I’m Not Sure They Care

Throughout my years in ministry, the one constant question I hear is, “how do we reach unchurched people?” Often, what is truly being asked is, “how do we reach young people?”

To be honest, I don’t know! I’ve been in ministry since 1999. I’ve served several congregations. Each congregation has faithfully attempted to answer this question.

From adding “contemporary” worship services, to starting coffee shops, replacing pews with chairs, shifting the vision beyond the walls, beginning ministries in alternative locations, and having a “do whatever it takes” attitude, I’ve seen it all.

So, if I’m being honest, the results of the various attempts to reach unchurched folks did not produce rapid growth. In some cases, it slowed the rate of decline and led to a plateau (which, in many ways is a success). In some cases, it sped up the rate of decline (which, in some ways is also a success).

For years, the “experts” stressed starting contemporary services. (I’m putting “experts” in quotes because I’ve yet to see widespread success) While this has proven successful in some cases, it is not a foolproof fix. Depending on the research one reads, 70-84% of churches are plateaued or declining. So, maybe that’s not the answer?

The latest fad being pushed by the “experts” within my denominational structure is the launching of “fresh expressions”. What’s a “fresh expression”? Well, from what I can tell, it’s a new name for old stuff. Examples of fresh expressions are really just affinity groups (which was a fad in the 90’s). Dinner church, running church, knitting church, pub theology are all expressions being referred as “fresh”. Yet, let’s be honest, these things have been happening for a long time. We used to call them “small groups, discipleship groups, bands”. Now, we throw the tag “church” on it and it’s “fresh”. Seriously, I’ve yet to hear of a truly unique and new “fresh expression.” I always think of the South Park episode “The Simpson’s Already Did It” whenever I hear about this “new” program. Look, if it works for your congregation, awesome! But, to me, it’s just a new name on an ancient (and often great) product.

It reminds me of the trend in the early 2000’s when pastors started wearing jeans and untucked shirts. They promoted their gatherings as “not your grandma’s church.” However, they did all the same things my grandma’s church does.

If I were to suggest ways to reach unchurched people, here are some tips no one asked for:

1. In the words of Joe Maddon, “Try not to suck”! Whatever you do, do it well.

Part of the reason some worship gatherings don’t reach new people is because they stink. Unchurched folks will walk out of a bar or coffee shop if the band is awful. The same is true for church music. If your choir struggles or your band is less-than-stellar, don’t be surprised by a low rate of return. While church people will tolerate (and often celebrate) mediocrity, those we are trying to reach will not.

As more churches are offering online services, I find myself cringing. I try to be gracious and say, “Well, it’s probably the best they can do.” However, some of it only provides evidence as to why the Church is failing to connect with emerging generations.

Here’s a pro tip for worship leaders: develop a strong relationship with your sound tech. Once you have built a trusted relationship, you can ask the sound engineer to turn down (or even mute) certain voices or instruments. Or just do the hard work of redirecting folks to other areas of service. Not everyone should be given a microphone!

This is not just about the music either. Those of us who are preaching and leading in other aspects of worship need to be prepared and striving towards excellence. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing it well.

2. Stop thinking like church people. Surprisingly enough, those outside the church are not really concerned with churchy things! What if I told you that unchurched folks don’t care as much about style as church people? What if I told you worship style is simply a preference and no one style is greater than another?

If an unchurched person becomes curious and decides to check out a church…1) they will check you out online first; 2) they won’t be hoping you’ll sing “How Great Thou Art” or “What a Beautiful Name”. If they are truly unchurched, they won’t be familiar with our hymns or praise songs. Also, let’s think about unchurched folks experience with churches…it’s most likely limited to funerals and weddings.

3. Be real. I believe this is more than being relevant. While cultural relevancy is important, some do so without authenticity. I saw a church doing a series playing off “Stranger Things”. In the first two minutes of the sermon, the pastor admitted that he had never watched the show. Now, that’s wrong on so many levels! But, at least he admitted it. I attended a church service where the pastor kept trying to drop hip references, but continually mispronounced names.

Being real means being true to yourself. Don’t try to be something you’re not. If you are a traditional church, own that! If you are a contemporary church, own that. Then, lead with honesty, integrity, authenticity and transparency. The lack of these characteristics (accompanied by a lack of accountable leadership) has led to the downfall of many ministries.

4. Create a welcoming environment. This has to become part of the ethos of our churches. Every church considers itself to be friendly. In most cases, what that really means is, “we’re friendly with one another.” Do those walking through the doors for the first time feel safe, welcome, and more importantly, wanted. Let’s be honest, some churches are content to keep things “as is”. They don’t really want new people. A welcoming environment goes beyond friendliness and focuses on openness and inclusion. This is also something that has to go beyond the pastors, staff and hospitality team. A welcoming environment must permeate throughout the congregation.

So, no one asked…but, hey, this is my blog! Whatever you are doing, do it well!

Be Kind

The other day, I saw a t-shirt that contained a message that is desperately needed in our world today. No, it wasn’t another Wu-Tang Clan t-shirt that I feel needs to be added to my wardrobe! It was a simple shirt with a simple message…”Be Kind.”

When I read the paper, watch the news and venture out into the community, one of the characteristics I fear is lacking in our world today is kindness. I fear we need continual reminders to “be kind” because too many of us seem to gravitate towards unkind characteristics.

Rather than more videos of Walmart fights or “news” regarding the latest drama on “The Bachelor” or “Real Housewives of Wherever”, we need more stories of kindness.

But, rather than stories of random acts of kindness, we need to embrace an ethos of kindness. We need regular, sustained kindness. I get pretty cynical when I see people livestream their acts of kindness (while the acts are often kind, the motivation is a but suspect), but I would prefer that over learning that some “social media influencer” (what is that, anyway?) has challenged a UFC fighter to a dual.

So. Let’s be kind…and not just for a brief moment.

Mixed Message

The coronavirus pandemic has forced individuals, families, schools, businesses and churches to shift gears. We all have made adjustments to do our best to make it through these challenging days.

There are organizations that have been clear in regard to their response.

Some businesses have stated they will not enforce masks mandates, social distancing and other Covid-related restrictions. They have found a market with those who are comfortable with that policy. Those who are not on board with their response can take their business elsewhere.

Some organizations have been clear in stating strictly enforced guidelines. They have found a market with those comfortable with that approach. Those who disagree can take their business elsewhere.

What I find challenging are the businesses and churches who say they are taking a certain course of action, but fail to demonstrate it in practice.

For example, I visited a restaurant that had a “masks required, no exceptions” sign posted on the front door. When I walked in to pick up my order, 3 out of 4 employees were not wearing masks. So, what was the point of the sign?

Each week, I see churches posting pictures and videos of their staff and volunteers standing side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, indoors, unmasked…even though they say they are doing everything they can to keep their congregation and community safe. That’s hard to believe when you don’t do the simple things to keep your staff and volunteers safe. It’s hard to believe that you are doing all you can to keep others safe when you fail to lead by example. The inconsistency in messaging is not only lazy, it’s dangerous. If you’re not going to lead by example (especially when posting on the internet), stop saying you’re taking every precaution and start doing the “name it, claim it, faith over fear” approach.

I would prefer businesses and churches be upfront and honest, rather than offer confusing, mixed messages. I have more respect for those being clear and upfront about not following the guidelines than I do for those sending mixed messages. At least I know where they stand. There’s no room for confusion.

Integrity matters. It’s like the old saying, “if you’re going to talk the talk, you better walk the walk.”

So, here’s my pro-tip that no one asked for: churches who are only offering online worship or are limiting numbers and requiring social distancing and masks…stop posting pictures and videos of your staff members huddled together unmasked. Lead by example.

My Will or God’s Will

Yesterday, I had a somewhat cheeky post on Facebook regarding the establishment of authority. Here’s what I posted:

Unpopular opinion: Christians only like Romans 13:1 when their preferred candidate “wins”. “Every person should place themselves under the authority of the government. There isn’t any authority unless it comes from God, and the authorities that are there have been put in place by God.” (Romans 13:1, CEB)

Those who know me best understand that this really was a dig at some of the erratic and desperate posts and pleas revolving around the most recent election.

Far too many Christians are quick to denounce God’s role in establishing authority when their preferred candidate does not win. Many of us will only claim “God’s will” when it conveniently aligns with “my will”.

I think back to how hateful and nasty many of the comments were surrounding President Bush’s election. They were shameful and disgusting. Some progressive Christians went so far as to call this man, who attended a Methodist church, quotes Scripture, publicly professed his faith in Jesus Christ, the “anti-Christ.”

I think back to the hateful and downright nasty rhetoric that surrounded President Obama’s election. It was shameful and disgusting. Some conservative evangelical Christians went so far to call this man, who attended church, quoted Scripture, sang “Amazing Grace”, and publicly professed his faith in Jesus Christ, the “anti-Christ”.

I think back to how hateful and nasty many of the comments were surrounding President Trump’s election. They too were shameful and disgusting. Some progressive Christians went so far to call this man, who attends church for photo ops, misquotes Scripture, calls people childish names, publicly proclaims that he does not need to seek forgiveness, the “anti-Christ”.

I think of how hateful and nasty many of the comments have been surrounding President-Elect Biden’s election. They have been shameful and disgusting. Some Christians have gone so far to call this man, who regularly attends mass, quotes Scripture, and calls for unity, the “anti-Christ”.

I’m guessing you can see that Christians have a tendency to only believe God appoints leaders when they happen to align with our preferred political agenda.

If I’m a Republican and a Republican is elected, well, that’s God’s doing. If I’m a Republican and a Democrat is elected, well, God must be weeping.

If I’m a Democrat and a Democrat is elected, well, God has intervened! If I’m a Democrat and a Republican is elected, well, God must have forsaken us.

For some reason, we seem to only claim God’s favor and interaction when it is conveniently aligned with our preferences.

And, because I am totally immature…whenever I hear the word “authority”, I think about Eric Cartman…

Love One Another…

“To be a Christian is to live dangerously, honestly, freely – to step in the name of love as if you may land on nothing, yet to keep on stepping because the something that sustains you no empire can give you and no empire can take away.” ― Cornel West

“Christ instructs us to love our enemies, which does not mean a submission to their hostile agendas or domination, but does mean treating them as human beings also created in the image of God and respecting their human rights as adversaries and even as prisoners.” ― Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It

As we rapidly approach election day, I find myself worn out by all of the vitriol and rhetoric that further divides an already divided population.

Last night, after making the mistake of watching the news, I found myself spending time in prayer. From time to time, I write down my prayers. Last night was one of those times.

“God, forgive us, for we are so easily tempted to place our hope and trust in the kingdoms of this world. Help us to remember as your followers that we are neither Republican nor Democrat, we are Christians. Our hope is not in a political leader. Our hope is not in a political party. Our hope is not in a political platform. Our hope is not in the Supreme Court. Our hope is in You and You alone. Help us to remember that You call us to be one as you are one. Help us to remember that unity is not about voting, it’s about love. Help us to remember that our allegiance is to You. Where there is evil, let Your light and love overwhelm and defeat it. Where there is disunity, disruption and injustice, bring Your peace, justice, mercy and love. Help us to remember, love, serve and care for the hurting and broken, the least and the lost, the overlooked, the outcast, the marginalized, those living on the fringes…may the experience and know your love. Help us to recognize the role we play in creating and sustaining division in our world. Help us to recognize that there are times when our political allegiances damage our witness. Help us to see that diversity, in all manners, can actually be wonderful, beautiful and powerful. As we head to the polls, as the results of the election are shared, let love be our guide. In our interactions with those whom we agree and especially with those whom we disagree, let love be our guide. While we may not vote the same, let us “love alike”. Help us to love one another. God, heal our land. God, save us from ourselves. Amen.”

“Disagreement itself is not the problem, passionate disagreement is not the problem, rather the inability to put aside disagreement in nonessentials for the sake of Christian unity is the problem.”
― Charles E. Gutenson, Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide

“Christianity is at its best when it is peculiar, marginalized, suffering, and it is at its worst when it is popular, credible, triumphal, and powerful.”
― Shane Claiborne, Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals

“The kingdom of God is neither blue nor red, tea nor coffee! The church must stand in prophetic tension with Constantinian political systems and never underwrite or accommodate itself to a partisan political world order, including American democracy.”
― Mike Slaughter, Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide

“Some folks may be really bummed to find that “God bless America” does not appear in the Bible. So often we do things that make sense to us and ask God to bless our actions and come alongside our plans, rather than looking at the things God promises to bless and acting alongside of them. For we know that God’s blessing will inevitably follow if we are with the poor, the merciful, the hungry, the persecuted, the peacemakers. But sometimes we’d rather have a God who conforms to our logic than conform our logic to the God whose wisdom is a stumbling block to the world of smart bombs and military intelligence.”
― Shane Claiborne, Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals

“We have been seduced by sound bites. It is difficult to imagine how we are going to have an intelligent conversation around complex theopolitical issues as long as the average news consumer in America is willing to be sound-bite driven. We face a sorry state of affairs in our culture when few people seem willing to take the time for nuanced discussion on the complicated challenges we face. Politicians of all parties have been willing to foster this sound-bite mentality because it has worked for them. Most Americans work hard and are faced with too little time and too many distractions to study the issues well enough to make an informed judgment on them. As long as news consumers are willing to be manipulated by sound bites and are unwilling to commit the time to understand the complexities, we will continue to see artificial and simplistic distinctions drive too much of our conversation, resulting in divisions and disagreements that rarely get at the substantive issues.”
― Charles E. Gutenson, Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide