For The Someday Book

Archive for the ‘Church Stuff’ Category

Rich Church, Poor Church: Keys to Effective Financial Ministry by J. Clif Christopher. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2012. 108 pp.

Rich Church Poor ChurchThis review was originally published at the Center for Faith and Giving, who provided this book to me for review and gave permission to share here as well. If you want more strategies to become a Rich Church, I recommend their work and resources highly. They are a ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a sister denomination to my own United Church of Christ.

We’ve probably all heard a convicting sermon—a message in which we recognize for ourselves how our lives have strayed from God and feel compelled to turn ourselves around, seek forgiveness, and try again. J. Clif Christopher’s Rich Church, Poor Church was a convicting book for me. With every chapter, I could catalog the ways in which my congregation has been following the bad habits of a “poor church.” However, like any good convicting sermon, Christopher’s book did not abandon me to my despair—he points the way to a future of redemption, with clear, practical, action and attitude oriented measures for churches to move from scarcity to abundance.

Rich Church, Poor Church has nothing to do with the economic status of the people who worship in the pews. What Christopher means by a “poor church” is one that is “always behind financially and searching for money, as compared to what I witness in churches that are not always struggling to find resources for mission and ministry (Rich Church).” (ix) The book catalogs the different behaviors and practices of these kinds of communities.

For example, one chapter talks about how Rich Churches focus on mission. Everything they do is about serving people, changing lives, making disciples and following Jesus. In a Poor Church, you will instead hear a great deal of conversation about the survival of the church, the need for more money, the costs of caring for the facility, and meeting the needs of the members who are already involved. Most powerfully, while the Rich Church is talking about what Jesus needs, the Poor Church is talking about what the church needs. (My own church’s recent stewardship and budget process failed miserably by Christopher’s measure.)

The chapters continue with discussions about debt management, communication, asking for support, being thankful, sharing information about giving, and more. Each chapter begins with a simple table, listing the practices of Rich Churches on one side and Poor Churches on the other. The chapters conclude with a set of questions for discussion, making this book ideal for group conversation. The book is short and easy to read, and would be a great tool in multiple settings of the church.

I’m planning to order copies for my leadership team, because we need to hear this convicting message, stop pursuing practices that are only making the problems worse, and be moved to change our ways and follow more faithfully, so that we can stop feeling like a Poor Church and start being a Rich Church.

The Advent Conspiracy: Can Christmas Still Change the World? by Rick McKinley, Chris Seay and Greg Holder. Zondervan, 2009, 151 pp.

Advent ConspiracyI’ll start with a confession of prejudice: Zondervan makes me nervous. They publish mostly materials from a more conservative theological position, and I often find their titles to be interesting at first, but disappointing or downright offensive upon closer examination. If Zondervan makes you nervous too, fear not. The Advent Conspiracy is the real deal. While you won’t find a progressive theology or inclusive language, you will find solid theology and biblical interpretation, alongside a commitment to overcoming consumerism and responding with compassion to the crisis of poverty.

The Advent Conspiracy starts in a familiar place: the feeling that consumerism has robbed Christmas of its sacred purpose.  However, rather than just passionately insisting that we remember “Jesus is the reason for the season,” the authors address the real pressures we all face around secular Christmas traditions, and invite us to practical, challenging steps to reshaping our experience of the season. They do not suggest we can easily accommodate Jesus in our otherwise secular celebrations, and they refuse to make peace with consumerism.

 

Consumerism requires our consciences to stay detached from the moral consequences of our purchases. We buy without thinking beyond the price and the promise of a newer, better self. Yet we ought not to deceive ourselves: this is a religion, and this is worship. (26)

In response, they issue four short instructions, in four short chapters: Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, Love All.  The chapter on Worship Fully looks at what we truly worship versus what we say we worship, and looks at Mary (including the radical Magnificat), Joseph, the Shepherds and Wise Men as examples of worship. The Spend Less section encourages us to look at all our spending and see if it is true to what we say we believe. It is not about avoiding spending, it is about being more intentional and spending on things that matter. They quote C.S. Lewis:

I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc. is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them. (61)

The chapter on Give More encourages us not just to give to charity, but to give better and more thoughtfully when we give gifts to those we love. They discuss giving relationally–gifts that are costly (not necessarily in dollars), honor the recipient and relationship. No more cheap junk to fulfill an obligation. Finally, the Love All section turns toward giving for the poor. It encourages all Christians to honor the God who came to live among the poor by showing a real and lasting commitment to serving the poor in the world today, especially highlighting a water project in which the authors are deeply invested.

The book has an accompanying DVD series, and a lesson plan for each chapter at the back. We offered it as a series at my church, but it was hastily organized and lightly attended. I would like to do it again, and do it better. This is a great resource, and I encourage more churches to make use of it.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThis past Sunday was Pentecost, the day we commemorate the arrival of the Holy Spirit as described in Acts 2, a day often called the birthday of the church. It’s one of my favorite stories in all of scripture. The drama of the wind and fire, the many voices speaking the good news of Christ, the power of Peter’s preaching, the crowds moved to follow.

Inspired by this wonderful article by my colleague Rev. Emily C. Heath, I started thinking about what it meant to be a Pentecost Church. I want to be part of a ministry as vibrant and alive with the Holy Spirit as that second chapter of Acts. What happened at Pentecost, and can it happen in our churches today? Can we carry on the spirit of the Spirit? What would be the marks of such a congregation, a Pentecost Church?

(This is not to be confused with a Pentecostal Church, a tradition which traces its roots to the Azusa Street Revival. The marks of a Pentecostal Church include baptism by the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues.)

Drawing on that original story in Acts, I’ve identified six marks of a Pentecost Church. These are elements of a church alive with the Holy Spirit, and could describe any church that aspired to embody them.

1. A Pentecost Church is touched by the Holy Spirit.

A Pentecost Church actually believes the Holy Spirit is alive and moving among the congregation. They anticipate that God will show up and do something to them and through them that will amaze and inspire.  This seems obvious, but I’ve been in plenty of churches that expect very little of the Holy Spirit in their worship services. Some churches even act as though they are hoping the Spirit in her wildness doesn’t show up, because it might mess with their plans and patterns. By contrast, a Pentecost Church expects the Holy Spirit to surprise  and delight, and also to provoke and disrupt. She may cause a spontaneous outburst of applause, or tears, or laughter, or an “amen” from the depths of the soul. A Pentecost Church gathers with the expectation that the Holy Spirit will join them, and watches with joy when the Spirit blows through.

2. A Pentecost Church speaks multiple languages.

The miracle of the original Pentecost was the ability to share Christ’s good news in all the languages of the ancient world. A Pentecost Church today must speak in the many languages of the modern world. That doesn’t just mean English, Spanish, Creole, Mandarin and Tagalog. Today’s “many languages” include the language of multiple generations. A Pentecost Church endeavors to deliver the good news to some in traditional worship and bible study, to others via Facebook and Twitter. A Pentecost Church pursues fluency in social media and popular culture, in books and movies and television characters. The church must avoid insider language that is only meaningful to those who already attend (see Rev. Heath’s article for a great explanation of this). While no church can be all things to all people, a Pentecost Church constantly works to translate the good news of Jesus Christ into as many languages as possible, so that everyone can hear it. Their translation breaks down barriers between young and old, rich and poor, in and out, faith and no faith.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA3. A Pentecost Church dreams, visions and prophesies.

Peter’s Pentecost sermon promises that “Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams.” The thing about prophesies, dreams and visions is that they all move forward into the future. A Pentecost Church is not preoccupied with the past—it is captivated by the future. In a Pentecost Church, everybody has dreams and visions for what the church can be and how God will be calling them into bold possibilities. Young people have visions for the church’s future, and they are trusted with the power to execute those visions. Elders do not hold tight to current habits, intent to preserve their way of doing church for themselves. They also dream dreams, foreseeing the church living on without them in ways that are even more beautiful and holy than they could have predicted. By the power of the Holy Spirit, a Pentecost Church faces forward.

4. A Pentecost Church is visible in the community.

Pentecost was the day that the church went public. After the disciples and followers spent time alone with Jesus following the resurrection, the arrival of the Holy Spirit carried them out of their upper room and into the streets. A Pentecost Church understands its life as a public witness, a beacon of hope and a mission outpost for God’s love. Whether it is serving hungry neighbors, giving out clothing, taking a stand for social justice, responding to a natural disaster, marching in the local parade, or showing up at a city council meeting, a Pentecost Church is a visible force, a vehicle for the Spirit’s love in the world. They do not hide from the public eye, but strive to be a force for good in their local community. (Again, Rev. Heath’s article tackles this with greater depth.)

5. A Pentecost Church changes lives.

When the crowd/community witnessed the Pentecost preaching from Peter, the scripture says they were troubled and wondered what to do. Peter replied, “Change your hearts and lives.” A Pentecost Church is a church that changes lives—of members, newcomers, visitors and community members. The Holy Spirit comes to disrupt and transform us. A Pentecost Church that expects the Holy Spirit also expects people to be transformed by that encounter. A Pentecost Church anticipates that when people meet the Holy Spirit in worship and fellowship, they will be inspired to greater love, kindness, generosity and faithfulness. They will even be moved to abandon their fears, let go of old wounds, practice forgiveness, overcome addiction, and turn their lives around. A Pentecost Church is full of people who have been changed by grace, and continue to be transformed by love.

pentecost6. A Pentecost Church seems just a little bit crazy.

Changing your life in response to the Holy Spirit, or getting ridiculously happy over seeing someone else’s life changing, or telling people that you have decided to spend your cash and your weekends serving the poor, or spontaneously clapping and rejoicing in worship can seem like strange behavior. That first Pentecost, the crowd declared that the disciples were acting so happy because they had gotten drunk at 9:00 a.m. A Pentecost Church has that kind of joyous intoxication of the Holy Spirit that sparks carefree laughter, unprompted kindness and a willingness to do whatever it takes to share God’s love with the world. Don’t be surprised if a visit to a Pentecost Church leaves you feeling a little high. The Holy Spirit does that.

A Pentecost Church is full of Pentecost People.

This is the most important mark of all. A Pentecost Church is filled with Pentecost people–people who have been touched by the Holy Spirit, people whose lives have been changed by their encounter with Jesus Christ, people who see visions and dream dreams, people who venture out of closed church doors and into the community, people who speak both the language of God and the language of the world, people crazy with the joyous love of God. The Pentecost Church creates, supports and sends these Pentecost People into the world, carrying the Holy Spirit with them wherever they go, in love and joy.

What do you think? Is your church a Pentecost Church? Would you like it to be?

communion-table1He was one of the great saints of the church, and he was dying.

I had been visiting him and his wife in their home for several years, because his health had been too poor to come to church. Every time, they prepared an elaborate meal, setting out the best silver and china, special candles and napkins for Holy Communion at the dining room table. I told them over and over that they did not need to go to such trouble, but they insisted. Because of the fancy meal, my visits would often last four hours or more, yet still he protested that we didn’t have enough time.

I could tell that the elaborate preparations had become a burden. As he grew weaker, I urged him to put aside the extravagant meal and just let me pay a pastoral call. He refused to let me come unless he could meet his own high standards of hospitality. If he was unable to cook, he would not let me visit. We talked on the phone, but I did not see him for several months.

When he called me from the doctor’s office, it was late Epiphany, February-cold. He never used a cell phone, so I was startled to hear his voice. There were no more treatments left. He would be starting hospice care. They were preparing to tell their children. A man of deep faith, he was not afraid of dying, but he was shocked that his life, even after nearly 90 years, was coming to an end. He protested that he just didn’t have enough time.

The next day, I reached his wife on the phone. She immediately acquiesced to my request to visit, with only the holy bread and cup for our meal. When I arrived, we embraced, but he grew agitated that he was not able to provide his regular hospitality. “I just wish we could sit down at the table. I don’t have anything set. This is not how it should be.” I tried to reassure him that I was there to minister to him, as he had ministered to so many others before. My words seemed a formality, but his distress was real, as if an admission of his deteriorating condition.

Then his wife spoke: “After Easter,” she said. “After Easter. We’ll talk about it after Easter.”

It wasn’t even Ash Wednesday. We doubted he would live through Lent, much less regain enough strength to host a meal again. Yet her words comforted him, and me. After Easter. He calmed, and we spoke at length of life and death, of love and faith. The reminder of resurrection freed us to face the reality of his condition. Easter was more than a date on the calendar, it was the promise of eternity.

I returned every week after, twice a week towards the end. At every visit, he would speak of the meal we would share. “After Easter,” his wife and I replied. “After Easter,” he echoed.

He died a month later, kneeling beside his hospital bed in a posture of prayer. We buried him on the fourth Sunday of Lent.

I always miss him this time of year. We never did have enough time. Whenever I miss him, his hospitality, his faithful example, the meals we shared, I think to myself, “After Easter.” We shall sit together at the resurrection table, where Christ himself is host, with all the time in eternity to share. After Easter.

Advent StarI was born under an Advent star, the season of deep purple contemplation. The words of the prophets that we read in this season have always resonated deep in my soul.

In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

My spiritual personality is suited to the season of my birth. Like Advent, my spirit dwells more in the realm of possibility and promise than in the here and now. I pray in a state of anticipation, connecting to the God of the Prophets who promises justice, righteousness and peace. My spiritual gifts in ministry involve imagination, vision and leadership—helping people come together for a journey to an unknown place.

I wonder if the season of my birth is what gives me this Advent heart.

Zodiac

 

Many millions of people for many thousands of years have believed in the Zodiac, claiming that the alignment of the stars at your birth portends your character and your future. Could the same thing be true for those of us steeped in Christian tradition? Is the season of our birth like a Zodiac sign for our spiritual self?

Imagine what traits and gifts each sign might inherit.

Find your birth season on the liturgical calendar. (The short green section of Ordinary Time is also known as the season of Epiphany, especially in Protestant traditions, and I have used that designation here.)

Find your birth season on the liturgical calendar. (The short green section of Ordinary Time is also known as the season of Epiphany, especially in Protestant traditions. The large summer of Ordinary Time is also known as the season of Pentecost.  I have used those designations here.)

Advent: Those born in Advent come into this world with a deep longing that they carry with them throughout their whole lives. Their relationship with God is not about fulfilling that longing, which is a beloved companion, but about knowing that God shares their yearning for a better world.
Favorite Hymns: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel; For the Healing of the Nations; God of Grace and God of Glory
Favorite Scriptures: All the prophets, major and minor

Christmas: This is the shortest season, and those born in these twelve short days are always about incarnation. They are connected to the earth and the world, and see God’s mystery and beauty in ordinary, unexpected places. They are creators and builders, organizers and caregivers.
Favorite Hymns: For the Beauty of the Earth, O Little Town of Bethlehem
Favorite Scriptures: Creation stories

Epiphany: Epiphany’s child is born with a sense of wonder and delight that follows them throughout their lives. They see God’s manifestation everywhere, and radiate with a bright passion for the presence of God in our midst. Their relationship with God is filled with a sense of mystery and discovery, always finding God’s new appearances in their midst.
Favorite Hymns: Arise! Your Light Has Come; Be Thou My Vision
Favorite Scriptures: Gospel stories of Jesus’ teaching and ministry

Lent: Those born in Lent have a lifelong passion for God’s grace and redemption. They are not gloomy and guilt-ridden, but they have a profound grasp of the pain of sin and suffering. Consequently, they have boundless grace for sinners and endless compassion for any soul who suffers.
Favorite Hymns: Just as I am, Amazing Grace
Favorite Scriptures: Gospel stories of Jesus healing and forgiving sins

Easter: Easter people possess enormous zest for life. They are survivors who can overcome any challenge, and embrace change and newness with great energy and excitement. They excel at make-overs, turnarounds and renewals, confident of God’s power to change anything for the good.
Favorite Hymns: God’s Eye is on the Sparrow;  In the Garden; There is a Balm in Gilead
Favorite Scriptures: Stories of conversion, resurrection and transformation (Lazarus, Damascus Road, Jesus casting out demons)

Pentecost is a long season, united always by the attention to the Holy Spirit. However, there may be wide differences between those born closest to Pentecost and those born later in Ordinary Time.

Early Pentecost: Those born closest to the day of Pentecost show the fire and flair of the Spirit in all things. They are dramatic souls who prize a burning passion for God above all else in their faith life.  They are often talkative and extroverted, with a contagious energy that draws others in to see the Spirit at work.
Favorite Hymn: Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee; I Love to Tell the Story; How Great Thou Art
Favorite Scriptures: Any dramatic miracles (Pentecost, crossing the Red Sea, battle of Jericho)

Mid-Pentecost: People born in the middle of the Pentecost season are concerned about the presence of the Spirit in everyday life. They are pragmatic in their spirituality, and view their faith as a lifelong journey, taken one day at a time. They value unity, community and connectedness above all else, and they can point out the Spirit’s presence in the ordinary life of the church.
Favorite Hymns: The Church’s One Foundation; Blest Be the Tie That Binds; Great is Thy Faithfulness
Favorite Scriptures: Epistles

Late Pentecost: Those born in late Pentecost see the Spirit’s presence in the whole journey of  history from creation to redemption to culmination in “thy kingdom come.” They emphasize the eternity of God and the promise of life after death. They see themselves as just one generation in a long line of God’s faithful, taking spiritual strength from those who have gone before and those who will come after them.
Favorite Hymn: Forward through Ages; O God, Our Help in Ages Past
Favorite Scriptures: Apocalyptic Literature, Heroes of the Bible

This is my imagination. What’s yours? Does this connect to your spiritual life? Are you drawn to one of those types, and does it match the season of your birth? What would you add? What’s your sign?

Here since 1954.

I have driven by this church sign about once a month for the last four years. The words have remained unchanged in all that time: “Here since 1954.” Every time, it makes me wonder, “Does this church actually DO anything, or is it just here?”

“Here since 1954” makes me wonder if the church has ever moved or changed at all. Are they still doing things now like they did back then? The year 1954 evokes images of a Leave It To Beaver church, full of button-down boys and crinoline girls sitting neatly in a row. It is foreign to my broken life, to a living God, to a real community, to a world in need, to a message of hope and purpose.

“Here” is a noun, a place. Is this church’s greatest accomplishment simply existing, holding down their corner property on a prominent thoroughfare? Surely there must be some verbs alive and well since 1954. How much more interesting would it be if they replaced “here” with any number of action words? Serving, growing, learning, worshiping, inspiring, praying, witnessing, proclaiming, giving, living. Throw in a single bonus descriptor like “together” or “faithfully” or “this community” or even “God,” and the church becomes downright interesting.

I visited this church’s website, and they seem a lively enough place to worship. They had pictures of smiling people, vibrant altar colors, and sermon recordings online. The problem is: I drive by their building every week, and never knew any of that. How many of our churches suffer the same problem?

This church is not alone. I lift up this church’s example not to be snarky, but because their sign speaks to a deeper concern. Every time I drive, my heart hurts for the vitality of the gospel and the witness of the church. I know that there are people, especially those that live in the neighborhood, who are desperate for community, for good news, for hope and grace. I believe that this church, by the power of the Spirit, has all those things to offer. But the only message we see is the one that tells us they haven’t gone anywhere in more than 50 years.

My church’s sign with moveable text.

Every church struggles with this challenge. How do we let people know that this is the place to find life? Every word on our signs, every image we project, the weeds in our church yards and the condition of the paint on our buildings communicates a message to the world. Is it a message of life-giving vitality? Do we vibrate with the verbs? Or do we just tell people that we’re here, like we’ve always been here—whether for 50 years, 150 years, or 350 years.

Assuming our church is in fact a life-giving, active, changing, growing place (which is not always true), how do we communicate that to people who pass by? The rise of the “nones” (people with no religious affiliation) has been all the news this week. Many of those absent from our religious communities believe that the church and Christianity are out of touch and out of date. Yet they most also continue to believe in God, pray and understand themselves as spiritual beings. They just don’t think the church has anything relevant to offer on those matters.

Our old sign, which definitely did not communicate vitality.

For too many people, the church has become a noun, a place—unmoved and unmoving, fixed in space, here since 33 CE. In our signs, images and publicity, we must find our verbs again. More importantly, in our worship, our community and our ministry, we must be active and vital, so that the verbs take over. We are not just “here.” We are serving, loving, praying, caring, connecting, living, worshiping, uniting, working, building, growing, learning, deepening, stretching, discovering, listening, helping, changing and infinitely more, by the power of the Spirit. May all those who seek life see Christ alive in us.

This is a major improvement, but…

… this is even better. Even with the old sign.

Embracing our newly ordained sister on the conference floor.

Two weeks ago, I spent the weekend at the Virginia United Methodist Annual Conference, the church of my childhood and youth. I was there to celebrate the ordination of my best friend since junior high school, and it was the honor of a lifetime to share in that special moment of the laying on of hands with her. That visit also brought me back in touch with dozens of people that I had known and loved. I got to see women clergy who had inspired me to ministry, old pals from high school and college, pastors of my home church, camp counselors I worked alongside over several summers, my campus ministry chaplains, former Sunday School teachers and youth group leaders, the pastor who officiated our wedding, and even a few old boyfriends (and their parents). My parents were there too, and for the first time in many years I found myself  best known as their daughter.

I left the United Methodist Church and found my way to the United Church of Christ almost 20 years ago, in my final two years of college. I felt angry and wounded at the time, and it was a painful separation for me. I had experienced my call to ministry in that community. I felt known and loved in that body. I loved all those people that had shaped me, but God was calling me out. I stayed connected to people until I left for seminary in California 15 years ago, which was the last time I saw most of these UMC friends. This trip back for the ordination blended the experience of a high school reunion with an odd glimpse of the road not taken.

What struck me most, the whole time I was there, was how much I felt out of place. The experience was entirely internal, because everyone there greeted me warmly and welcomed me home.  I was surprised and delighted to see how many people recognized and remembered me, even though I had been gone so long.  I had an amazing time catching up with everyone, hearing about their ministries, exchanging pictures of children and grandchildren. We had found each other on Facebook in recent years, so that made the reunion even more meaningful.   Most of my old friends shared my theological and social concerns, so there was no tension or inquisition about why I had left.  The difference between us is that I had left the tribe.

And, at the risk of alluding to Frost one too many times, that has made all the difference.

The first time I walked into a UCC congregation, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of being at home, among “my people.” Even though I had known real love and community and faith formation in my United Methodist upbringing, I discovered in the United Church of Christ that I  fit in effortlessly. My theology and ecclesiology were not outsider opinions—they were core values. The vision of Christian mission in the UCC matched my own vision for my ministry and my Christian life. Rather than a reaction against the church of my childhood, my departure was more about being drawn into another one. I had found my tribe.

Returning to my United Methodist roots for this occasion allowed me to share my deep appreciation and love for those who nurtured me in the faith. The pain of old wounds had faded for me a very long time ago, but this reunion provided a time of healing. In the intervening years, my old friends have been drawn in and formed by their tribe, shaped and molded in accord with the values of Wesley’s great heritage. At the same time, my UCC tribe has been shaping me in the ways of Reformed and Congregational life. That is the role of our tribes—to form us. I felt out of place in that gathering because I was out of place, having been shaped for 20 years by a different tribe’s values and practices. I am grateful that I have not spent all my energy fighting that formation simply because I was in the wrong tribe.

I am equally grateful for the way my former church loved and cared for me, for the shaping gifts of their tribe to me and for the powerful witness and ministry they offer in the Christian community. I delight in seeming my friends come alive within the shaping influence of their tribe, even as I claim, with joy, a different path. Thanks be to God for my tribe, and for theirs.

This Sunday was part of Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, and I wanted to be sure to attend a service that marked the occasion. I decided to worship on Sunday morning at a well-respected African-American megachurch that has a satellite campus in our town. I have developed a nice collegial relationship with one of the pastors there, and the worship and preaching are always stellar.

This time, however, the transcendent moment came from a choir anthem, sung by a magnificent choir that was at least 75 voices strong. The anthem was called “Manifest.” Although online sources credit T.D. Jakes, whose church choir made a famous recording of it, the piece was written by Jonathan Nelson and John Paul McGee. The version by Jakes’ The Potter’s House Choir is below (there is preaching at the beginning, skip ahead to 2:25 to hear the music), but you can listen to Nelson’s more mellow recording here. The rendition I heard was far more free-form, as the soloist and choir leader led each other and followed the movement of the Spirit as they repeated certain refrains, took the crowd to a crescendo and let each section of the anthem go on as long as it needed to.

I wavered for the first two verses about whether I would be drawn into the song or not.

Pregnant possibilities now birth anew,
travailing to obtain it for it must come to pass.
I decree it, declare it, and call it in the Spirit
to become what God’s designed me to be.
Your future, your promises shall be fulfilled,
yes, you shall obtain it for it must come to pass.

Creeping in the background, I could see the images of the prosperity gospel, which I think is a twisted, evil distortion of the gospel of sacrifice and service. However, I loved the idea of pregnant possibilities, and the call to become everything God has designed us to be. In the context of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and death, I remembered something I heard about the power and importance of the black church. (There’s probably a famous quote to this effect from a famous preacher, but I don’t remember it.) All week long, out in the world, black people are despised and filled with the lie that they are worthless. On Sunday morning, the church tells them the real truth: that they are holy and whole and loved and powerful. Worship gives the community strength and healing to face the world knowing the truth of who they are. I decided to go with this message, and let myself be moved by the power of the song. In the end, “moved” doesn’t even begin to describe my experience.

The choir began repeating the same refrain: “I decree it, declare it, and call it in the Spirit/to become what God’s designed me to be.” They built it up to a crescendo, and a young woman took the microphone and began to sing out above them, increasing the intensity. Together, she and the choir were not simply singing a song anymore—their words were acting like the Word, the Word that calls worlds into being, the Word whose utterances are entities in themselves, the Word whose voice is power and light and hope incarnate. As they sang “I decree it, declare it,” I could see the bodies and souls of the choir members taking on the design that God had for each of them, becoming wholly a vehicle of God’s praise. As we in the congregation stood and joined them, their decree and declaration took hold of us as well, calling down the Spirit to shape us into God’s design for our lives, so that we too could become vessels of God’s glory.

The culminating moment came when the choir began to repeat the title word: “manifest.” Over and over, with power and might, with chords and discords, with prayer and supplication they sang out: “Manifest!” At first, it was a pleading prayer to the Holy One, urging the Divine to come into our midst, to manifest among us. I recalled the Isaiah passage from the first Sunday of Advent: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” (Isaiah 64:1) With the voices, I ached for God to manifest in our presence, a theophany. Their pleading grew bolder, and it was like they were issuing a command to the Almighty’s own self. Like a petulant child: “Get down here right now! Manifest!”

As the intensity grew, something in me shifted, and I realized it was a command—but not to the Almighty. The anthem was a command to ourselves. Manifest! Manifest God! Right here, right now. Manifest God in your life. Manifest God in your words and your deeds. Manifest God in your own body. Get rid of all that baggage and those useless pursuits. Become what God has designed you to be. Manifest!

The soloist continued, but her words were lost on me. All I heard was the choir proclaiming the Word: Manifest! The song reached its climax and began to wind down, turning quiet and introspective in the repeated refrain: “become what God designed you to be.” It was then that I realized that the song was itself a manifestation. By their song, the choir had actually made manifest the presence of the Spirit in our midst. Then they had manifest that Spirit in us, sweeping the congregation into the Spirit’s work. We heard the truth that we are loved by God, and called by God to love others. The power of the music became the power of God. The Word was again made flesh, manifest in that hour of worship in voices and bodies lifted in praise and turned toward what God designed us to be. Thanks be to God.

More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix, by Brian D. McLaren, Zondervan, 2002, 188 pp.

I think Brian McLaren knows a lot about how to talk to people outside the church about God’s story. I want to learn how to do that too. So, when I came across his direct writings on the subject, I was in.

This book is structured around a real evangelism conversation. The conversation took place over e-mail over the course of several years between McLaren and a woman simply identified as “Alice.” The book includes all of Alice’s inquiring e-mails to McLaren, along with some of his responses, an analysis of the questions behind her inquiry, and suggestions on how to handle similar questions. While it sounds a bit contrived, the book manages to avoid oversimplification and Alice’s voice keeps the dialogue fresh and real.

The overall approach McLaren adopts and advocates is “spiritual friendship.” It’s not about getting doctrine right, teaching someone the correct path or having a confidence in the truth of Christian principles. It’s about listening, learning and befriending people who are outside of the faith but seeking and questioning and grappling with faith questions. McLaren engages questions with questions, speaks on Alice’s own terms in her own language, and dedicates himself to continuing the relationship over winning a convert.

He writes, “Sometimes belonging must precede believing. … If people can belong long enough to observe how God is alive among us, if people can belong long enough to see authentic love among us, if they can belong long enough to see whatever good exists in our lives as individuals and as a community, they can come to believe.” (84-85) In his conversation with Alice, it is clear that she can participate in the Christian community with his church and in her friendship with him regardless of her belief. It is that openness that eventually opens her heart to the love of God. In so many Christian communities, belonging is contingent upon believing. This is not how Jesus operated, and not how we should operate. Thankfully, we in the United Church of Christ preach and try to practice welcome and hospitality first and foremost.

As always, McLaren provides cutting, insightful questions and ways of stating the truth of God that are both novel and orthodox, bold and beautiful. He offers great questions for engaging people in faith conversations, like “Where are you in your relationship with God? How would you describe your relationship with God right now?” (108) He describes God’s plans for our lives like parents’ plans for the lives of their children–not a well-defined track, but a path toward joy and fulfillment, marked by both freedom and determination. (121)

One of the ideas I liked most, which I heard echoed in the Unbinding the Gospel series, is that the work of inviting people into relationship with Jesus and the church is not about getting them into heaven or into our pews. It is not about fulfilling their needs or the church’s. It is about engaging fellow workers in God’s field, training up more missionaries to aid the cause of God’s mission. We are inviting people to join us in making this world a better place by being God’s servants in it.

Much of what is radical to conservative Christians (de-emphasizing doctrine, putting earth before heaven, engaging in friendship with non-believers) is the essential and normative terrain for progressive Christians like me. What I don’t know, and what McLaren has to offer, is how to continue to believe in evangelism and do the work of inviting people to Christ in this context. What’s radical for progressive Christians is believing and acting as though we have something valuable worth sharing. McLaren offers a wealth of insight on how to do that in ways that are relational, invitational and welcoming—not harsh, judging or bullying.

Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism, Church Leaders Study, by Martha Grace Reese, Chalice Press, 2007, 148 pp.

Unbinding Your Church: Pastor’s and Leaders’ Guide, by Martha Grace Reese with Dawn Darwin Weaks and Catherine Riddle Caffey, Chalice Press, 2008, 146 pp.

Unbinding Your Heart: 40 Days of Prayer and Faith Sharing, All Church-Study and Personal Prayer Journal, Chalice Press, 2008, 164 pp.

This series of books, along with the fourth volume, Unbinding Your Soul, have been all the talk in the last few years among mainline Protestants looking to learn how to do evangelism that is authentic to our identity and faithful to our mission. I purchased the original (and skimmed it) over a year ago, but I am just beginning to work with congregational leaders to make use of this program at our church. As a first step, I read all three volumes, and gave two key leaders a copy of Unbinding the Gospel to preview as well. A key component of the process seems to be the prayer and exercises, which are done in groups. I have not yet undertaken that work or level of study with these books and their program.

Martha Grace Reese’s work in these volumes is the outgrowth of the Mainline Evangelism Project, a research effort funded by the Lilly Foundation. That project identified adult baptisms as the chief sign of evangelism, since baptisms represent the entry of new Christians into the church (not just people moving around or changing churches). The study first identified the dire nature of the problem. If you eliminate churches in the South and churches that are predominately non-white, only one half of 1% of mainline churches are doing significant work reaching new people and bringing them into the faith.  While they did identify some factors in this lack of evangelism, the study devoted most of its resources to studying those few churches that are successful evangelists. They chose for in-depth study the top 150 mainline churches in the country in numbers of adult baptisms. They identified what they were doing to be so successful, so other congregations might learn from their example. This book series is a program to help churches become better evangelists.

The heart of the series, of the research and of the program, is that there is no great program that will save us. The path toward becoming better evangelists involves learning to pray and ignite our relationship with God, and having the courage to invite others to know the love of God. One of the participants sums it up like this: “You can’t give what you don’t got—your relationship with God must be hot!” (Unbinding Your Heart, 53) The Unbinding Series aims to generate some heat in our relationship with God through intentional prayer and small groups, so that we can then share that passion with others. This accords with my experience—if someone’s own faith is growing and deepening, they will tell others about it and want to share it with them.

I found the books to be very insightful and stimulating for conversation, and I intend to follow through on the process for working on them with my congregation. I am excited about it, and believe it will be a great time of growing faith and prayer and evangelism in our church.

However, I do want to share my struggle with these books. I feel like I have a personality-type conflict with the author. The books are packed with detail and instruction. Reese is clearly an expert in offering step-by-step instructions, planning for stages of effort and breaking down big jobs into small tasks. However, my brain doesn’t do such a good job of putting that back together. I am a big-picture thinker and learner, and I struggled in these books to get my head around the main ideas. As a leader, I want to have a clear vision of the whole picture, and I had a difficult time working that out in these books. This was especially true in Unbinding Your Church, which is really a workbook and instruction manual for using the Unbinding Series in your church. While she offers sermons, hymn choices, liturgical resources, exercises, job descriptions, meeting outlines, handouts and more, I yearned for a more simple overview that said, “Here’s what we hope to accomplish. Here is the experience we want to create. Here are the overall things we want people to encounter and remember.” I can follow step-by-step directions, but I would much rather have a whole map to orient myself in time and space. I often found myself feeling lost in details and no longer sure where I was going. If you are a detail person, you’ll love it. If you’re not, prepare yourself to wade on through—I think it’s well worth it.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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