Today is Reformation Day. Halloween to many, but Christians—especially Lutherans—know better.
Reformation has always been a day held with some pride in our hearts of Lutherans. 497 years ago today Martin Luther challenged the established church and did his best to stick with it while risking his life to correct the wayward ways of superiors. Their selfish thinking was threatening the message of the Church while it guaranteed the power and coffers of church leaders would grow at the expense of God’s people.
It is the way of power. The powerful seek more power. Bishops, monsignors, cardinals, popes even parish pastors are tempted to take the privilege and status of their positions and protect it before everything else they might do.
And so Reformation Day should always be a day for the entire Church to take stock. In fact, once a year might not be enough! Maybe we should remember the years of hiding which followed Luther’s brave act as the Church sought to bring him down.
Where are our temptations leading us today?
Is God’s message of love paramount?
Are we obeying the Great Commission or are we comfortable collecting people who are already much like us?
Are we serving the troubled—the ostracized, the ill, the challenged—or do they get our prayers while people of means get our programs, offerings and comfortable pews.
Take a minute today. Stretch it out over All Saints Day (tomorrow) to think about ministry.
What kind of church are we supporting? How can we keep it on track with the message of Christ?
We don’t believe in indulgences anymore. What do we believe in?
This message comes from Redeemer Lutheran Church in East Falls—the congregation that was kicked out of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, so that their endowment funds and property values might benefit the denomination.
There is a lot of talk today about the modern phenomenon of “going viral.” But really, Christianity had virality covered 2000 years ago.
Think about it. When Christianity was an outlawed religion; when Christians were hiding in catacombs; when the only news sources were the orator in the public square, the gossip, or the personal foot courier; when expressing allegiance to anyone but the current political power was life-threatening—during all these challenges and outright peril—Christianity spread like wildfire—to the ends of the known earth!
Why is it is so hard today? Christianity is mainstream—safe. Christian thinking is foundational to our current governing and justice systems—accepted. We have communication tools at our fingertips that early evangelists never imagined—like magic!
There is a science to virality that today’s Christians must study if we truly want to reach more people.
Derek Halpern wrote about this in a recent post. There are seven characteristics of messages that “go viral”—that people willingly and eagerly share. Here are Derek’s observations and how they apply to traditional Christian mission and our congregations today.
Feel free to share your own examples of your congregation’s vitality.
1. People share incidents that are memorable.
The gospel and Old Testament are full of memorable stories. Yet, a noted seminary professor recently wrote that when he routinely asks students to name a favorite Bible story he is met with blank stares.
Practice answering this question. Be ready to share.
I thought of Jesus raising Lazarus. There is the drama and the setting in motion of so many agendas—some noble, some founded in fear.
I also thought of two Old Testament stories—the story of David facing Goliath and the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers. Both of these powerful stories provide daily inspiration.
And what about MY church TODAY? What is memorable—worth sharing? Here is just one small encounter that defines our faith community and is worth sharing.
One day a pastor, filling in during the long-time absence of pastors in our church, broke down in tears as he was giving the benediction. His wife had died weeks before. A nine-year-old boy walked to the front of the church and asked “What’s the matter?” The boy was better than a trained counselor. He stood there in front of the congregation and addressed an adult he had known for only a few weeks. He waited for answers to his questions. He wanted to know the name of his wife—all the details. The congregation waited patiently as the the child comforted the pastor. After church the boy took a piece of chalk and added the name of the pastor’s wife to the memorial for member soldiers that hung in our narthex. Memorable. Worth sharing!
All congregations have stories to tell. We just get a little rusty or timid when it comes to telling our own story. But our own stories have the power to go viral.
What was the last memorable thing that happened to you in church—that you are itching to share?
2. People share material that matters.
What biblical events matter? Miracles. Resurrection. Lovingkindness. Three examples.
I thought of our how our little congregation was able, through our website, to befriend Christians in Pakistan before their ministry hit the international news with horrific incidents of terrorist bombings. We were poised to help when established church relief systems weren’t.
I also thought of the more intimate spiritual lifeline that reaches into our own community.
What about your church experience matters so much that you just have to share it?
3. People share things of practical value.
This is probably the reason most people don’t attend church these days. We fail to see the practical value.
What is practical about the gospel message? Curing the sick. Feeding the hungry. Reaching the oppressed. Three good examples.
I thought of how our little congregation was able to welcome immigrants and create a cross-cultural fellowship that helped families assimilate into a new culture. Practical, nuts and bolts ministry.
How about your congregation? What is the practical value of your faith community that members and visitors can easily recognize and share?
4. People share things that project friendliness.
Again, there are many biblical examples—from the admonishment to let the children come to Jesus, to the acceptance of the woman at the well, to the forgiveness offered first to the thieves hanging on crosses with Jesus and then to us at the foot of the cross.
I’m reminded of how people once became active in our neighborhood congregation without actually joining or appearing on our church records. They helped with the East Falls Children’s Choir, music camps and our six-week summer camp. They attended AA Groups we hosted or the community meetings that shared our buildings. I am regularly reminded in my encounters in the neighborhood of the number of children who attended one of our day schools during the last 40 years. One mother commented to me recently that she hates walking down the street and seeing our locked buildings. She was never a member, but involved none the less.
How does your congregation project friendliness.
5. People share things that are moderately controversial.
AUUGH! No one likes controversy. But history teaches that most important advancements in civilization owe a good portion of success to controversy that matters and that grows virally. Controversy was surely part of the success of early Christians.
This has been a tough one for our church because we were labeled as adversaries and shunned by our regional body. That put us in a position where we were beyond moderately controversial. But sometimes there is no middle road. Time will tell if our reluctant willingness to engage in controversy will advance our congregation or not.
What about your congregation? What is important enough that your members are willing to engage in worthy controversy?
6. People share what is popular to talk about.
Let’s hope that’s short of gossip.
What do Christians like to talk about?
Jesus primed this pump with his admonition to NOT share the news of miracles. We still talk about these forbidden stories today.
What do we talk about today outside the biblical examples.We could talk about acts of love and kindness, but we often end up talking about things that exclude others from fellowship (homosexuality, popular morality, etc.). Let’s try to focus on the good. (That’s not original, by the way. It’s from Philippians).
7. People share things that are entertaining.
What entertains us in the church to the point that we want to share? Jesus knew that parables would entertain and teach. They are so very sharable.
At Redeemer and 2×2, we found our visits to 80 churches entertaining. We share our experiences in a book—our own parable of sorts. Undercover Bishop: A Parable for Today’s Church weaves our church visits into an exploration of small church ministry. We hope it is entertaining!
I didn’t start this post with any intention of promoting this book. But there’s no controlling online virality!
How can you entertain while sharing your message? Write your own sharable parable! Start your own spiritual blog.
Lutherans have adopted a new stance in recent years. Lutherans used to be the denomination that valued an educated clergy AND an educated laity. Lutherans used to be trend setters and thought leaders.
Somewhere in our 500-year history, we began to doubt — not God but ourselves.
Lutheran leaders, once able to forge their ministries around their own thinking and consideration of the gospel, now wait to be told what to think and how to react. “We respect the wisdom of our leaders” is an oft-heard mantra —one that compromises the integrity of our own tradition of free thinking. It abdicates responsibility. “Because the bishop tells us so” replaces “Because the Bible tells us so.”
We laity watched from the sidelines as our leaders worked for years to reach this “full communion.” Many of us had very little knowledge of the Episcopal Church. There are many Lutheran congregations with no Episcopal neighbors.
Why, exactly, was this something we wanted? What was ever in this for Lutherans?
The benefits are to clergy. They now have more pulpits available. There are also more clergy competing for them! The irony is that a pulpit has little influence any more, so why was this so attractive?
I suspect one of the motivations to Lutheran leaders was the more hierarchical structure of the Episcopal Church. Episcopal polity is more like the Roman Catholic structure in that the diocese owns congregational property. That’s probably fueling our bishops’ emerging propensity for grabbing congregational land and assets and ignoring promises made to congregations before the “full communion” deal. This includes their own constitutions, the contributions and wishes of congregations, and the local tier of leadership (traditionally a strength of Lutherans). The association with the Episcopal Church gives Lutheran bishops powers to crave that are absent from their own constitutions.
We now have 15 years’ experience as full communion partners with the Episcopal Church.
There isn’t much hope this long-sought relationship will ever benefit grass-roots Lutherans. Both denominations are struggling and the “full communion” seems to make us competitors.
In our neighborhood, the Lutheran bishop, the Rev. Claire Burkat, was working with the local Episcopal Church at the same time she was trying to destroy the neighborhood Lutheran church. Her involvement with our neighbors makes little sense. She told us that we were doomed because we had no parking lot. The local Episcopal Church has no parking lot either! Very few churches in the city ever had parking lots. Both congregations funded ministry by renting space for pre-school. We were in the process of creating our own Christian day-care program. Our congregation was larger at the time and more diverse. Redeemer had a far better location in the neighborhood and was a hub of community activities. So why did Claire Burkat believe in the future of Memorial Church of the Good Shepherd, tucked away on one of East Falls few upscale neighborhood streets. Why did she believe in their future and not that of the her own member congregation in the center of town? (Follow the money. Follow the power.)
All of this seems to tie in to the current happenings in the Episcopal Church today. The internet is abuzz with news of the happenings at what is believed to be the doomed General Theological Seminary in Manhattan—the oldest Episcopal Seminary in the United States. There was a dispute between faculty and administration which resulted in the firing of the majority of professors. Attempts at reconciliation have been dismal.
As the dispute is discussed, it becomes clear that things weren’t going well for a while. Class size was dwindling to the point that the faculty student ratio per class appears to be close to 1:1. Other statistics are starting to be discussed. Episcopalian congregations are reporting an annual downward trend of between 1 and 2.5 percent — not huge for one year, but alarming when repeated annually for a decade or more.
Perhaps they entered into full communion with us in hopes of reversing their own decline!
How are Lutheran seminaries and Lutheran statistics comparing? They may be troubled, too.
The whole debacle leads to questioning the wisdom of our leaders (perhaps too late)!
Thankfully, the end of the full communion agreement includes a page of disclaimers—which are rarely read—but may need to be moved to the front of the document!
Bishop Francis says he wants priests and bishops who have the “smell of the sheep”; that is, he wants them to be out among their people and not remote, removed and seemingly superior.
Protestants can learn a thing or two by comparing their leadership structure to the process described in this excellent article.
I can’t speaking for all Protestant denominations, but I see similar problems within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There is one thing very different about Lutheran structure. Our bishops reign with no authority over them except an unwieldy Synod Assembly system, where a third of voters owe their career path to currying the bishop’s favor and a large percentage of remaining vote (much of it lay) have limited experience or knowledge of church law or custom. They are the constitutional “highest authority.”
There is a “presiding bishop” with offices in the national church office in Chicago, but the people don’t really know what this national leader stands for or does. If the people take a regional issue to the presiding bishop, they are likely to be ignored. We know this from our experience with the current and previous presiding bishops. For all we know they are as what Bishop Francis describes as “airport bishops”—ready to hop on a plane to the Vatican or popular international site at any moment.
Our issues with the ELCA and its regional body, the Southeasetern Pennsylvania Synod, were (are) pretty serious. They involve land, church debt, a hefty endowment, the role of lay leadership, and the spiritual lives of nearly 100 people, all of whom were locked out of their church property and dismissed from membership in the ELCA by edict of a bishop, who was administering a regional body with a 10% recurring deficit budget. Courts ruled without hearing the case that they have no jurisdiction in intrachurch disputes. This was bad for us, but the day will come when the other churches who stood by and watched will realize that it was just as bad for them.
This is what it means to them. Regional bishops in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are accountable to no one. They can write and approve constitutions with ease—because they don’t have to follow them. ELCA bishops can do what they like.
That regional leaders often have next to no parish experience probably helped this situation come about. They never were in a position to know and practice servanthood (except ceremonially on Maundy Thursday).
In this regard, we are like the Roman Catholic Church. As this article points out, the surest track to becoming bishop in either the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches is to cozy up to those already holding prominent positions. Avoid parish service where no one will notice you. It is much easier to get the necessary name recognition working in the regional office or agencies than it is to serve any parish—large or small. SEPA’s current bishop served just five years as an associate pastor before going to work in the synod office prior to her election as bishop.
Here is how it works in the ELCA. Every six years, Lutherans are given a slate of names to consider for bishop. Most of the names will not be recognized by a great majority of voters. Delegates will read the short bio provided and check to see how others are voting.
Voters in civil elections for important but rarely publicized positions such as judge have more opportunity to vet and explore the credentials of candidates than delegates to church assemblies.
All churches are stuck with the decision made under this flawed procedure for six long years—when the process of electing the name most people recognize will be repeated. Parish pastors rarely have the visibility to attain regional office. The next bishop is likely to come from the existing regional body’s staff, seminary faculty or an executive of a social service agency that visits with all the congregations and is therefore known by the most people.
How can we improve the process to get leaders who not only “smell of the sheep” but who know a sheep when they see one?
Here are the five points from this article that churches should consider. There is an important common thread. As he changed and the world changed, Justin Timberlake recognized that his audience changed.
1. Constantly Adapt
If the Church had made a habit of changing centuries ago, the need for change today would not be so traumatic. Sadly, the Church continues to bank on its ability to stay the same while the world around them spins off into
new social structures,
new family structures,
new economic structures,
new educational structures,
new leadership structures, and
new communication structures.
Those seeking comfort and stability can count on Church being the same—same music, same robes, same imagery, same language, same message. Unfortunately, it is increasingly directed at the same people—and they are growing fewer.
2. Engage Your Audience
This, I think, may be the Church’s biggest challenge. Even today, with communication so easy, the Church relies on top/down communication. Preachers preach. People listen. There is one preacher, at least, per church. There are hundreds of lay people. But the voice of the laity is filtered—first within the parish and certainly at every other layer of church involvement. That creates a structure that resists change. Change agents are rarely accepted and approved to have a voice within the established structure. These structures show no signs of willingly changing on their own.
We still rely on people coming to us—Sunday morning is best. Online forums are “pay to play” or carefully monitored. Assemblies are rare and participants are vetted. The old will accept this. That’s the way Church has always been. The young will say “huh?” and move on to organizations that allow them a voice.
3. Don’t Work Alone
Here’a another challenge for the Church. The Lutheran denomination, for example, is purposely structured to be interdependent. Sounds good. But it doesn’t work very well. Congregations tend to be isolated, working with the interests and talents of their one senior leader. Other leadership must complement the top leader. To cooperate with leaders from other denominations or service agencies would challenge the authority structure.
This is also true at the regional level. There is no true collaboration with other denominations or nonprofits. There is the ceremonial trip to Rome and endless councils for this and that with no real results. What we can do alone is good enough. But with waning support, we can do less and less. True, many congregations latch on to popular causes such as Habitat for Humanity. They, along with religious social service arms increasingly reach out to be part of government-supported causes. When we do this, we play by their rules—and lose our Christian identity, influence, and congregational support. After all, congregants know they can go directly to these agencies. (The agencies know this, too, and regularly bypass their regional bodies to court direct support from members.)
4. Differentiate Yourself
Church leaders comfort themselves as they go about closing churches with the rationalization—“There are four other churches in that neighborhood. They don’t need this one.” (One pastor actually wrote that to our church.)
It is probably a failing of all neighborhood denominational churches that the only difference is the regional body to which they report.
So how do congregations stand out?
They can provide a different worship experience, service experience, or educational experience. But then they have to communicate it—not just to their members but to the rest of their community.
Which brings us to the last point.
5. Make Yourself Consistently Visible
Consistency should be easy for congregations. We base our entire existence on the Sunday morning worship and fellowship experience. Many churches follow a Church Year which tells us what scriptures we will be reading on what Sunday every three years. We aren’t as good about making our strengths known. And yet, today it has never been easier.
If you have a web site, use it consistently.
If you have an email list, communicate regularly (with good content!)
If you choose to advertise, do so regularly.
Congregations must now evangelize to a generation (or two) that have not grown up in church. But they have grown up in and embraced the communication age.
Don’t expect them to come to you on Sunday morning. Find a way to go to them—consistently and regularly with information and spiritual offerings that resonate to the world they live in today and foresee living in tomorrow.
There is a crisis at General Theological Seminary in New York City. Faculty members are unhappy with leadership. A seminary bigwig made comments that were offensive at worst or not sufficiently clear at best. The comments are being interpreted in a way he didn’t intend, he says. Mix all the ingredients together and Boom! It blew up in his face.
The issues themselves are a story in their own right.
I’m more interested in the process we are witnessing and how it differs from the way disputes are usually handled behind closed church doors.
The dean/president took quick action. He wrote more of an explanation than an apology. It was long, detailed and covered a lot of underlying issues. It was reprinted outside of the seminary community.
What? This is never done!
Thirty years ago, every church leader would have known exactly how to handle this crisis. Say nothing in public. Do the damage-control dance internally. Rely on some other problem capturing peoples’ attention within a few days and hope with some realistic expectation that old-fashioned, unquestioning respect will kick in and save the day.
But things have changed.
Angry people today don’t usually read long and detailed explanations. They write short tweets on the points that offend them the most. Those tweets become a resounding chorus.
I predict things will get worse for GTS before they get better.
Church leaders are still living in a time when heads of organizations controlled all forums. We’re hanging on to that world for dear life!
Most online religion forums, if they allow comments at all, have a caveat—“Your comment may be monitored.” They’ll be looking to see if you have Dr., the Most Rev., Rev., or Pastor in front of your name and that what you write doesn’t offend or challenge people holding such credentials. Not much chance of off-the-wall or outside-the-box thinking grabbing attention. It’s not so much that monitors won’t print these kinds of comments but that the warning tends to deter creative thinkers. They will read the warning and say, “Why bother?!”
The Church just can’t let go of their cloisters and the discipline and control of church organizations. A lot of the comments attached to the writings on this issue refer to that private, protected, disciplined seminary community of yesteryear.
It will be hard for the storm at GTS to blow over. For every explanation issued publicly there is a potential for thousands of rebuttals—and all have access to the same information superhighway. They’ll find a way to post their ideas, with or without official approval. And if their writings are short enough, use the appropriate key words, and provide sharable images, they will be read around the world.
And this is a good thing. It will keep seminary deans, faculty, students and laity — all of us — on our toes.
Here’s how wise leaders of the future will handle controversy.
They will blog.
“But I don’t have time!”
It is time well spent and time that would have diverted the current controversy.
This crisis is not likely to have happened if the seminary dean/president had the discipline to write to his faculty and students EVERY DAY and not just during a crisis. Blogging would have helped him think through his positions and test slowly how they played to his constituency. Reactions would have been measured and handled before they had a chance to spin out of control. He would have fostered an engaged community that discussed ideas with temperance and respect.
Church leaders, make time.
06 Oct 2014
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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).
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.