The ideas planted in my previous post are starting to come together.
It’s starting to get exciting.
For a year or so, I’ve been following an online preacher/teacher, Jon Swanson. He has been preaching, off and on, about the book of Nehemiah. In fact, he is publishing a kindle book on the topic.
If ever a preacher could take a dry, rarely referenced Old Testament book and bring it to life, Jon Swanson can.
He read the book with us slowly — not skipping all the long lists of names, but savoring each one. His attention to detail brings the book to life.
God-fearing Nehemiah, living in exile, serving a distant king, hears about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. He is upset—devastated. The king notices that his servant is not his usual happy self. He inquires, “Why the long face?”
Nehemiah feared angering the king. Surprise! The king grants Nehemiah time off to look into this temple problem far away.
Understand that the temple has been in ruins for decades. No one nearby was lifting a finger to help. They accepted things. They must have been thinking, “It’s time for the temple to die.”
The temple was to them just a pile of rubble occupying a desirable location—just like all those failing or abandoned churches dotting our region.
The book of Nehemiah gives painstaking detail not only of the stones being laid and doors being hung but also of the intrigue of those who would have his efforts fail.
Small churches face the same challenges today. Church leaders allow small churches to fail. Their failure means there will be spoils to divide. They convince themselves and everyone else that it’s the only way. It is the easy road. Widespread failure is encouraged. Phrases like “It’s time to die” pave their rock-ridden consciences.
Most small churches aren’t nearly as bad off as the pillaged temple that so moved Nehemiah.
There are ways to rebuild ministry. The time is now. It will take the joint efforts of others. Some may be like the distant king who facilitated efforts simply because he had compassion and perhaps admiration for Nehemiah. Some might be the logistics experts who ordered, shipped and delivered supplies. Some might be the craftspeople and physical laborers. Some might be the warriors who took turns guarding the work from those plotting Nehemiah’s demise. Some might be the worship leaders who were summoned when the temple wall was complete. They would lead the celebration.
This kind of collaboration could revive small church ministry.
Leadership is likely to come from within the small churches. That’s OK. It’s biblical.
Some will be jealous of any grassroots initiative, especially if new unforeseen possibilities become evident.
Read yesterday’s post along with this one and we will start to form The Nehemiah Project.
Add your ideas. Let’s see if small pockets (chapters) of small churches can start to help one another in mission and rebuild neighborhood ministry.
If Nehemiah could do it, so can we!
We’ll keep pondering the concept and see where it takes us.
The Nehemiah Project. Hmmmm!
If the Nehemiah project interests you, let us know. Who knows what might result?!
I’ve written about this before, but the more I study modern marketing (evangelism) and business strategy, the more I am convinced that the Church is its own worst enemy.
Church structure is ill-equipped to change with the modern world. Its inability to adapt is dooming congregations—all congregations—not just the small ones.
Church leadership, trained and steeped in tradition, is not leading us into the modern world. They are aware of the needs. Desperately aware.
Experts write and offer advice, usually based on isolated success stories that may or may not apply to other congregations. Church structure is a roadblock to implementation. Too many hurdles. Too much reliance on traditional relationships and procedures. Easier to slog along waiting for a miracle.
This week I attended a business conference. About eight related businesses took turns reviewing the goals and strategies of each of the others. Each business was spotlighted for 45 minutes. Their particular challenges were addressed in detail.
The businesses had to let down their guard. Hierarchy was leveled. Soon, ideas were flying. Good, helpful, concrete ideas. Each business walked away with a checklist of what to accomplish to grow their business over the next four business quarters.
It wasn’t an easy process. Some participants were afraid that their ideas would be stolen and that the criticism would suck the wind from their sails. But in the end all participated and they discovered that the other participants were eager to help. Their fresh viewpoints and experience with similar problems was energizing. They were directing one another to resources that might have been protected if the businesses were acting as competitors.
Soon the participants were sitting together into the evening, asking questions, probing, sharing advice.
I was left wondering . . .
Does this kind of free-flowing brainstorming and dialogue ever happen in the Church?
In the Church, all ideas and programs are funneled through the clergy. The clergy will want to retain control even when they don’t have the skills to implement the needed steps. They will also be weighing their position in the total hierarchy. Often their career goals are more important than congregational goals.
Laity are dismissed or enlisted as followers. Their career success is not at stake. They’ll take the blame for failure but have little control over processes.
Lay people can present ideas but the power to see them fulfilled is largely controlled by cooperation of people with allegiance to the status quo, tradition and turf to protect.
How often are lay people featured speakers at any church gatherings?
How do we get around this?
What if small congregations could band together? What if they could hold regular “mastermind” sessions. Each congregation could share their goals and frustrations. Each participant would help them evaluate and strategize. Each congregation would leave with a plan which both clergy and laity would be responsible for implementing before the next “mastermind” session.
Together we might be able to help each other overcome obstacles and see transformation and growth. Together we might share skills and resources.
Or do we all just keep ministering in isolated despair, waiting for the other boot to drop, wallowing in knowing what the problems are without a clue as to how to address them?
This is our proposal. It’s just a start, but it could grow into something HUGE!
One small church provide leadership initiative.
Invite five-ten other small churches to attend a “Small Church Summit” that would explore common and unique problems. The congregations don’t have to be all the same denomination. We could learn from one another!
Once problems are defined, the group can focus on each congregation. Offer ideas and support.
It’s important that clergy and laity interact. Both must attend. As equals. The Lutheran way!
What do you think? Would a Small Church Mastermind Summit interest you?
2×2 would love to develop this idea. Contact us if you have interest.
Every little church knows the litany. It’s the Church’s own version of the The Little Engine That Could. It’s called The Little Church That Can’t.
“You can’t afford a pastor.”
“You are too small to fulfill your mission.”
Sometimes the two statements mean the same thing. At some point, affording a pastor becomes the mission.
The list grows.
“The demographics don’t support ministry.”
“Every church has a time to die.”
Etcetera. Etcetera. Etcetera.
Small churches don’t get much help in overcoming objections, especially when their property and endowments are up for grabs. We forget that the biblical model of “church” always worked at overcoming objections far worse. Remember, it was actually illegal to be a Christian way back when and still the Church grew.
It’s not just the little churches that get trapped by this frame of mind. The whole church embraces it. The erroneous belief is that small churches need bigger entities to fulfill mission.
There may have been a day when this was true or at least more true than today. But the world is changing. It is time we all sit up and take notice.
This is good news for small churches. Small churches can play a huge role in the life of the church.
Here is 2×2′s most recent experience.
2x2virtualchurch.com was started two and one half years ago by Redeemer Lutheran Church in East Falls when our denomination locked us out of our property. About 18 months ago we began an online friendship with the Christian Church in Pakistan.
We were amazed that our friendship resulted in facilitating a meeting of Christians from Pakistan and Kenya earlier this year.
We were already in strong conversation when a Pakistani Church was bombed by terrorists in September 2013. We checked on our friends. They were not directly affected but they were close to those who were. They were in hiding behind locked doors.
As weeks passed, we heard firsthand accounts of the devastation and terror. We were sent photos of the prayer vigils. For the first time, the Pakistan Church asked for help.
How could a little shunned church like Redeemer respond?
We looked to see if the ELCA had a mechanism for help. (We never voted to leave the ELCA. They kicked us out.)
We found none in the companion synod system or on the Lutheran World Relief website. We heard no mention of the tragedy in Lutheran churches or in The Lutheran magazine.
The Pakistani Church told us their biggest need was winter clothing for the many orphans that resulted from the terrorist attack.
Redeemer had many children, but the persecution of our church has hurt our network among families with children that could donate clothing.
We mentioned the need on our virtual church website.
Readers in Michigan picked up the ball and ran. They said “Just call us 2×2 Michigan.”
They gathered three large boxes of clothing.
Then came the next hurdle. Shipping costs were $1500. We were all discouraged. But a 2×2 reader mentioned the need to a business associate that ships products all over the world. They offered to help.
So this week, only a month after the need was made known, 2×2 shipped boxes of children’s clothing to Christians in Pakistan.
That’s a place where it is even harder to be a Christian than East Falls!
The modern church will be built on the reliance of member networks more than denominational networks. This is a power waiting to be unleashed.
We think we can. We think we can. And we can! 2×2.
I once worked for an editor in the LCA offices located right here in East Falls, before East Falls was removed from the ELCA map.
He had a poster on his wall that promoted the use of fewest words to make emotional impact. It went on to list examples of short but powerful phrases.
“I love you” topped the list. The example that remains in my memory is “Mom’s dead.”
My vote for most powerful three words in the English language goes to “Wait a minute.”
These three little words give us pause—a chance to consider where things are going and how we might still have a chance to influence outcomes. These three little words can stay our temptation to engage in “group think.” This rarely goes well even (perhaps especially) in the Church.
These words give us time to rein in power that is going astray. They give us a chance to consider the effects on the weak and give the less fortunate a foothold to a more promising future. A place in the pew.
They give us a chance to consider our personal motives and values when we are tempted to consider only ourselves and the easiest and cheapest alternatives.
Saying “wait a minute” opens the door for nurturing. That always takes time that the Church often doesn’t want to take. Why not? There’s only heaven waiting!
Thursday was chosen for a national day of Thanksgiving before the word “weekend” was part of the English language. It’s a little awkward today when all national holidays are assigned to Mondays. But this gives us a national “wait a minute” moment.
There will always be those who take this treasure and turn the focus on our national hedonism. Their efforts will rule the airwaves. News time will be spent photographing people tenting in big box parking lots waiting for sales that aren’t really sales.
But Thanksgiving still sits there in the middle of the week inviting us to do a good thing, a selfless thing.
Wait a minute.
Perhaps the Church should institute a “Wait A Minute” day.
Churchwide “Wait A Minute Day.”
One day a year to allow for course correction. All the past forgiven. Only the future ahead. Don’t put it on a Sunday which already has tradition and structure. Put it in the middle of the week. Employ the internet to share “wait a minute” thoughts that would never be published by the church and would take months or years.
Put Churchwide Wait A Minute Day well before Synod Assembly season, when the debating of the future is supposed to go on, but when there is no time for careful consideration or weighing of the future and the voices of only the chosen few are amplified.
Redeemer will gather this evening to celebrate Thanksgiving.
We often celebrated together as many of our members were immigrants new to the holiday and others lived alone.
We have no church in which to gather to worship and celebrate, but we will gather around the bread and wine—and the turkey.
We are thankful for our community and the unique ministry that our circumstances nurtured.
We are thankful that none of our members lost their homes as was a very real possibility during the legal battles this year.
We are thankful that our neighborhood continues to recognize our community despite every attempt to eliminate our heritage for synodical gain.
We are thankful for the support of our friends (none of them ELCA) who stood with us in court and bore some of the financial burden even though they had no horse in the race. There are some incredible stories we will share someday. They are recorded for now in our hearts.
We are thankful for the blessings of our spiritual community that our members continue to foster, each in his or her own way. Some members share devotional booklets. Some care for the infirm. Some lead Bible studies. Some maintain a presence within the ELCA, however unwelcome. Some build bridges in the community. Some raise funds. Some facilitate charitable work. Some preach and teach. Each supports the others.
We are thankful for the life of one of our most stalwart members whose faithful support and quiet encouragement is sorely missed this Thanksgiving as she has joined the saints in heaven.
We are thankful to a God who has given us these blessings. We pray that the message of love he sent to us through his Son is never neglected and that one day His Church will practice inclusion, diversity, forgiveness, reconciliation and peace—not just preach it.
The post by Sarai Rice answers a frequently asked question. What are the emerging trends in the church?
Here are her answers with our corroborating experience.
1. A congregation’s identity does not equal its building.
Lutherans teach “the church is not a building.” This is not the only thing we teach that we do not believe!
Buildings are tools for ministry. Their financial demands can also impede ministry.
Our denomination desperately uses property as a weapon. Give to the regional body the way we expect you to give, or we will take your building off your hands.
This is in total violation of Lutheran polity. However, it is hoped that congregations will lack the will to fight.
People don’t go to church to fight, however righteous. Most Davids flee at the sign of trouble.
Our property was modest but had appreciated in an upscale Philadelphia neighborhood. That should be good news for the congregation. We had equity.
We planned a renovation project that would put our educational building to work in mission and which would provide a healthy income to support ministry.
But our equity was coveted by our denomination — not to benefit the neighborhood that provided it but to benefit SEPA Synod and its recurring budget shortfalls — (still a problem by the way).
Without our property, Redeemer was expected to disappear. Easy pickings.
Taking our building was supposed to be the nail in our coffin.
But Redeemer turned to home churches and after a year reached an agreement with a neighborhood ally for rent-free space. This had the benefit of strengthening our neighborhood ties.
We took our ministry online and learned a great deal about a medium that all churches should use, but almost none are. While our own doors are locked to us, doors opened all over the world.
With our experience in this new realm of ministry we would be in very good shape to conduct our own ministry in our own building for the benefit of the whole denomination.
But Goliath knows best.
We would add a Part B to this point.
A congregation’s identity does not equal its pastor.
This is somewhat covered in Rice’s next point.
2. Pastor does not equal a full-time position.
SEPA Synod seemed to be unable to work with our congregation without a pastor of their choosing in control. This too goes against Lutheran polity. The congregation is supposed to be part of the call process, but small churches are often given few or poor choices.
This expectation drains ministry. Valuable resources are spent on professional help who have little invested in the actual work.
Redeemer was told in 2000 that we had to accept the pastor SEPA wanted us to call or there would be no pastor for a very long time. The pastor they were recommending was upfront. He wanted to provide minimal service—just ten hours per week, just enough to keep his ordination status and benefits active. He would be happy. SEPA would be happy. Under the rules of a regularized call, Redeemer would be endlessly obligated with no promise of benefit.
Wisely, Redeemer turned down this ultimatum. But SEPA required THREE divisive votes before they stepped away from their demand. SEPA walked away. We were supposed to wither on the vine. Bishop Almquist even said, “In ten years, you will die a natural death.”
We found qualified pastors on our own and managed to grow.
In 2007, we presented a resolution to call one of them. We had worked well together for seven months. He had overseen the acceptance of 49 new members. Bishop Claire Burkat did not respond to our resolution. She met privately with the pastor and he never set foot in our church again.
3. Resourcing happens via drop-down menus rather than denominational staff.
The internet is a treasure that can be used by anyone. “Even small congregations in remote communities know how to use search engines for everything from conflict management to curriculum choices,” Rice writes.
In other words, congregations don’t need to allocate great resources for help from the regional body. Regional bodies can and should downsize. This goes against our bigger is better thinking.
4. Group participation does not equal my congregation’s group.
Church members are loyal but not exclusive. Shunned by our own denomination Redeemer formed relations around the world. The amazing thing is that they have become intertwined. Denomination is never discussed.
Pakistan, Kenya, Sweden, Nigeria, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Boston have worked together in amazing ministry because they met us via our website. (None, except perhaps Redeemer, is ELCA!).
5. Worship does not equal Sunday morning.
Redeemer often meets on Sunday morning, but we also find reason to meet during the week.
6. Small groups and faith formation does not equal Sunday School in church buildings.
Redeemer follows the “meetup” concept. We have no place of our own but meet in homes, restaurants, trips, and theaters—even occasional bars.
7. Active membership does not equal weekly attendance.
Redeemer members stay in touch. We don’t have a church in which to take attendance, but we know that we have nearly 1000 people who read our website every week and participate in our various outreach endeavors. Our reach is broader than any other church in SEPA Synod that has a building.
We would add an eighth point to Sarai Rice’s observations.
8. Income does not equal offering plate.
Redeemer found ourselves suddenly with no church in which to worship and no offering plate to pass. Without a building or a pastor, we had little need to take offerings. But there were these pesky lawsuits (funded against us with our own money!). SEPA also threatened our members’ personal property. Money remained an issue. This is leading us down a new road to self-sufficiency. There is great promise in funding Lutheran ministry in East Falls with a combination of our school and a mission outreach with entrepreneurial potential. We’ve laid good groundwork!
Should SEPA ever rightfully return East Falls property to East Falls Lutherans, they would soon have a viable flagship church where they have created strife.
We were all once strangers, the weakest, the outcasts, until someone came to our defense, included us, empowered us, reconciled us (1 Cor. 2; Eph. 2).
Questions for SEPA
If SEPA’s oft-stated passion is to have a Word and Sacrament church on the corner of Midvale and Conrad, why don’t they open a church?
Why did SEPA work for a decade to destroy the church that had been there, supporting SEPA, for a century?
Why is SEPA making overtures to the community (where the members they evicted still live), if they already know their goal is to open a church?
Why has the property been empty for two years when there were plans in place -- made by members of the community with an interest in SEPA's mission -- which could have been earning revenue for the last two years?
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Where in the World is 2×2?
On Isaiah 30:15b
Be calm. Wait. Wait. Commit your cause to God. He will make it succeed. Look for Him a little at a time. Wait. Wait. But since this waiting seems long to the flesh and appears like death, the flesh always wavers. But keep faith. Patience will overcome wickedness.