I Love the Church

In a lot of the conversations about church renewal and hope for turning around mainline denominations, I sense a longing for a church that people haven’t experienced. There is a vague dream of a better Church somewhere “out there,” and the subtle suggestion is that if we are just smart enough or creative enough, we will bring it into existence. People on one side of this conversation dream of the good old days (First Church Corinth or Laodicea perhaps?), and the people on the other side dream of the glorious future when the Church will finally align with their dreams and preferences.

In light of this, I want to celebrate the Church (and churches) I’ve experienced.  I prefer the messy, but beautiful, reality of church as I’ve known it to the theoretical churches of the future and the idealized churches of the past.

This isn’t a plea for a particular denomination. The church of my childhood, imperfect as it was, is Baptist, and the church of my adult life, imperfect as it is, is United Methodist. In both places and communities, I’ve seen people actively pursuing God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in ways that are inspiring and real, and I want to share with you some of what I’ve seen.

My dad was diagnosed with lung cancer when I was in junior high, and had one of his lungs removed as part of his treatment. For the rest of his life, he was in and out of the hospital fighting off whatever infection attacked his remaining lung. During that season, I’ve seen pastors sit with our family for hours in the hospital. I’ve seen fellow church members help my mom feeding cattle and helping take care of their farm when she and my dad were away from home. And I’ve even seen a congregation move their worship service on a Sunday night to my parent’s house when my dad was too sick to attend.

I saw it in the senior minister in the first church my wife and I joined after getting married, a UMC. This pastor took time to meet with a group of young adults every Tuesday morning over donuts and coffee so that we could study scripture and ask tough questions, while at the same time he was looking for signs of God’s call in our lives. I saw it in the Associate pastors who led mission trips, taught Disciple Bible Study, and prayed for us when we attended spiritual renewal events like Walk to Emmaus. In that same congregation, I saw it in a dear friend and accountability partner giving up a lucrative career to enter full-time ministry.

Early on after I became a United Methodist pastor, my dad died. Coming out of his funeral, there were a handful of members from my first appointment who I will never forget, who took time out of their busy schedules to attend a service where they couldn’t even get into the tiny little church where we held the service. Those same members were willing to try anything I suggested (with one or two exceptions, and they ended up being right…) and launched into mission and ministry in ways that I think even surprised them at times.

I saw it in the other congregation I served during my first appointment spending their time with kids whose parents would rarely darken the doors of our building. They used their own resources to lead after-school programs and youth ministry events for young people who would never give anything back financially because they believed that knowing Christ was a gift worth giving at any cost.

I continue to see the beauty of God’s people pursuing Christ where I serve today. I see it in the small group I meet with every week who encouraged and prodded me until I read through the bible in a year for the first time in my life. I see it in their prayers and their friendship, even when I’m cranky and sarcastic. I see it in a congregation who gets fired up about feeding the poor and teaching and mentoring children who are struggling to learn to read. I see it in their  appetite for learning God’s word and seeing it take root in their lives. I see it in their willingness to invite people who don’t know Jesus to come and experience worship with them. I see it in elderly men and women who celebrate and pray for a new worship service that they will never attend because they want to know we’re trying our hardest to reach people who will connect with God in ways that are very different from them.

I see it in my colleagues and friends around the conference and across the denomination who encourage me, pray for me, and especially those who put up with countless texts and calls. These friends care about the people entrusted to their care (inside and outside the walls of their congregation) and want them to have a deep relationship with God through Christ more than anything in the world, even when it’s hard….even when it hurts. They, like me, know that we live and work in a system that isn’t perfect, but they have the ability to stop thinking about that long enough to work hard for the sake of Christ and his Kingdom.

Yes, I could tell you stories of times the Church or churches have let me and others down I could share moments of disappointment and even incredible frustration, but I could also keep going on and on sharing stories like those above. God is still at work in churches all around the world, and it is a thing of beauty and grace. Take a look and see.

Top Ten Differences – Small Town to Megachurch

Sometimes people ask me, “So Matt, what’s it like serving in a Church that is 5.85 times bigger than the town you grew up in?”  OK, maybe no one else actually took the time to divide the membership of the church where I serve (7086) by the population of my hometown (1211 in the year 2000), but I like to be accurate.  I guess that’s a leftover from my research days.

So, without further delay, I thought I’d give you the top ten differences between serving in a Megachurch vs. serving in a smaller two-point charge (total combined membership around 180).  These are in no particular order.

  1. I no longer can tell the difference between visitors, members, and long-time regulars by looking at the crowd on Sunday morning.  In fact, I see completely new people every single Sunday and most days of the week.
  2. I used to preach all the time and teach occasionally.  Now, I teach all the time and preach occasionally.
  3. Believe it or not, I now work with a much smaller budget!  Before, I was involved in the finance committee, administrative council, etc. for two congregations.  That meant I was in some way directly responsible for every dollar of the congregation.  Now, I’m responsible in a direct way only for my departmental budget (roughly 7 percent of what I oversaw before).  Of course, I do think that I’m responsible for the larger budget as I teach the meaning of giving and discipleship, but let’s not get too technical here!
  4. Within that vein, I no longer handle any charge conference forms or end of the year reports.   Before, I handled (either directly or indirectly) the reports and charge conference for two congregations.
  5. One of the great benefits of my new setting is working with a staff.  In our case, that means working with an incredible staff, and I would write that even if I knew none of them would read this. 🙂
  6. In the rural/small town church you find yourself much more connected with pastors of other UM congregations.  I do miss the fellowship that took place when I saw the other pastors of my former district at district events.  I had heard about this before, and it seems to be true.
  7. I now own a home, even though this still hasn’t sunk into my mind.  My wife and I have either rented or lived in a parsonage for the first nine years of our marriage, so we still sometimes say, “oh my goodness, we own this place!”
  8. In the rural/small town church, you’re never really off work unless you’re out of town.  Here, when I’m at home, for the most part I’m at home and not working (at least not in the sense of being on the phone or running back and forth across the street to the church building).  It is a little different doing all of the pastoral care for two congregations and then being on a staff with a full time department of pastoral care.
  9. Before, I saw someone from church nearly every single time I went to the store or post office.  Now, believe it or not, our congregation is large enough this still happens quite frequently.  However, sometimes they know me and I have no idea who they are!  Again, this is different!
  10. Finally, I want to end with a similarity.  In both places,  I have been incredibly impressed with the genuine faith, love of God, and passionate conviction within the people who worship in the congregations I serve.

I wondered if I could get to ten when I started this post, and I realize now that I could have probably written at least 25!  So, consider this the first ten things that popped in my mind.

Thanks to John Meunier, who suggested he’d be interested in reading something like this when we were chatting on Facebook the other day.

Polity is Popular?

I find it fascinating that some of my more active posts in terms of comments come when I make statements or raise questions about committees and/or administrative concerns.  Remember the transfer letter post?  There are still people who make comments over at the Catching Meddlers site on that one.

I’m not quite sure what to make of this.

I will say this.  There are times when my desire to reach folks who are not in the church comes into conflict with my personal comfort within our particular system or way of doing church.  

This reminds me of Wesley’s comments on field preaching.  He reached a point where his personal preferences came into conflict with his passion for sharing the gospel.  In his journal, Wesley wrote,

I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday; I had been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.

What is that for us?  When do we reach the point, like Wesley, that we “submit to be more vile” in order to share the gospel?  Is our polity (and practice) framed by our mission or is it sometimes the other way around?

Update: Here are some interesting practical questions along the same lines from Andrew over at Thoughts of Resurrection. He’s busy thinking about issues with a virtual campus as it relates to the Book of Discipline.  This is a great example of how to begin wrestling with polity and mission without denying either.

Liquid Church

Last week, I went with a friend to the local United Methodist Church.  It was a fairly traditional church without a lot of bells or whistles.  I was a little confused by the children’s sermon on fair-trade coffee, but I won’t go there.  So today, four of us hopped on a train to Morristown to visit Liquid Church, a really creative congregation that has their worship service in the Morristown Hyatt.  We got there a little early and had a chance to spend a few minutes talking with Pastor Tim Lucas.  It was nice to meet him and have him spend a few minutes in conversation.

The service had about 15 minutes of music by their really amazing band, 10 minutes of an infant dedication portion (which had remarkably similar language to our liturgy), a 30 minute sermon (interestingly, a sermon of Craig Groeschel’s piped in for this week), and about 5 to 10 minutes of announcements and offering (done simultaneously).

More than anything, I felt the stark contrast between the two churches.  Liquid creatively uses public space and the blend between those in worship and the active hotel lobby was very cool.  Imagine about 250 worshippers hanging in the lobby of a Hyatt Regency.  There was a sense of expectancy in the worship experience, and people seemed to intently pay attention to the message (at Liquid, that is).  I tried to imagine myself entering as a non or nominal Christian.  From that perspective, I would have certainly visited Liquid again.

I find myself torn in many ways between the two ways of doing ministry.  I value the sacramental side of our tradition and the very real means of grace that we experience, yet I also sometimes wish we had more experiential worship and messages like I heard today.  If we could somehow blend the two, we’d be far better off.  It seems to me that we (not all of us, but some of us) aren’t nearly as intentional as Liquid about expecting visitors who have a spiritual hunger and thirst.  I know I’m just seeing the worship setting, but isn’t that what most folks encounter on their first visit to our congregations?

All in all, I want more.  I expect more out of us as a denomination.  Can we be brave enough to start a church that meets in a hotel?  Can we create creative and cutting-edge ministries that also carry the richness of our spiritual and sacramental tradition?  I really want to know.

Are you Incompetent?

I’m reading a book by Seth Godin, who I just found out is a really creative and interesting thinker. It’s called, small is the new big: and 183 other riffs, rants, and remarkable business ideas. It’s really just a collection of essays from Godin in hardback edition, but it’s really thought-provoking.

One of my favorite so far is a riff/rant on competence.

Competent people have a predictable, reliable porocess for solving a particular set of problems. They solve a problem the same way, every time. That’s what makes the reliable. That’s what makes them competent.

There is a side effect to all this competence however,

…competence is the enemy of change! Competent people resist change. Why? Because change threatens to make them less competent. And competent people like being competent. That’s who they are, and sometimes that’s all they’ve got.

Godin seems to argue that there is a “new competence” in the world, which he calls zooming,

In the face of change, some of us are becoming competent at zooming: Our skill set includes the ability to move from opportunity to opportunity doing the same thing, only differently. It’s this new breed of competents, of people who in another age might be labeled incompetent, who are going to lead us through the changes we encounter.

He doesn’t define these zoomers as people who can’t become competent, but people, “who have the option to become competent but choose to try something new.”

Managers, in Godin’s line of thinking, are the most dangerous competents of all. They are, “the ones who will do everything in their power to fight the next round of necessary changes because they’re in love with their competence.”

The most successful organizations have a skill Godin calls velocity.

Velocity is a company’s ability to zig and zag and zoom – to make significant changes when significant changes are necessary.

Any organization that needs to change must be willing to take risks and have the resolve to become incompetent for a time, in order to develop new forms of competence to meet challenges and changing dynamics in the world.

Let me toss a few questions into the air and see what happens? Would you characterize your church as an organization that is competent? Would you characterize the UMC as competent? Are we able to make significant changes when necessary? Are we willing to become incompetent for a time in order to meet challenges with new approaches?