This morning, NEXT Church shared a blog post from Tom Ehrich, noted writer and church consultant. I always enjoy Tom's thoughts because they push me and make me think, and I believe he has a good sense of where the church needs to go in the future in order to remain relevant and engaged.
Tom's thesis, in short, is this: rather than totally eliminating worship styles and ministries that are struggling, and rather than stubbornly staying the course, the church should "bless" what is there and "add" something new. This is not an entirely new concept, by the way. The twist Tom suggests is doing the "add" off-site. Other than obvious issue of acquiring or at least renting additional space (when most churches are struggling to maintain what they've already got), the idea has a lot of merit to it.
I pastor a congregation with a lovely church building that, in some parts, is over 100 years old. And after being here for ten years we finally launched a capital campaign this spring to fix a number of essentials (if you want the details of what we did, and watch a short video where through movie magic I sink into our former courtyard netherworld in flames, click HERE). We're wrapping up the project now, and it's been a great experience for our church.
Still, I think Tom has a point: "church" can't be just about the builiding. It has to be about the mission. And by "mission" I mean more than the annual youth work trip to some remote location or the food pantry the outreach committee gets volunteers for. The church of today has to start thinking of mission as the intentional extension of the church outside its own walls.
I'll never forget what a former Presbyterian colleague of mine said in one of his sermons. He observed, astutely so, that the general motto of the North American church these days, one we send out through our actions and certainly through our words, is this: Y'all come. That’s how he put it. Y'all come. Y'all come to our church on Sunday morning. We’ll open the doors for you. We’ve got some nice pews for you to sit in. We’ve got some great music and a good word or two to share with ya. Heck, we’ll even throw in a free bulletin that you can take home, if you want! Y'all come! And we are so proud of ourselves for our open, hospitable attitude.
But Ike wondered, is Y'all come really the motto the church should be communicating? Is it any wonder that the church today is shrinking, and that we are struggling to make a connection in people’s lives? Because if we’re honest with ourselves, Y'all come simply isn't cutting it anymore. And it's not hard to see why. Y'all come means everything is on our terms. We still get to set the rules, and more often than not we don't see a need to change them. Even more to the point: Y'all come means everything depends on “them” coming to “us.” It’s the way the church has traditionally operated, and it’s gotten us into trouble. As one scholar puts it,
And I think that's at the heart of what Tom is saying here. Perhaps an additional space is needed to give the "new thing" a place of its own. But more importantly, churches should adopt a GO philosophy wherever the location. And, I think we have to be careful not to approach GO like some universal formula. What works for one church won't necessarily work for another. That's why some congregations flourish with the addition of a contemporary worship service, and others fall apart. It's up to each individual church to do the hard work of engaging discussions about substanitive (and not just stylistic) change in their own context, certainly taking cues and tips from what has worked elsewhere, and then seeing where God leads them from there.
Ultimately, GO is about the intentionality of engaging people where they are, rather than waiting for them to come to us. Because if we wait for them, my hunch is we're going to be waiting for a very long time.
What kind of "GO" things is your church doing? How is your faith community adopting a "bless and add" approach that works well for you?
Earlier this year our regional NPR station, WFDD, invited me to participate in an on-going segment of theirs called Real People, Real Stories. They had read my blog and thought some of them would make good five-minute audio essays. I've done three so far, including this one on taking my son to school the day after the Boston Marathon bombings, and this one on Thor the foster dog.
I was pleased when they asked me to record my blog post from a while back about Larry - the guy who came by the church seeking not financial assistance, as I had erroneously assumed, but hope (click on the pic below to listen). I've been careful in these essays not to push "church" too much, but they've been open to letting a pastor speak as a pastor. And I've been grateful for that - especially when it gives me a chance to paint a different picture of the church than what is so frequently seen.
To so many people in our society, church is a place where you are judged, where you are less than, where you are accepted only with a long list of qualifiers attached, where you have to look or act a certain way. I know this is the case, because I find myself apologizing to people about the church all the time. As I've said before, even they know we're getting it wrong.
What Larry taught me then and now about the church is that, at some elemental level, people still desperately want to see the church as a place of hope, despite our attempts over the years to not be that for them. People still have faith in the church, sometimes more faith that those in the church have in it themselves. And I realize now the amazing thing that Larry did in his visit: he came to church and showed me the church at the same time.
There is hope for the church, and it's not just because some of us are working hard to right the ship. There is hope for the church because folks like Larry expect and very much want us to be who we should be.
The church gave Larry hope. And Larry gives me hope.
(listen to the essay by clicking the pic below)
Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love
I have no idea what - or more likely, who - hymn writer John Fawcett was thinking of when he penned these words over 200 years ago. For me, at least, it speaks of people whose mere presence on the planet is a gift of grace, and a gift that continues on long after that person is no longer with us. It's rare that someone comes along that meets this lofty standard - but when they do from time to time, we give thanks to God and do our best to capture something of that person to share with others.
I guess that's the way I feel about Aimee Wallis Buchanan. She was a classmate of mine in my seminary years, and she was the husband of Bill, also a seminary classmate and long-time friend from my growing-up years in Raleigh (I still have fond memories of the two of us, and my Dad, with guitars in hand leading music for our Sunday night youth group gatherings at White Memorial). Aimee was also an amazing individual, gifted with a passion for ministry and a cornucopia of creative skills that probably never found their way into a single person before. Her most recent dream, Asheville Youth Mission, was a joint effort with Bill to bring those passions and skills together in their beloved mountain community.
This past January, Aimee died unexpectedly. We Presbyterians are well-connected in the social media world, and the communal sense of grief was palpable - for our personal loss, for Bill and their kids, for the church. We felt like a bright star had been snuffed out for all of us.
But then a conversation began. It started with my good friend David LaMotte and the kind of statement that can get people into trouble: So I have this idea.... A way to honor Aimee's life, to bring some sense of closure to our collective grief, and to support the vision Aimee was so passionate about at AYM. It felt good; it felt right. And it also needed Bill's approval. So we called Bill and shared the idea with him, and he loved it. Then we got to work.
The culmination of these conversations is A Life Well Loved: Remembering Aimee Buchanan. It's a compilation CD of various artists that came out of the conversations we had over the course of a few months. In Bill's own words from the album's Facebook page:
This is a project designed to honor the life of one who knew how to love well-- Aimee Wallis Buchanan. Her hospitality, compassion, and care for all God’s people, especially those on the margins of society, were an inspiration to many. Her love of the arts and her passion for youth ministry made a lasting impact on generations of young people.
Some of the artists on the album are regulars in the Presbyterian youth ministry world; others come straight out of the eclectic Asheville music scene. Two circles colliding in a way they probably never have before - which is appropriate, given Aimee's unique way of bringing together lots of different folks for a common purpose. Those artists, by the way, are: David Lamotte, The Secret B-Sides, Jeffrey Harper, Beth Williams, Peggy Ratusz, Jorge Sayago-Gonzales, Peggy Brown, Jerry Wallis, Rachel Pence, Josh Phillips, Heather Brown, the Asheville High School Band, and myself (and a special shout-out to Chris Rosser, who did a whale of a job mastering the final project).
And because its a hodge-podge of artists, the music itself is pretty much all over the map. Again, from Bill: There are a wide variety of musical styles included in the album-- from rock to folk, blues and ballads, and symphonic music as well. This only makes sense, because Aimee’s interests were wide and she was a welcoming presence for many different kinds of people, with diverse styles and ways of being in the world.
Even better - all proceeds from this album (a minimum $10 purchase, but you can pay more if you want) will go to support Asheville Youth Mission, helping to continue the dream she and Bill built together.
The release date is August 22nd - downloadable mp3 format only. My hope is that you'll mark that date down on your calendar and go check it out at: www.alifewellloved.org. For now, that URL takes you to the official Facebook page that you should "LIKE" and spread the good word to others. Because that's the kind of thing Aimee would've done: helping foster and grow those ties that bind, so the world can be a better place. And in this guy's humble opinion, it already is a better place, having had Aimee in it.
Maybe it's just me (I suspect not), but I haven't found this to be the case. The older folks I know are happy to sing new songs, provided they're "singable" and have a message they can connect with (which, if you think about it, are two pretty reasonable critieria). On the other end, when I lead music for youth conferences, I always get fantastic response from the classic, old-school hymns. At the Montreat Middle School Conference I was part of last month, we sang one tune that took on a life of its own - and I've done this sort of thing long enough to know that, when this happens, you sing it some more. Which we did. It wound up being the very last song at the closing worship and provided one of the more spiritually moving experiences of the week.
You know what song it was? Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing. Not exactly a recent entry into the praise music genre. Did I mention the part about 600 11-13 year-olds belting it out with conviction and passion?
There is good news for the church, and it is this: we don't have to sell out to get people to come. In fact, that's exactly what society-at-large is begging us not to do. We don't have to compromise aspects of our core identity in a cheap attempt to fill the pews on Sunday morning.
Child of God. Husband. Father. Minister. Musician. Songwriter. Blogger.