My Diversity Story

June 13, 2016

The denominational merger that resulted in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America culminated on January 1, 1988, after several years of hard work by a group of 70 leaders known as the Commission for New Lutheran Church (CNLC…oh we do love our acronyms…) That is personally significant to me as I was a Senior at Luther Seminary anticipating joining the first class of pastors to be ordained into the ELCA.

I was a late arriver to Lutheranism. I didn’t join a congregation until 1982, just before my junior year in college. It was a congregation of the American Lutheran Church (ALC) although I didn’t notice that at the time. I spent summers at the time with my Dad north of Seattle and I joined the church that they attended. I didn’t consider joining any other congregation or denomination. I was white and half Norwegian. So were most of the people there.

I didn’t have an African American friend until I got to college. A kid from Montana lived right next door. We were good friends for awhile until I messed that up, due to the nature of how our friendship worked, not to issues of race. I also had some African American teammates on my basketball team.

I remember a time in a political science course where I teamed up with an African American woman to argue on the “for” side regarding affirmative action in a class project. Intuitively, I knew that it would be impossible for me to argue against affirmative action. Why? Because I grew up poor and I was very sensitive to the benefits which richer families had and the challenges that faced me.

And I actually had it pretty good. I didn’t know the words “white privilege” but I benefited from it every single day of my life.

Thus it was that I found myself in the seminary, listening to professors snipe critical thoughts about the prospects of a new Lutheran church, hearing inside jokes when with a professor and the “guys” about the good old days when women weren’t allowed to attend seminary. I knew it my gut it was wrong and I knew it ran far deeper than gender and diversity. I knew it was the death rattle of an old way of being that would valiantly struggle to hold on to life as they knew it.

I did my internship in Cheyenne, WY. We had two African American members. The husband in a biracial marriage and a delightful old lady who thought my job as an intern was to take her grocery shopping and to doctor’s appointments. Since Cheyenne was an Air Force town we had quite a few African Americans down at the YMCA where I played ball. I was invited to play on a city league basketball team where I was the only white player. One time a teammate came to church…he never came again. I remember feeling so embarrassed at the culture shock that greeted him when he stepped through the door. All he told me later was “Man, I didn’t really feel right in there.” Enough said.

I was more than excited to be ordained into a denomination that wanted to do more than simply acknowledge that it was a 97+% White church with an immigrant heritage. The goal of encouraging (and enforcing) diversity in this new church body was brutally criticized as a “quota system” which is not even a barely shaded racist rant. I remember the early years as strident voices looked for every way possible to criticize “Higgins Road.” I knew again in my gut that racism and the loss of white privilege and power was what fueled the vehemence.

My first call in Houston was to Zion Lutheran Church. Zion was a host congregation to a Latino mission congregation. Prior to my arrival it seemed that the relationship was basically landlord/tenant, out of sight and out of mind, and periodically they sold tamales after worship to raise money. We tried to build bridges but our attempts were half-hearted. We could have done so much better. Looking back now it is clear to me that they should have called Pastor Castenada to be on their staff rather than looking for a cheap first year seminarian with a family to help them “reach young families to make sure that our church doesn’t die.” Of course no one said it that way…

My second call was to Covenant Lutheran on the far west side of Houston. After a couple of years it was obvious that we had outgrown our site and needed to buy land and move. As we moved toward that day we entered an agreement with a Philipino United Methodist Church. We gave them a sweetheart deal and shared our space for over two years before we were ready to move.

Yes, we had outgrown our church BUT we figured out a way to share our spaces to host two congregations in the same tiny space for over two years. We had joint worship services on Christmas Eve, Holy Week, and I preached at their Easter Sunrise service. Again I came away convinced that openness to diversity, though challenging, proves a blessing to all.

I moved on to a short stint in the synod office. Immediately I discovered that we had more people worshiping in Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese every weekend than in Spanish. How could I have served in our synod for over 20 years and not known that? We only had three African American congregations in the entire synod, each largely ignored. The OVERWHELMING VAST MAJORITY of mission dollars went to white suburban mission congregations. At one point when I counted, 17% of our clergy were female.

We looked like a church that gave lip service to diversity but took very little action.

I am writing this today to acknowledge that Bishop Rinehart has worked valiantly to lift up the reality of diversity. The synod staff has included persons of color. Assistants Don Carlson and Blair Lundborg have done everything they could to bring more female and persons of color into our synod. But there is only so much they can do.

I am also writing this today because the congregation I am now blessed to serve, Faith Lutheran Church, has responded wonderfully to the challenge of becoming a multicultural church. We worship in two languages every weekend. The staff of our church and school includes both males and females who are African Americans, Latina’s, Chinese, Taiwanese, and Caucasian. We serve breakfast and lunch every single Sunday to create spaces for people to get to know each other as well as providing a nice service to families who get by on meager incomes. I know this is hard but I know this can be done in every single one of our congregations. I can’t prove this but I think that if everyone had really embraced the invitation to focus on diversity we would see a very different reality in the ELCA today.

All of us must recommit ourselves to the goal of transforming communities of faith to be reflective of the communities within which God has planted them. We need to WANT that, to OWN that, and to be INTENTIONAL ABOUT IT if we are ever going to see lasting change. If we don’t do that we will miss out on the blessing of being challenged and seeing the Gospel as it is rather than how we have recast it to serve ourselves.

Enough of that and, at some point, the days will come when someone will turn out the lights on the last ELCA congregation in town, we will sell our properties to others who are willing to serve their local communities, and everyone will be better off.

 

 

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Are You Still There?

June 1, 2016

I recently attended the annual synod assembly of the Texas Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod. While there I was reminded of this Mission Possible blog. I started this blog back in the days when I accepted, first, a six month interim call to serve on the synod staff and later, a two year term call to continue that work. Before that was over, I received a call to serve Faith Lutheran Church in Bellaire.

The idea behind this blog was simple:

  1. To create a network within our synod of lay persons and pastors who wanted to help our congregations reach new people.
  2. To share best practices and stories of places and people where evangelism was happening.
  3. And to raise the visibility of the work of the synod office in supporting the missional efforts in our congregations.

When I left the synod staff, this blog went into mothballs…or however we might describe an inactive blog. Today I checked, and lo and behold, it is still here. So what should I do?

While I no longer work in the synod office, I – like all of you on the mailing list (if there still is a mailing list) – still work in this synod. Together, we ARE the synod. Traveling together, doing the best we can with the tools we have, to be and make disciples. To do the best we can as the church. To make the world a better place.

We are blessed with an excellent and active synod staff but there is only so much they can do. And little that they can do without the active support and participation of the rest of us.

So I decided to drop this mailing list a note…if there still is a mailing list attached to it…to ask you what you think. Is there value in resurrecting this blog? In capturing and sharing best practices and stories of places and people where evangelism is happening?

Maybe Facebook and Twitter have now become that network. Maybe a blog like this is now old fashioned and out of place. If so, I trust that I can figure out how to erase it from cyberspace.

But if not…I trust that I, and perhaps lots of other people, might appreciate a platform to share what we think, what we are doing, what we are dreaming about doing, that might help us add one more person to the ELCA team.

So now I’m going to click “Publish” and see what happens next.


Final Thoughts

December 8, 2010

By Pastor Kerry Nelson

This will be my final post to the Mission Possible Network. I thought it would be helpful – to me certainly and potentially to you – to wrap up this little corner of the work that I have done among you for the past 18 months with a few closing thoughts about what I have learned along the way. Some will be confirmation of ministry principles that I have long tried to embrace. And some will be discoveries that I have had while working in the synod office. I’ll try to capture these thoughts in five broad statements.

1. Jesus is Lord and the closer we stay to that reality the more effective we will be in ministry.

I began this work with a vision to join Bishop Rinehart and his team in helping our congregations make more Lutherans. Immediately I got pushback that it was inappropriate to strive to make more Lutherans. I heard from people, “We need to make more Christians, not more Lutherans”. “Lutheran” is an adjective; “Christian” is the point. I agree with that. Point taken. (On the other hand, the reality is that we have spent 22 years in the ELCA making less of just about everything so what difference does it make to argue semantics?)

I was surprised by that pushback; I assumed people would understand that is what I meant. Lutheran and Christian are not mutually exclusive terms for me. I expect Baptists to make more Baptists so what is the problem with a Lutheran seeking to make more Lutherans? Unless more Lutherans would be unhelpful to God’s work in the world…in which case we ought to close our doors.

But we all live and work in the real world. In the real world, no one equates Christian identity to a name in a big red Parish Book. There IS something deeper to church membership, isn’t there? Yet in the real world, our name can be in a membership list for a congregation in which we play no part, believe little of anything taught, believe perhaps the opposite of what is taught, and no one is the wiser. As Pastors, we are free to be as spiritually disengaged from ministry as we choose to be. Short cuts abound. This is all dangerous to our identity, our purpose and our calling.

At the end of the day, if we all aren’t spiritually engaged – if we are not seeking God’s direction in our lives, we’re not praying about everything, we’re not engaged in Bible study, active in worship and service, accountable to a few other Christians – then we will never reach our God-given capacity for ministry. I need to improve in these areas; most people I know need to improve in these areas. We all know it. Probably time that we make time for it.

When we take the Lordship of Jesus seriously then our lives will reflect that. We will live, work and do ministry as if we belong to God and our goal is cooperating with God in incarnating the Kingdom of Heaven for the good of the world.

2. A faithful congregation makes every decision in the best interests of, and on behalf of, those who are not yet here.

I get pushback – even my own stomach churns – when I say this one out loud. Evidence perhaps that it lies right at that crucial cutting edge of the kind of missional thinking that leads to missional ministry. We push back because we sense that this principle calls us to selflessness, creativity and change. It goes against the grain of common sense (the world tells us that membership has its privileges, not its responsibilities.) But every time that I remember this principle in the midst of a question about congregational practices or leadership directions, it becomes a compass pointing due north to the truth.

Embracing this principle requires three things from us. First, it requires intuition. If we have been around the church our whole lives it will be almost impossible for us to “see” our ministries, our buildings, our practices, from the point of view of a new person. Even if we didn’t grow up in the church, once we have been around a little while we tend to forget what it felt like to be new. So we must imagine. We must intuit.

It might help here if we imagine a congregation like a restaurant. If you were designing, opening and running a new restaurant, what would you have to be thinking about in your design, your marketing, your customer experience, that would lead to a successful business?

Second, we need people who can speak up on behalf of those who are not yet here. They might be the voices of young people, of boys in their 20’s, of our newest members who can still remember good reasons why they chose our congregation. We need to listen to the voices of those outside of our congregations who can help us see needs in the surrounding community that aren’t being met but potentially could be places for our congregation to serve.

And third, we need to be checking in with our newest people to see how we are doing. We need to measure our effectiveness in stories as well as statistics. There is plenty of room in the church for excellent mistakes, for trying our best with the best of intentions but failing miserably to reach our goals. Such failures are only failures if we fail to learn something from them. We only learn if we ask.

3. Christianity is a team sport.

I realize that the popular culture around us divides spirituality and religion. Frankly, we need to accept an appropriate level of responsibility for sewing the seeds of such a divide. Many is the congregation, and the Christian, whose words and deeds have failed to align to such a degree that the institution, and the person, lose credibility.

But the popular answer in the culture has been to leave the church in droves. That is precisely the wrong answer! It is wrong in that it is unhelpful in two ways. Let’s call them “protection” and “production” to make them easy to remember.

First, isolated individuals cut off from Christian community lose the best when they leave the rest. They open themselves to all sorts of goofiness. They run from the church but they can’t run from God. They fall prey to American individualism run amock, just a “me and Jesus on the golf course” kind of faith that is more like the man building his house on sand in Jesus’ parable than finding God in the 8th hole sand trap. People who say they believe in nothing tend to swallow anything that feeds their selfishness, isolation and shame. Being part of Christian community protects us.

Being part of Christian community also helps us be more productive in the best sense of that word. We make a much more significant mark in the world by working with others than we can alone. We can enjoy the support of good friends. Our lives, living in a rhythm of worship and prayer and fellowship, become more centered around the Center that lies at the center of life. It is healthy for people of faith to be connected to others of faith.

The Bible tells us that Body of Christ is just that, a living organism comprised of many interdependent members. When we function as a part of the whole, for the good of the whole, we are at our best. Christianity is a team sport. And that calls us to live with a healthy sense of connectedness within our own networks of family and friends, within our local congregation, our ministeriums, our synod and our denomination. We thrive together and we die alone.

4. A minister can attract new people but it takes a ministry to retain them, nurture them, help them grow and set them free to serve.

People are complicated. There is nothing simple about us. It is no wonder, when you team a bunch of us up together in a congregation, that congregational systems come out as complex as they are. There is no BIG ANSWER to congregational health, grow and vitality. There isn’t a program or a pastor who can “fix us.” All there is is the love of God which has captured us and the common call to live that love in the world. We work out how to do that together. That is where it gets tricky.

Having said that, we all do well to learn as much as we can about leadership and the life dynamics of congregations of various sizes. We learn that from others who have been there before us (books, websites, personal conversations, congregational visits), from learning events (best experienced in groups), and from our prayer lives as we seek God’s direction in applying what we learn to our lives and our ministries.

The most effective congregations include pastors and lay leaders who are hungry to learn as much as possible about congregational leadership and congregational health. Pastors, of course, get paid to learn such stuff. Our people expect that from us. But once we learn something new, we need the active and on-going partnership of others to make it happen and make it work.

Far too often pastors settle back into the routine of what they have always done, wondering why they don’t get different results. Far too often, lay people who aren’t really engaged in a spiritual life sit back and take potshots at pastors for not “growing the church” like we “pay you to do.” Neither route gets us home.

Christianity IS a team sport and congregations do best when they play to win, when they play as a team, when they follow leaders who lead well in doing the right things.

5. The only healthy theology of stewardship is healthy stewardship of life.

I have also been responsible for working in the area of healthy stewardship and mission support for the wider work of the church. Frankly, while we did some good work in drafting a synodical plan for growth as stewards, I didn’t spend as much time or energy in this area as I have in evangelism and congregational growth. There is a reason for that.

Money does in fact follow mission. When we come to the place that we fully realize that we belong to God, it is a very short step for us to then realize that what we do with our lives, all of our lives, every corner of our lives, reflects this identity.

Mature Christians don’t need to be reminded to be generous, they are eager to be generous. They don’t need to be beat over the head with reminders of finding an outlet to serve the world through their gifts/passions, they are already doing it.

The Christian church today, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, doesn’t have a money problem today, we have a faith problem. And we don’t solve that faith problem by raising more money.

Along with Rolf Jacobson, I’ve learned some wonderful new insights into Christian stewardship this year that will last me for years to come. Among them:

o The church needs to do a much better job talking about money (helping people to understand and steward the role and power money plays in their lives) and less time talking about giving. As Mark Allan Powell says, the Bible has much to say about how we acquire money, regard our money, manage our money and spend our money.

o Healthy stewardship concerns 100% of our lives. Everything (all of our time, our interests, our passions, our pursuits) comes from God and matters to the world. We sew misunderstanding if we only talk about 10% of anything at church.

o The culture in which we live is post-Christendom but our congregational practices remain firmly rooted in Christendom. That needs to change. We need to re-think the whole ball of wax.

o We still collect offerings weekly in little offering envelopes as if people still get paid cash weekly in little pay envelopes.

o We still have an annual “pledge drive” in the fall even though a very high percentage of us no longer make our living from agriculture and therefore wait until harvest season to see how we did for the year. Not to mention that some of us won’t know what we will be making in the next year because new salary adjustments don’t happen until January.

o We plan our annual stewardship programs around our annual budgeting process and then wonder why our people don’t get it when we tell them that they aren’t giving “merely to support a budget.”

o We host Time & Talent drives and thereby feed the unholy notion that the only spiritually significant work that Christian people do in the world is volunteer for church stuff. That isn’t our theology, it has nothing to do with the idea of the priesthood of believers unleashed into the world to serve the world (and therefore fulfill God’s will) in their normal home/family/daily work lives. So why do we do it? And then, when it doesn’t work as intended, do we complain about the same people doing the same things all the time?

o And I will value Charles Lane’s exegesis of Luke 12:34 (beginning with reminding us of how easy it is to remember that verse reference…1,2,3,4) in seeing the relationship of our treasures and our hearts as Invitation rather than Prescription. If we want our heart to be more engaged in something, it helps to send our money there first.

At the end of the day, God will provide for our needs. Not only our daily needs but for the needs of the ministry of God’s church. And we in turn do well to remember what Martin Luther taught us about the 4th petition of the Lords’ Prayer: In fact, God gives daily bread without our prayer, even to all evil people, but we ask in this prayer that God cause us to recognize what our daily bread is and to receive it with thanksgiving.

Thank you for the privilege of serving the church here in the office of the Texas-Lutheran Gulf Coast Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Thank you, good people of Faith Lutheran Church in Bellaire, Texas, for taking the risk of inviting me into your presence for the next twenty years (I hope neither of us live to regret that.)

May God bless and guide us as we seek to be a part of a network of growing, Christ-centered, outwardly focused congregations passing the faith to the next generation.


Evangelism and Our Target Audience: Part 3

November 15, 2010

By Pastor Kerry Nelson

Connecting with Spiritual Orphans, Prodigal Children and the Blessed Rest

Spiritual orphans (those baptized but not raised in a Christian community), prodigal children (those who were raised in the church but fled to the far country at the first available opportunity) and the blessed rest (those who expect a local congregation to provide meaning, ministry and mission for the good of the world) live in and around all of our congregations.

No doubt there are many other “spiritual types” out there in the world but these three seem particularly “reachable” by traditional Lutheran congregations – who are willing to be open-minded, open-hearted and adaptable in creating safe and meaningful opportunities for people to find their place in the life of the congregation.

What follows now are some suggestions on what connecting with these spiritual types might look life in our worship and ministry.

Connecting with Spiritual Orphans

Spiritual orphans, even more than prodigal children, are quick to describe themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious.” Often they have been burned along their life journey by religion and religious people. For many, that began in their homes as they internalized the negative messages they received from their (often prodigal children) parents.

They might show up alone and unannounced at church on a Sunday morning but they are more likely to come at the invitation of a friend. They are looking for relationships, good relationships, trustworthy relationships.

The good news about spiritual orphans is that most of them are not yet fully inoculated against coming down with a full blown case of Christianity. But – if we are going to create a safe place for them – we need to pay special attention to the following:

1. Emphasis (and commitment to) the inclusive love of God for all people. If we pick and choose who we will accept, spiritual orphans will smell a rat and see how easily they could also be rejected. This is where the unchurched world rejects the church because of racism and homophobia.

2. The practice of radical hospitality in every area of our life together. If we fall prey to “birds of a feather flocking together” in forming congregational cliques, or saying that “everyone here is related to someone else somehow”, spiritual orphans will only be reminded that they are, and will forever be, outsiders from the club.

3. We need to make a high priority of offering “first steps of the faith” experiences for those new to our congregational ministries. More than new member classes (but obviously including them as well), we need to have relational messages and systems in place to help people learn what it means for them to be Christians, and to practice the Christian faith, in ways that are helpful to them and the world around them.

4. A growing network of relational small groups help spiritual orphans find a place and a group of people to belong to in life-affirming ways.

Connecting with Prodigal Children

Prodigal children are those who were raised in Christian community but bolted and haven’t often looked back. They are our sons, daughters and grandchildren. But, given the slim loyalty contemporary people attach to denominational heritage, it doesn’t much matter what denomination they were raised in. If a life crisis opens their minds to the possibility of returning to church, they are usually more interested in finding a church that works in their lives than in finding a Lutheran church that works in their lives.

It is precisely for the sake of prodigal children that we are invited to think about our Sunday morning worship experiences from the point of view of the story from Luke 15. The father was overjoyed to see his long lost son coming up the road. He was prepared to see that son because he had been checking that road every day, every time he stepped out on the porch. He greeted his son with a warm embrace, oblivious to his son’s carefully crafted apology. And he threw a party for him, celebrating his return to the place he had always belonged.

This – if we are going to be evangelistically effective with prodigal children – needs to be the operative image in our mind as we plan and conduct our worship life. Absolutely central to this is the realization that, if a prodigal child is going to hear Good News upon their return home, then what they discover there has to be both GOOD and NEW.

If a prodigal child returns to their grandma’s Lutheran church, to a service planned for, led by and intended to reach, the elder brothers of Luke 15, they might stick around long enough to get their hurt healed but they’ll be gone by morning.

Central to an experience of Sunday morning worship targeted to prodigal children (and a safe landing place for spiritual orphans) is a spirit of hospitality and celebration, anticipation and removal of any shaming moments (experienced as an unwelcomed feeling of sticking out and self-consciousness) and both relevance and applicability to modern life.

A spirit of hospitality begins with…

o the care and appearance of the church property

o the ambience of the gathering space

o the openness of the people and the absence of insider language

o the presence of food/refreshments

o a worship service that anticipates the needs of someone brand new

o the promise, communicated in worship, that help is available to people in crisis within the ministries offered by the congregation

A note of celebration is sounded in worship when…

o there is a palpable feeling of joy and honesty in the room

o the music and prayer life of the gathering uplifts the spirits of those in worship

o as much time is given to human hopes and aspirations as to human illness and the brokenness of life

Pastors and worship leaders strive toward the removal of “shaming moments” in the service. Such shaming moments include:

o Entering largely empty worship spaces where the congregation has failed to pay attention to the ratio of available seating to the average number of attenders. We need to provide seating so that each service is 50% – 80% full. Visitors like to sit at the end of the rows, more to the back of the room. When members hog those seats they make it uncomfortable for a visitor to enter into worship.

o Forcing visitors to self-identify and therefore stick out. Pew registers require being passed down a row – when a prodigal child or spiritual orphan sits in a row by themselves they don’t know what to do. Using communication cards that are given to everyone, and filled out by everyone at some point in the service, accomplishes our need to track visitors (and follow up with them) without shame.

o Uncomfortable downtime created when worship leaders are not prepared or ready during the transition moments in worship. There is nothing spiritually significant or helpful watching someone walk down to the front of the church to read a lesson. It just looks like we don’t know what we are doing and it makes a visitor self conscious rather than being caught up in the movement of the worship experience.

o Children’s sermons inevitably detract from the movement of the service. Visitors with children are stuck making a decision about whether or not to send their children forward, perhaps battling with the wishes of their children. In some settings, the one or two grandchildren who go forward strike an unconscious chord of memory or desire (I remember when we had a lot of children around here or I wish we had more.) And usually (except when given by people with the gift of publicly communicating with children) the lessons are exactly the kind of banal moralisms that prodigal children ran away from. (And, for those pastors who say, “But people tell me that they ‘get more out of’ the children’s sermon than the regular sermon”, see below.) Don’t do children’s sermons.

o “Passing the peace” that encourages people to leave their seats, wandering around the sanctuary interminably, often lasting three or more minutes. This is death to the prodigal child who might actually be close to tears having just heard a word of hope in a sermon or sensed God in the prayers of the church. Suddenly they are being accosted by well meaning people they don’t know and forced to shake hands with strangers. While it is significant that, precisely in the point in the service where we are going to receive Jesus in bread and wine, we begin our preparations by exchanging a hand of fellowship with another human being, we need to do it without shame. Worship leaders can greet one another and then the musician can come in with music as the worship leaders sit down.

A worship experience has a better chance of being relevant and applicable to modern life when it is planned and conducted in view of the fact that we live In an age when few people read music, fewer listen to classical or organ during the week, and the majority of people are functionally biblically illiterate. We can address these issues by:

o Printing everything needed for worship in a nicely laid out bulletin or projecting everything onto video screens

o Having one strong voice singing into a microphone to carry the congregation into music that might be unfamiliar (people find it easier to sing along with a voice rather than with the congregation as a whole)

o Transposing music pitched too high down to a range where a baritone can comfortably sing the melody

o Preaching with passion, conviction and intellectual honesty.

– Think “five minutes at a time” broken up with interesting movements – stories, videos, humor, interviews, etc.

– Think “teaching” as much as preaching.

– Preach to 8th graders and you’ll hit everybody.

– Dig more deeply into the Bible rather than picking a topic and leaving the Bible behind

– Use visual aids and some of the things you used to use when you preached children’s sermons.

– Don’t adopt a “preachy” tone or pulpit voice.

– Be who God made you to be, don’t pretend to be someone you aren’t.

– Intentionally preach to men during portions of every sermon.

– Draw illustrations from real life, newspaper, pop culture and personal experiences.

When a prodigal child walks into a worship service that was tailored with them in mind, he or she will have a sense that “something is different”, “something has changed.” They might not even like all the changes but that is far better than leaving them with the idea that “nothing about the church has changed in all these years.” If they are return to the same place they left, they will most likely leave again.

In addition to a celebrational worship service that is both good and new, effective congregational ministries will have programs and people in place to help prodigal children in their daily lives, especially in processing and working through the crisis that brought them back to church. If it all works, they might find themselves home again to stay.

Connecting with the Blessed Rest

In the old days, it was almost expected that people have some kind of connection to Christian community. It wasn’t simply an ethnic expectation (to be Roman Catholic if you were Irish or Italian, or Lutheran if you were German or Norwegian) but also a cultural expectation. Bank loan forms asked for your denominational identity or your church home. Politicians were expected to be connected to a church. It ought to be no surprise that those days are long gone.

But aspects of that way of thinking still linger among our older members who are part of the blessed rest. They remain part of our ministries out of a strong sense of duty, loyalty and heritage. But the most mature among them realize there is more to Christian community than that. They want to see meaningful ministry happen and they are willing to make it happen.

Strangely, in this same spiritual camp are those who are radically disengaged from the church but who are socially conscious and aware of the real human hurts and hopes of contemporary life. They want to be involved in making the world a better place. Congregations can potentially become channels for their involvement.

Unchurched people among the blessed rest are far more likely to turn up at a volunteer opportunity at the invitation of a friend than they are in worship on Sunday morning. Therefore the key here is to make sure than our congregations are involved in various types of missional work that benefit the wider community.

In the old days, the pattern might have been 1) believe, 2) join, and 3) participate. That has changed. Among the blessed rest, especially around younger people, the pattern has now become 1) participate in something connected to the church, moast likely an activity happening out in the world, for the good of the world, 2) join in a worship or learning experience geared to their place in life, and 3) be surprised to discover that they are drifting into a new place in their belief in God.

We Can Do Better

As the church continues to wrestle with all the changes that have rolled over us in the past 100 years, as we come to grips with our diminishing influence and increased marginalization in the world, there is a temptation to batten down the hatches of our lives and close ourselves off from the world. That is a death spiral.

There are certainly times when we feel discouraged and frustrated. Times when we wonder if the church isn’t the problem rather than part of God’s answer. It feels at times like the church is the only team that we’ve played on that tries its best to lose.

But we can do better.

In every synod across the country, there are Lutheran congregations who continue to be effective evangelical missions. They have adapted – dare we say reformed themselves – to do what it takes to connect with new people. Knowingly or not, they have found ways to connect with spiritual orphans, prodigal children and the blessed rest.

If one congregation can do that, any congregation can do that. We can do better.


Evangelism and Our Target Audience: Part 2

November 8, 2010

By Pastor Kerry Nelson

Spiritual Orphans, Prodigal Children and the Blessed Rest

In Part 1, I lifted up the possibility that planning around a “target audience” might in fact be a key for us in discovering what it takes to be more evangelistically effective in our ministries. In Part 2 below I describe three “spiritual types” that might find a home in our congregations, if we are prepared for them. And then in Part 3, I will list some possible changes and adaptations we might consider in worship and ministry that are specifically targeted at these three target audiences.

If I was to look at the community surrounding a local church building, I could seek to better understand it sociologically. That is what we usually do. So we turn to demographic studies as noted above in constructing Saddleback Sam. But I think it might be – in our day – more helpful to look at that same community spiritually.

Doing this well requires thinking deeply about the faith. Often re-thinking the faith.

We need to realize that God is “out there” in the world just as much as God is “in here” in the church. Evangelism isn’t what we do in isolation of the movement of God’s Spirit but rather it is what we do in cooperation with that Spirit in the world around us. The faith wasn’t simply incarnated in Jesus but, in fact, continues to incarnate in and through us as we move into the world – and in and through the world as it comes to us. We will ever be both saint and sinner, we will ever be both evangelizer’s and the evangelized. This gives us humility.

We need to realize that faith means more than intellectual assent to doctrinal and biblical assertions – faith means following Jesus. We need to understand that “sin” is a meaningless word without making a theological term real using synonyms like brokenness, alienation, meaningless, and shame. Especially shame for that is the feeling of deep unworthiness and separateness that plagues people. Recognizing this in ourselves and others is the source of our passion, and of our compassion.

We need to rethink “justification” beyond simply the declaration of forgiveness toward actually being transformed by God’s love. And we need to think of “salvation” as healing, as wholenss, as restoration, rather than as “getting our ticket punched” to heaven.

Re-read and think more deeply about the previous three paragraphs and you will quickly realize that this re-thinking is actually what we have hoped for, longed for, and maybe even experienced all the way along in our faith journeys.

Now we bring such thinking to the world around us. Who do we see out there?

Spiritual Orphans

For example, some of the people in our community are spiritual orphans. At some point in their past they were brought into a spiritual community. Among Christians, they might have been baptized Lutheran or Roman Catholic or Episcopalian or any other among the communities of the Christian faith. But, simply put, their parents didn’t keep their promises. They were introduced to their Heavenly Father but not raised in God’s family. Through neglect or other forces beyond their control, they were orphaned. Now they are drifting through their lives, still hungry for that sense of connectedness, of belonging, represented by “family”.

Like physical orphans, they struggle with the push/pull of abandonment issues. They look for love in all the wrong places. They are susceptible to anyone who comes along, who loves them, who helps them with a sense of belonging. But they are fickle. At the first sniff of rejection or relational difficulties, they bolt. And travel on, unconsciously or not, looking for another place to land.

Prodigal Children

Another group of people surrounding our church buildings are prodigal children.

Prodigal children are people who were raised in the Christian faith, often but not always with families who were deeply dedicated and committed to congregational life. Among Lutherans, these were kids who were baptized, who went to Sunday worship and Sunday School, were confirmed, participated in youth group, went to summer camp, sang in Christmas programs – and then, in high school for many of them, in college for the rest of them, either actively bolted or casually drifted away from participation in Christian community.

Emancipated from their parents, they self-emancipated themselves from the Christian faith. Like the prodigal son of Luke 15, they went off with the heritage of faith that had been given them and squandered it by doing their own thing.

For a long time, people believed (and enough people did it to secure the belief) that young people would drift off to sow their oats but, once they had children of their own, they would be back at church. Increasingly, that is not the case. Ask any long time gray-haired member of any Lutheran Church about the faith lives of their children and grandchildren and you will hear about prodigal children that have wandered off to far countries.

The good news is that life continues to happen for prodigal children. The bad news is that life hurts. Like it or not, crisis moments come into the lives of prodigal children and sometimes those crisis moments are enough to open them to the possibility that help is available back home at church.

These crisis moments might include painful experiences like sudden illness, the death of a friend or family member, the loss of a job, moving to a new city and feeling alone, or even something like the cultural shattering of a 9/11 or an economic meltdown. There are also “good” crises like deciding to get married or the birth of a child or some kind of surprising spiritual awakening.

Regardless of the cause, one day the prodigal child makes a decision to go back home. In our case, that most likely means visiting a Christian congregation on a Sunday morning for a worship service. They are looking for help, healing and hope. Some – but certainly not all – of that will begin for them in a worship service.

The Blessed Rest

And then the final group that lives around our congregations I call the “blessed rest.” That includes everyone else – strangely enough, agnostics and lifetime mature Christian disciples end up in this same boat. The blessed rest look to the church for meaning, ministry and mission. They expect the church to be doing things to improve the world. They want to know that the church is making a difference.

In the last congregation I served, we refurbished the homes of low income African American senior citizens by working with a program called “Rebuilding Together.” Each time we tackled a new project, someone would bring along a friend or a co-worker whom we had never met. Sometimes these were people who had nothing to do with the church. But after spending a couple of weekends working alongside the mature Christians who showed up to serve others, relationships began, conversations happened, and then we would see those new faces in worship.

The blessed rest are intellectually curious, socially conscious, and are not interested in congregational ministry that is turned in upon itself. They want to make a positive difference in the world and they hope that their congregation will lead them in discovering ways to do just that.

Further Thoughts

1. Do you personally “fit” one of these three spiritual types?

2. As you look at your congregation, do you see people who fit these three spiritual types? Where do most of your people fit?

3. As you imagine the community around your church building, do you see signs of the spiritual types living among you?

4. As you assess how you do ministry in your context, which spiritual types are you now best prepared to receive and engage?


Evangelism and Our Target Audience: Part 1

November 1, 2010

By Pastor Kerry Nelson

 

Connecting with increasing numbers of new people, disciple-making, opening our front doors, is “evangelism”. Evangelism is congregational outreach, congregational mission. (Tending to those within the community is disciple-shaping, closing our back doors, congregational inreach, congregational ministry.)

There are many angles into the question of “evangelism.” For the purposes of this article, let’s start with a working definition of evangelism and the possibilities of the concept of a “target audience”.

My working definition of evangelism is as follows:

Evangelism is connecting relationally with people who live with a kind of wishy washy, ill-formed, myth-ridden shadowy-Sunday School spirituality, with the goal of helping them to a new place where they identify themselves as Christian, actively participate in Christian community, and express their new faith in some form of personal ministry.

A shorter definition: Helping people discover a faith that works in their lives and makes a difference in the world.

Defining evangelism is the easy part and not terribly controversial. Actually doing it is the challenge we face.

The sad fact is that evangelism is one of the “four letter words” of the faith among many of our people. (Stewardship is the other.) Evangelism is, for most of our people, saddled with images of judgmentalism, self righteousness, door knocking and shame. Not a pretty picture. No wonder we don’t do it. And when we try, don’t do it well.

Now to the question of a “target audience”.

The idea of a target audience, at first glance, hardly seems biblical. Abraham and Sarah were blessed to be blessings to all nations, to the whole world. Jesus called his disciples to go into the whole world to make disciples. At first glance, the idea of a target audience, of carefully doing what it takes to intentionally connect with some, according to their particularities in culture, taste, comfort, lifestyle, gifts, etc. seems much more tied to Madison Avenue than it does to following Jesus.

Unless we listen to words like:

“These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel…” Matthew 10:5-6

Or, repeated again five chapters later:

And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” Matthew 15:24-25

Or, from the marching orders of Jesus to the fledgling new church in Acts:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8

(Although it helps), we don’t have to be experts in the Bible or church history to understand that there were stark and significant cultural differences between those living in Jerusalem and those living “to the ends of the earth”. Unless, of course, you believe that reaching the “ends of the earth” meant only connecting with the Jews of the Diaspora who were pretty much just like those in Jerusalem. In that case, a one-size-fits-all approach to the Christian faith might have worked…but probably not.

But the Bible doesn’t allow us to go there. Clearly, (Galatians 1:16), Paul understood himself as having been specifically set aside to carry the message of the faith to Gentiles. They were his target audience.

The point here is that there is biblical warrant and justification for the idea of focused effort to connect with a specifically targeted group of people.

The Rick Warren’s, Bill Hybel’s and the non-denominational world have been comfortable with the idea of target audiences for many years now. Drawing upon one of the principles of the church growth movement, the principle of homogeneity, (that birds of a feather flock together), they intentionally study their local demographics and construct their ideal church member.

Usually this is some form of “Saddleback Sam” and “Saddleback Sally”. Anglo, middle to upper class, married, well educated, doesn’t shop at WalMart, two children, a house in the suburbs and a dog. Nelson Searcy, a product of this school of thought, went to Manhattan to build a congregation among “young, urban, single, professionals.”

Ministry, especially all that goes into worship, is then carefully tailored to the “felt needs” (the culture) of the target audience. So Nelson Searcy began the first worship services of his congregation, Journey, in a comedy club. It made perfect sense in his goal of connecting with his target audience. Of the 26 people who attended his first worship service, he made a very targeted special effort to connect with four of them because they alone represented his target audience. He invited everyone back but he invited those four into his inner circle and invested his time and energy deeply into them.

Traditional Lutherans find this repugnant.

Traditional Lutherans tend to think that, regardless of demographics and sociology, there is a “one size fits all” way of doing the Christian faith together. Not only that, but they are SUPPOSED to do it that way. Ministry done that way, including worship, ought to be good enough for everyone. Ministry targeted to specific folks should happen somewhere other than worship in the life of a congregation.

Traditional Lutherans generally don’t like the idea of a “target audience.” They find it offensive. They like to think that their audience for what they offer, in worship and every other part of congregational ministry, is for everybody.

Yet reality tells us that this is not the case. If what we do really is for everybody, and if that idea is working for us, then it seems to me we should be seeing the results of effective evangelism among us – growing Christians, growing congregations, growing diversity. But it isn’t. We’re not. We’re growing older and smaller and have been for a long long time. A few congregations that ARE growing and doing effective evangelism stick out, but generally we’re not.

Looking deeper (which we seldom do), we might realize that we really operate with a subconscious sense of who everybody is – frankly, people like us. We carry our own sense of Saddleback Sam and Sally without really realizing it. We don’t SAY that our target audience is “white, English-speaking, hopefully German/Norwegian/Swedish/Danish, who love organ music, traditional liturgy, Sunday School modeled after secular education and potluck dinners.” We don’t say it…but that is what we do.

We tailor what we do to our own personal tastes, regardless of its evangelical impact in the real lives of real people in ways that are really effective.

We offer organ music because organ music is our tradition, our heritage, what we are really pretty good at. Besides, we like organ music. In our heart of hearts, “worship” means organ music to us. (I’m picking on organ music here but could easily add classic hymns, vestments, paraments, pews, candles, communion ware, acolytes, choirs, flowers, hospital visits and everything else that traditional Lutherans revolt against removing, reforming or adapting.)

Our target audience, for worship and much of our ministries, therefore is…US. Ouch. No wonder we are getting older and smaller.

But what if, far from being anti-biblical, Madison Avenue hype, we rethink the idea of a target audience? What if we discovered that it is precisely in being VERY intentional in defining our own sense of target audience, and then tailoring what we do to reach that target, we might discover the very renewal and evangelistic effectiveness that we seek?

In defense of the idea of a target audience, it is simply true that the more carefully we “aim”, the more likely we are to hit our target. The more conscious we are of what we want to accomplish, the more likely we are to align our strategies and actions to our goal.

Therefore, when I talk about evangelism with people, I like to come at this question, the question of a target audience, in such a way that it brings traditional Lutherans into the conversation. Stay tuned next week for Part 2.


Motivating Factors for Positive Change

October 22, 2010

By Pastor Kerry Nelson

How do you influence positive change in a congregation, across a synod or even across the wider church? If anyone suggests there is an easy answer to that question, run the other way. But it is a question that needs to be asked and some effort at an answer needs to be embodied in the life of the institution if there is hope for positive change.

I’ve long held the belief that there are three sources of motivation in the life of a congregation:

1. Inspiration – Call it “whispers from the Holy Spirit” or excitement generated by the passion of a leader or a life changing event or new insights given in prayer. Sometimes a congregation can be inspired with a fresh vision for the future worth striving toward.

2. Education – It is both a truism and true – we don’t know what we don’t know. Sometimes, in the face of challenges and obstacles, we can gain a fresh perspective and a new kind of action/strategy when we come across new ideas, hearing the voice of experience, from continuing education events, outside consultants, books, etc.

3. Desperation – And sometimes we get to that jumping off point where it becomes crystal clear that, if anything is going to change, something has to change.

Surely there are more motivating factors than these, but this is a good place to start. As leaders in the church, which of these do we find motivate us? Which of these do we turn to as we seek to motivate positive change in our congregations?

If our best efforts at motivating positive change don’t seem to be working…is it time to seek new insight or try a new strategy? Reading books brings the voice of those who have been there before into our lives. Continuing education events where we go (maybe bringing our people with us) can provide road maps that can help. If the congregational system seems too “change averse”, it might be time to bring in someone from outside the system who can take us places we otherwise wouldn’t know to go on our own.

I’ve been talking recently to the staff of Church Innovations, Inc. which serves the church through an effort they call the “Partnership for Missional Church.” Participating congregations form clusters for a 3-5 year process of learning how to listen to God’s voice, discover God’s preferred future, and live into that future as a community of faith. The “voice from the outside” comes in the form of three annual retreats led by a trained consultant and the experiences shared with the other cluster partners.

What I find particularly attractive about the possibility of engaging in such a process is that it “hits” all the motivating factors. We could be inspired by fresh perspectives and the witness of other congregations that turned toward more effective congregational mission in the church and the world. We could learn new personal and congregational skills that we don’t now know that will serve us in serving others. And we would be guided to submit, to surrender, in new ways to the possibility that God can do through us what we cannot do on our own – which is the life giving insight we receive when we come to that place where we become open to God’s leadership.

Where this process would start is raising the funds for our synod to join this partnership and then identifying a cluster of 12-14 congregations willing to play. The Central States Synod has been engaged in this process for several years now and those participating bear witness to the positive directions they are turning.

Is this something that our synod needs to look into?