world.
McNeil argues that most mainline congregations are internally focused. I agree. He proposes a new understanding for believers to see themselves as the church, and to move away from the subtle thinking that church work occurs mostly within the church or through the hands of “ordained leaders.” Since our Reformed tradition emphasizes the “priesthood of all believers” this concept is easy for me to accept. But emphasis on the priesthood of all believers is easier declared, than demonstrated. And so in reading and studying McNeil’s 181-page book, I am challenged and inspired to consider a new list of factors and questions to consider for determining church health. They include: How many hours do people spend in serving the greater community i.e. helping the homeless, feeding the hungry, working with “at risk” youth, visiting those in prison, advocating for justice? How many people, who are not church members, or followers of Christ, do church members have as friends? Is there diversity in the church in terms of age, gender, race, disabilities, sexual orientation or ethnicity? How many people in the church have a growing relationship with non-believers, not just to invite them to church, but to re-present Christ and encourage them to follow where He leads. How is being in the church making us better people in the world?
The church emphasis on the world is an external focus. This focus does not discount or deny the importance of excellence in preaching, music, worship, and church activities. It simply sets these disciplines and activities in their proper place. They are not the end of the church, but a means of enabling followers of Christ to be changed so that we may transform the world. How healthy is your church?
~ The Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett
Pastor, St. James Presbyterian Church
When I think of Orlando, I think of Disney World, Mickey and the gang, Hopper Passes to the four theme parks, and it being “the happiest place on earth.” Sadly, that has not been the case in the last few weeks. First, there was the shooting death of Christina Grimmie, a 22 year old singer who was discovered and had come to prominence on the tv show, “The Voice.” She was signing autographs late after a show on Friday, June 10 at the Plaza Live Theater, when a man approached her and opened fire. Grimmie was rushed to the hospital, but died later. Last Thursday, tragedy struck a vacationing Nebraska family when a two year boy named Lane Graves died after an alligator pulled him into a lagoon not too far from a Walt Disney World hotel. These are both unspeakable tragedies for which there are no words to help ease the pain of these extraordinary losses for two grieving families.
And yet, as unbelievably sad as these are, most of our nation’s attention has been focused on the 50 people killed and 53 injured in a terror attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Many descriptions and opinions have already been stated and written on the matter, but one that I heard is that it is the most deadly shooting in American history.
Sometimes, it is easy to become desensitized or numb to this senseless violence against college students, military personnel, movie goers, elementary school children, and on and on. It is even very tempting to put on some headphones, tune out the violence, and ignore all the pain, suffering and despair. Friends, when the world is at its worst, the Church must be at its best. We are to bear witness to the risen Christ, and strive not for the Magic Kingdom, but the Kingdom of God where love will win and peace prevail, a kingdom which will have no end.
This Wednesday, June 22, Fellowship Presbyterian Church is holding a Service of Lament for the 49 victims in Orlando. It is our hope that we can be agents of prayer, healing, love, peace, and hope in the midst of this terrible tragedy in the early morning of June 12.
Below is an outline for our service on Wednesday. I think we have a real chance to be a healthy congregation when we show ourselves to the world that we have the heart of Jesus Christ.
John P. Hartman
Pastor, Fellowship Presbyterian Church
Welcome and Opening Words
Responsive Scripture Reading Psalm 13
Hymn “My Faith Looks Up to Thee"
Prayer of Lament
For the 374 mass shootings in the United States in the past 12 months
Lord, have mercy.
For the way we use religion to sanction hate, judgment and violence
Lord, have mercy.
For the families and loved ones of each of the victims in Orlando
Lord, have mercy.
For the way the religious community has demonized, stigmatized and dehumanized the LGBTQ community
Lord, have mercy.
For the fear those in the LGBTQ community have in the wake of Orlando
Lord, have mercy.
For the way the religious community has demonized, stigmatized and dehumanized the Muslim community
Lord, have mercy.
For the fear those in the Muslim community have in the wake of Orlando
Lord, have mercy.
For the collective soul and healing of our country and the world
Lord, have mercy.
Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer
Special Music “Be Thou My Vision”
Reading of the 49 Names and Tolling of the Bell
Hymn “When Peace Like a River"
There’s no such thing as a healthy congregation. Yeah, I’ve completed the Healthy Congregations Facilitator training, but let’s be honest about it. There’s no such thing as a healthy congregation. Just read the New Testament. Any healthy congregations there? Nope. All of them have problems: dysfunctional leadership, internal squabbling, not enough resources, plenty of resources but slowness about sharing those resources with others, arrogance, laziness, legalism, moral anarchy, lack of love, and the list goes on.
There’s no such thing as a healthy congregation, but, thank God, there are relatively healthy congregations.
In no particular order, a few questions to ponder.
Worship is the lifeblood of the congregation. What percentage of our church’s membership shows up for worship on an average Sunday? 30%? 50%? 70%? Other?
Do the pastor’s sermons not only comfort, but also challenge the congregation? Are the sermons safe and boring? Do they inspire, irritate, and make us think? Actually take the biblical texts seriously? Just provide a nice little dose of “self-help” and make us feel good that God loves us?
Is there variety in the church’s worship music? Is it offered with as much quality as the musicians can muster?
In a rapidly changing world, what percentage of the congregation is seriously studying scripture, learning how to pray, and engaging in study and dialogue about the great social justice issues of the day? If someone asked the average church member what criteria he/she uses to interpret scripture, especially when it comes to the controversial justice issues we struggle with, what would that person say?
What percentage of the congregation’s time, abilities, and money is spent sustaining and caring for the congregation and what percentage is used to meet human need in the community and beyond? How much money goes to pay salaries and take care of buildings and grounds, and how much is spent on mission/justice ministry for the world outside the building?
Does our congregation have a website? Is it up-to-date?
Can visitors find the church building? When they arrive do they know where to park and which door to enter? What happens when they come in? Are they welcomed, but not smothered? Can they follow the order of worship? Is there any follow-up from the church afterwards?
Upon joining, are there a number of ways for new members to connect and build relationships and use their gifts? Are there small groups for spiritual development? What do we offer to help youth, young adults, and older adults grow spiritually and to serve faithfully?
What is the mission statement of the church? If asked, could church members (or staff) recite it from memory? Why or why not? If the church has a motto, could it be recited from memory? Do the mission statement and/or motto describe the church with some degree of accuracy, or is it all just wishful thinking?
What is the congregation’s reputation in the community? What is it known for? Or is it known at all? Is the pastor (the public face of the church) known? For what?
Is there a sense of joy in the congregation, or is it mainly focused on complaining and living in the past?
Are congregants and staff taught and expected to communicate disagreements openly and honestly and to “fight gracefully” (Scott Peck)?
Is there a lively hope in what the living Christ is doing in the world and how Christ is using the church as an instrument of shalom?
What other questions would you ask as we seek to be relatively healthy congregations?
~ Jeff Paschal
Pastor, Guilford Park Presbyterian Church
Most of us are probably familiar with the saying “Opinions are like belly buttons, everybody has one.” Or perhaps you’ve heard of opinions being compared to other things that can’t be mentioned in this blog! Well, in any case, here’s a new one: “Opinions are like birthdays, we all have one.” All of us at some point desire to share our opinion and most of the time we love celebrating our birthday.
In Luke’s gospel (19:1-10) we learn of the man Zacchaeus who sought to see Jesus, but because of his short stature had to take an alternate route to become involved. While Jesus knew Zacchaeus desired to see him, perhaps others didn’t. It seems no one went out of their way to make sure Zacchaeus made it through the crowd with all the others. Was everyone ignoring his presence because they didn’t like him as a tax collector? Was it because he was a little person; a different person? Perhaps it was a combination of several things that singled him out. Pastors very often in the weekly Call to Christian Discipleship exhort the gift of gathering as a community to nurture, nourish and seek a better understanding of our faith. We encourage our guests and visiting inquirers to prayerfully consider our congregation as their church home. Sometimes we may draw elsewhere in Luke’s gospel with a gentle reminder that…‘the harvest is plentiful yet the laborers are few.’ (10:2) Wouldn’t it be exciting for both the harvest and the laborers to be plentiful? Wouldn’t it be exciting if all the laborers felt included?
Ministry clusters, though not a new concept is a brilliant way to involve our entire congregation in the harvest. Upon my arrival at Logan Presbyterian in July, 2015, the formation of ministry clusters had been underway for several years upon the wise leadership of Logan’s Interim Pastor The Reverend Dr. Samuel Stevenson. This was a huge jump start to many of the goals and objectives I was hoping to get underway. The congregation was first assigned to a cluster based on their birthday. No escaping that one. Who could find an excuse to not participate? Each cluster has developed it’s own spirit, culture, and particular foci, yet at times they overlap.
The H.O.P.E. (Helping Others through Prayer and Encouragement) ministry (January-March) is an intercessory prayer and health awareness team. High Praise (April-June) encourages the expansion of hunger ministries year-round. The Servants (July-September) support programming for youth and senior adults; and the Light of Christ cluster (October-December) promotes child advocacy. Much of the work done by the clusters support the role of other ministries such as Worship, discipleship, evangelism and others. When the teams gather for their respective ministry meetings, they are also focused on prayer, and study of God’s word together. They are accustomed to supporting one another with ministry planning, implementation, encouraging one another, and holding each other accountable both individually and corporately for what is everyone’s responsibility. Often, ruling elders of each cluster lead discussions on various portions of the Book of Order for clarity and understanding among everyone. The groups gather quarterly to share and celebrate the joys of their respective ministries.
Just as Zacchaeus had the desire to be a part of the crowd seeking Jesus, many among us every week are longing for a way to become involved and guided towards sharing their gifts. It is incumbent upon all to extend an invitation--even within the walls of our churches. The opportunity to reach out, listen, agree to disagree is always before us. The opportunity to observe common denominators-- beyond opinions and belly buttons is as well. In so doing all may become involved learning to love one another as Christ first loved us.
~ Reverend Kaye Barrow-Ziglar - firstname.lastname@example.org
Pastor-Logan Presbyterian Church
“Going from this place to another place is like the bird in winter
who remembers the beauty of her Springtime nest
just to keep herself from freezing.”
~ Nancy Wood
As summer approaches memories of summers past flood my mind and bring a smile to my face. Though my father and oldest brother no longer share this life, the memories of the fun we shared sustain me through the roughest days.
The gift of our memory is something we rarely think about until we get to the age where we have trouble remembering. However, memory enables us to recall our blessings, to give thanks for them, and to grow because of them. Good memories can encourage us, warm us on a cold day, and help us to keep hope in our hearts. Memories serve as a way to keep us connected. Good memories strengthen and sustain us.
Memories are valued and necessary to the health of church “families.” As Christians we gather in memory every time we meet at the Table of our Lord. At the Table we remember our baptism, remember what our Lord has done on our behalf, and are Re-membered into the Body of Christ.
Just as we need memories in our biological families, creating memories by offering opportunities to play together strengthens worshipping communities. Laying a foundation of positive memories proves helpful when storms begin to rock the boat. Healthy congregations laugh often, enjoy being together, and support one another in fun times as well as in the hard times.
All too often congregations become fixed upon the problems facing the church and forget the importance of playing together, leading to dis-ease, or disfunction. Focusing upon problems rather than the Problem-solver, can lead to conflict and unhealthy practices. One way to change the focus from the negative perspective to a positive outlook, is to be intentional in planning opportunities for congregants to interact in fun activities.
Our ability to remember is a precious gift. It is in remembering our blessings that our hearts are filled with gratitude. Without memories we would be unable to savor the good things that happen to us and for us. With no memory we would be unable to heal from painful situations.
Healthy congregations PRAY together, PLAY together, and STAY together.
- Jennie Hemrick
Last time you’ll hear from me for awhile…I promise. But in a gathering of the task force, Bryan McFarland and I both used examples that the group thought might be helpful in our conversation, in the work to build and sustain healthy congregations, in our corporate life together. (Look for Bryan’s next week.)
When one of my children hit middle school, it became pretty impossible to parent for a number of reasons. We lived our days responding to crises. All our time and energy and resources went into the broken, the angry, the smart-aleck.
We tried to assure our other children that life would eventually be better, but I don’t think they really believed us. Our actions and our energies said differently. They said, “You get attention when you refuse to be part of the family, refuse to take responsibility for our own actions, and blame everyone but yourself for your problems.
A brilliant child psychologist taught us this. “You get what you reward.”
She suggested that our tendency to get in our child’s face to “fuss,” our establishing of eye contact and undivided attention when said child was out of control, our setting aside time to “problem solve”…all this granted attention to the bad behavior.
It was a head-slap moment.
She suggested we give as little time and attention to bad behavior as we possibly could. No eye contact. Even if we were directing commands to the child, we never locked eyes. No time spent explaining. No energy directed to “discussion.” Command, consequence. Period.
And our energy? our eye contact? our resources? Give that to the children that behave well. Find the behaviors you want to see again and talk then, establish eye contact then, build relationship then.
As a presbytery, as congregations, as lay leaders, church staff, and pastoral leaders, I think it is time to ask ourselves, “Are we getting what we are rewarding?”
It may be time to take a hard look at what gets our attention, our energy, our resources. It may be time to direct that attention, energy and resource to what we really want to nurture.
- Beth Utley
Stories of congregational transformation are stories of life and death. I can’t remember a story of significant transformation that didn't start with a dying congregation. I have read stories of large churches who start new ministries, who hire new staff, who change their worship style or programming, but I don’t hear the same degree of “new life” in those stories.
It seems there is one requirement for resurrection…death.
We hate going there. What we really want is another band-aid…one with antibiotic this time. Maybe that will heal the deeper disease that threatens our existence. What we want is another analgesic…a pain reliever that hides our disease for a bit longer. What we seek are the quacks with promises too good to be true, but who promise us continued life, even if that life will be walking death.
We know the words of resurrection. We don’t have funerals; we celebrate services of Witness to the Resurrection. We quote the familiar verses that promise us that death holds no power over us, that nothing can separate us from the love of God, that new life is ours.
But death is to be avoided at all costs. Whether it is Presbyterian Women as we knew it in the 60’s or our order of worship which hasn’t changed since Christ was born, we just hate for it to die.
Outsiders don’t see much of our hope of resurrection. They watch us cling to our comfort zones as our pews empty out and our ability to pay the bills tanks. They hear us lament about their lack of involvement in our terminal illness and wonder if our minds have “already gone.” We use our last bit of energy to fight battles about the color of our hospice gowns and who should be allowed in to visit.
It may be time to pay attention to the one requirement for resurrection. It may be time to embrace death.
What dies will be different for every church. Maybe it is a congregation. Maybe a program. Maybe a relationship that no longer thrives. Maybe it is an expectation. Maybe it is faith in a pastor or a program or a style of worship. God only knows.
But what is true is that new life, resurrection, comes only after something is gone, after something is dead, after we are willing to let go of worshipping life as we know it and trust that in life and in death, we belong to God.