These are dangerous days to talk about race. If you try to raise the subject in polite company you’re likely to face some averted glances or rolling eyes. In impolite company, well, who knows? For some, talk of race is a pretext for a political agenda. For others, the failure to talk about race is an admission of darker motives.
It’s time to talk, though, and I’d like to think the church is the best place for us to have this discussion.
Why? First, because the Christian story has always been about overcoming the walls that divide us.
Ruth, the Moabite woman, crosses into Israelite society and restores a family’s fortunes. Jonah reluctantly brings good news to Ninevites. Jesus sits with a Samaritan woman. The Holy Spirit bursts into an international gathering on Pentecost and creates a new community. Paul declares that “Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us.” (Ephesians 2:14, CEB).
We shouldn’t be afraid of an honest encounter about race. When we confront it in Christ, it generally means good things are going to happen.
Secondly, the church is a place where we don’t have to pretend we’ve got it all together. We are broken people living in a broken land. A people of unclean lips. That’s what Sin does to us. And one of the manifestations of that Sin is Racism, the demon who haunts everything that happens in our scarred nation.
I’ll confess that I have avoided discussions of race for fear that I’ll do it wrong. I’ll say the wrong thing. Cause unintended hurt. Expose myself as less than I want to be. I don’t want to be racist.
But as a white man living in a society and a church still deformed by racial ideologies, I don’t have the luxury of being pristine. Racism is in me. Dealing with that means a lifelong confession, awareness, and commitment to crossing boundaries to begin relationships that can emerge despite the awkwardness of our limited vocabulary around race.
I’m writing this from a conference sponsored by the United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Religion & Race called Facing the Future. Clergy from around the country are here talking about their experiences in cross-racial and cross-cultural ministry settings. The theme is “In the Midst of the Storm.”
There is realism and hope here:
“The paradigm of white racism is already dead,” Bishop Greg Palmer said in the opening worship. “But there are still a few minor rebellions against the reign of King Jesus.”
That sums it up. Racism doesn’t have a future because Christ has “broken down the barrier of hatred.” But there are still a few minor rebellions and they still cause pain and real injury. And some of those rebellions are within us.
I’m grateful for the steps that courageous lay and clergy folks on the Eastern Shore have taken to help us acknowledge what racism has done to us, I’m grateful for the places on the Shore where clergy and churches are living out cross-racial and cross-cultural ministry. And I know there is more to do. Why shouldn’t it start in the church?
In Part One of Ben Rigsby’s post on reviving a church in a small town he talked about life-changing worship and reaching new people. In this post he discusses 4 more steps to growing a rural church…
- It takes critical mass to launch a church, it takes the same to revive
This is a tough one to look in the face. Unfortunately, I’ve learned this lesson a couple times. When a new person visits your church, it needs to look like something is happening. The energy of worship must be present as soon as they enter the doors. You wouldn’t go back to a restaurant that never had cars in the parking lot and maybe one other couple in the whole building. Especially if that place only had mediocre food.
But a place that has a full parking lot and a buzz of energy as soon as the doors open tells you something is happening here. You’ll even put up with lower quality food if everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves. Why should church be any different?
If your congregation isn’t big enough to fill your sanctuary to this level of energy, maybe you need more small groups. Small groups are an entry way into the church. Once, you’ve got enough people attending those, then put them together for worship. Why should Methodists be afraid of Small Groups? It’s what started this whole thing anyway! Small groups also give the church sustainability that will endure whoever the person sitting in the pastor’s office might be.
- Take an Honest look at WHO you’re trying to reach
I’ve seen too many of our peers set off to reach their community of low income Hispanic families with a bunch of wealthy, white-haired, old ladies. The results are mostly the same. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but is it a battle you really want to fight?
If you’re in a traditional, rural, older town that loves piano and organ music, do not cram guitars and drop-down screens down their throats because you read about it in a magazine! It’s much easier to start an additional worship service than to dilute the one they love. Take a serious inventory of what you honestly have, and who you would honestly like to reach. Remember the first 200 people will determine what the next 200 look and act like.
- Find a mentor or coach
As much as we know after seminary, we all have a few weak spots. I needed a coach to encourage me and challenge me. This doesn’t have to be a paid relationship either. Henry Cloud wrote The Power of the Other, and in it I learned how all great leaders have a person who challenges them to go beyond their limits. Find a person who can do that for you. Then, be that person for your church leaders. You should be their greatest cheerleader.
In between sessions with your coach there are millions of coaches available to you through books. I enjoy Audible.com audiobooks because rural pastors spend a lot of time on the road—might as well make it count! I try to read as much as I can.
- “Pray like everything depends on God, and work like everything depends on you”
I don’t know where I picked up that saying, but if fits…it fits. Do not neglect the Spirit. Never neglect your own soul in the process. I know that pastors are told this at every conference we ever go to, but the ability to pray and meditate is not only necessary but establishes a good example for your congregation. Also, be open in sharing your spiritual practices with your congregation. Many of them don’t have a spiritual practice because they have never seen it demonstrated and wouldn’t know the first thing about meditating. They want to be taught.
Start Creating Your Slice of Heaven
There are plenty of reasons why you can’t build a church in a rural community. There are lists of problems, from money to facilities. There are people who will tell you the best you can do is to hold their hand while they (the church) dies. I don’t think Jesus would have ever said those words. I seem to remember him to say something more like, “Lazarus, come out!” and he did, and Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Now, it’s time for us to get to it!
Ben Rigsby is a United Methodist Pastor who lives in rural Texas. He has a passion for inspiring people to go beyond their limits and accomplish the impossible. A single father of two boys, he is excited to marry this June and move to the Baltimore area. Ben blogs at Leaving the Herd.
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Anybody who’s spent more than a minute with me since last summer has heard me yammer on about the people l met in Archer City, Texas on my leave. One of those folks is the dynamic pastor of First UMC, the Rev. Ben RIgsby. You don’t often find church planters on the rural frontier but Ben proved to me that the things he learned about church planting in the big city can work in the countryside, too. Ben blogs over on Leaving the Herd and he agreed to share a little of what he’s learned. (By the way, I second his recommendation of El Diablo at Murn’s!) – Alex
For the last two years I’ve been in heaven. Well, it’s a little slice of Texas that feels like heaven. The town is outside of Wichita Falls and has big skies and more mesquite trees than Dallas has people. The town has two water towers for a skyline, and except for a couple movie appearances and a famous book store, there’s not much reason you’d “just stop by.” But this town is full of life and passionate about their task of transforming the world.
The rural church ministry of Archer City, TX is alive and growing. That’s right, I said growing. And I don’t mean in some southern charm, “the people are only growing in their faith” kind of way. I mean double the number of people in worship in under 2 years. Along with double-digit professions of faith and more baptisms than I can count. (I’m sure the office manager could give me a number if I asked.)
In the meantime, they have led the community in fundraising for “missions” (though we wouldn’t call them that). They have raised more money in two year’s time than they are able to pay the preacher full time.
It all happened because they began to see their little old church as a new church start.
Here’s how they applied New Church Start tactics to a “declining congregation” and reaped the benefits:
- Ask yourself if your church REALLY has something “life changing” to offer in worship.
Would a new person experience God there on any given Sunday? How sure are we? Is there a dynamic and passionate sermon delivered every Sunday? Can we count on the choir (which has tripled at First UMC, Archer City) to bring a volume to the music that’s inspiring?
I once heard it said, “To change a person’s life, you’ve got to first change their day.” Sunday is the day we will change their lives, every Sunday. After all, it could be the last worship service they ever make it to. (No, we do not do weekly Altar Calls and ask if they know where they are going when they die!) The congregation comes with the expectation they will receive a warm welcome, a good message that engages their minds and hearts, and inspirational music.
Is each worship service built around the gospel message? Does your service come with good news or is it full of “you should do…”? How does it relate to the average person?
Additionally, as Pastor, I make a point of stepping out of the pulpit and handing it over at least once a quarter. However, I am confident the guest speakers (even on Youth Sunday) will deliver a sermon as good or better than I could. I look for speakers who can deliver and they are told “we need a phenomenal sermon, so bring your best.”
- “Reaching new people is a contact sport” – Jim Griffith
In The Misfit Mission, Scott Crostek talks about putting a handful of pennies in his pocket and moving one over to the other side each time he talks to someone about the church. If he hadn’t moved all the pennies, he wasn’t done for the day. While I never went that far, it certainly is necessary that you are highly visible. Your whole congregation must be in the community & talking about your church. Both parts must be there. It’s not enough to just be in the community or to just be talking about your church in your office.
There is a little café called Murn’s here in Archer City. Almost the whole town shows up every day for lunch. (If you’re ever there, you MUST try the El Diablo. Preachers eating The Devil just makes me chuckle!) I try to be there as much as possible. Before long the entire waitstaff was going to the church on Sunday, unless they had to work. Even then, they wanted to know what they missed! In the process, I’ve had more than a few conversations with other people about coming to the church. Make the time to get out of the office and be with people, there is NOTHING more important.
Jim Griffith of New Church Leadership Institute says, “Most Methodist ministers rarely encounter 100 people outside the church. Ministers give excuses like, ‘all my friends are church people’.”
Jim replies, “That’s pathetic. You need to make new friends.” We have a fantastic opportunity to model our expectations for our members with the way we reach the community.
89% of new church members attended church on the arm of a friend. Will you be that friend?
Ben Rigsby is a United Methodist pastor who lives in rural Texas. He has a passion for inspiring people to go beyond their limits and accomplish the impossible. A single father of two boys, he is excited to marry this June and move to the Baltimore area. Ben blogs at Leaving the Herd.
Behind every discussion in American life is the question of race. At this stage in our history, with the long shadows cast by slavery, Jim Crow segregation, the struggle for civil rights, and last year’s gathering of white nationalists in Charlottesville, the impact of race is not something we can ignore if we want to be honest about who we are. Race and racism are still the ocean we swim in, even if the vast majority of us are trying to shed old racist ways of thinking and behaving.
Recently we’ve had an opportunity to reflect on our racial history. Two weeks ago, some of my United Methodist colleagues participated in activities in Washington D.C. to recall the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee 50 years ago this month. Last weekend, the Virginia Conference sponsored the Bishop’s Convocation on Religion and Race in northern Virginia. Both gatherings recalled how Christians can be challenged by the gospel to confront the effects of racism in our nation and in our churches.
Next week we will recall another 50th anniversary—the birth of the United Methodist Church (UMC) from the union of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. The uniting of those two churches was not a sure thing. The Methodist Church still carried, as part of its legacy from a previous 1939 merger, a racially segregated Central Jurisdiction for its African-American churches. The integration of those churches into the larger church was a condition for the creation of the UMC.
When delegates gathered in Dallas on April 21, 1968, just 17 days after Dr. King’s death, there was a conviction among many of them that whatever this new UMC would be, it would have to be honest about its difficult racial history and commit itself to racial inclusion. There were losses in the dissolution of the Central Jurisdiction. It had been an engine for developing African-American leader in the church. But the vision was for a church where racial equality could be achieved.
We’ve still got a ways to go. Fifty years later, our churches are still largely segregated. The practice of open itinerancy has brought clergy of color into largely white congregations and some white clergy have made the move in the other direction. But those appointments still bring unique challenges due to the lingering effects of our racialized history.
There was a time when the Christian churches might have imagined that they were on the forefront of the movement toward racial equality in the US, but now it seems we follow rather than lead. Sometimes we even resist. For all the progress we celebrate, we are still in the grip of principalities and powers that rule in our day.
Our national conversations spend a lot of time trying to delineate what and who is racist. Individual white people wonder if they are racist and try to convince themselves that they can be free of racism, like kicking a smoking habit. As an expression of purity, we can try to be free from racist sins.
But the truth is that racism is a manifestation of big ’S’ Sin and the only honest stance we can hold in relation to Sin is to admit that it infects our every action. It is the environment into which we are born. It is the air we breathe. And from that we need a Savior, not a resolution to do better.
There’s one more thing to say about Sin, though: God says ‘no’ to it. Said it definitively on an Easter morning. Delivered us from slavery to Sin and Death, as we say in the Great Thanksgiving. Has died. Is Risen. Will come again.
A conversation about where we are with race needs to start here—in confession that we all live in the deformed world that Sin has wrought and in confidence that God will reveal the restored cosmos announced in the cross and resurrection. If we’re all in this space, there’s no room to step outside into an imagined America that doesn’t have to deal with race anymore. We all live in the country where racism remains. We all need the conversation (not shouting match) on race that we’re avoiding. And Lord knows, we all need each other.
The old saw that says rural churches have a hard time with change may be getting tired. All you have to do is look around those churches to see that a lot of things are already changing. Maybe the question isn’t whether we will change, but how.
It seems like every other day now I see a new field being cleared here on the Shore to construct new houses. No, it’s not a residential boom. Much as we need some attention to our housing market, the new residents are of the feathered variety. That’s new revenue for the county, but as I look at all these long, new buildings, each of which can probably house 20,000 birds, I wonder what the change will mean. How will we manage the byproducts of such barns? What’s the impact of having that many chickens in one place?
Change causes us to ask big questions and, even in the country, there are changes afoot. When churches confront the questions change presents head-on, they may find an exciting new chapter ahead.
Jacob Armstrong’s book, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation, is built around the idea that churches thrive when they adapt to new conditions. I’ve been returning to this book over the last few months and looking at it through the lens of rural churches. I appreciate that Armstrong, who began a new church in the Nashville suburbs, recognizes that every group of people being asked to go somewhere new is going to have a “Back to Egypt Committee.”
“There are three things that the Back to Egypt Committee will say to you. Be ready for them.
We won’t have all we need.
It was better back in Egypt.
You have to do it on your own.” (54)
As it turns out, each of these is a lie. A good understanding of how God works will show that God will provide, that slavery to the past is not better than the journey to something new, and that God will give us partners for the journey. What we need, Armstrong says, is to hear the same promise that God gave Joshua—be strong and courageous.
I appreciate the way that Armstrong recognizes the potentially helpful role of conflict in moving forward. “Healthy conflict is actually a time saver,” he notes. “As we take the courage to engage in healthy conflict we are actually more honest and open with our people and can more quickly move towards where God wants us to go.” (60) For the many leaders who are averse to conflict, (and I count myself as one of them), it helps to realize this reality.
Ultimately, as with all things related to the church, it comes down to the mission. If we are committed to being what God calls us to be and to doing what Christ called his Church to do, we will let that guide how we think about change. Is our current practice hindering us from seeing what God is doing in the world? Can we cultivate meaningful relationships doing something new?
Can we handle change? We will. The question is how?
You’ve heard it before in a thousand different forms: change is hard. In churches it can often come as a variant of the old stock phrase: We’ve never done it that way before. Even when we take the first steps of a journey toward something new, it’s easy to give up when the going gets tough. For the Israelites in the Bible, recently freed from slavery by God’s miraculous deliverance, it only took the first hardship in the desert to start the mumbling about how good the fleshpots in Egypt were. Even when your destination is the Promised Land, change is hard.
Our own denomination, The United Methodist Church, is headed for a time of change. In the next few months the Commission on A Way Forward will be handing over its work to the Council of Bishops and the bishops will produce a proposal for what the church could look like as we navigate a time of great divisions over issues like human sexuality. A special General Conference in February 2019 will consider the proposal (and probably others that will be introduced).
I’ve talked before about my fantasy of a time, following February 2019, when everything would go back to “normal.” It is a fantasy and I know in my heart of hearts that what would really cause me despair is not the stress of where we are but the idea that things wouldn’t change. My soul knows that it longs for the possibilities that come with old things breaking open (and apart) rather than everything remaining the same.
The skeptics of our day look at the church and the world and see only what’s not working. We inhabit structures, (bureaucratic, financial, and physical), that were built for a day that has passed. The energy we have for doing what we used to do is flagging.
But seen through God’s eyes, within those structures there are people waiting to be unleashed upon the earth to be engaged in some new great movement. John Wesley was one of those people in the 18th century who came out of the old at the compulsion of the Spirit. Today, new leaders and new energy are poised for the launch of God’s next new thing. Whatever the outcome of the next General Conference, I want to see that.
Which means we should be ready. When Spring is in the air, there is a natural impulse to plant seeds, clean the house, prepare the lawn, and get in shape for all the activity that will come with the new warmth of the season. There will be challenges in getting our churches and our souls ready because, you know, change is hard. But Spring IS in the air. I believe it.
After this many years in worship and as a worship leader, I’ve seen just about everything. Sung prayers in a cathedral choir? Check. Pentecostal healing service in a South Carolina swamp? Check. Taizé? Check. Cowboy Church? Check. Blue jeans and guitars? Check. Radio show a la Prairie Home Companion? Check. In a tree? Check.
I know this sounds like a Dr. Seuss book…(Would you, could you in a boat? Would you, could you with a goat?)…but it’s true. I grew up in a generation that adapted worship in every conceivable way in an effort to be…get ready for it…relevant.
But maybe we got it wrong.
These days I visit a lot of churches where the worship forms have been set for a long time. The hymnals are well-worn. The kneeling pads are, too. You’d think folks might be wanting a little more pizzazz. What I suspect is that we’d all like something more than that—connection.
As I have been working my way through Jacob Armstrong’s book, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation [Abingdon Press, 2015], I have been noting the ways his ideas might intersect with rural church ministry. In his chapter on Adaptive Worship, Armstrong makes the point that reaching new people may not be a matter of moving out the pews and rolling in an electric keyboard. In fact, “new ways of worship look old,” he says. (43) The key is knowing why we do what do.
Actually, the first recommendation that Armstrong makes is that we “continually make worship accessible to those new to the church.” (40) “But everybody knows how we do things around here,” you might respond.
Not the people who may visit or whom you invite. It’s hard to underestimate how confusing and even intimidating it is to walk into an environment where it seems that everybody knows what to do but you. And even for the folks who have been there awhile, knowing ‘how’ to do things doesn’t mean we know ‘why’ we do them.
Armstrong argues for intentionality in preparing worship: Thinking through all the parts of worship with “the eyes of the newcomer.” (41) Unpacking or translating “churchy language into the common vernacular.” (43) Staying in touch with our ancient traditions and being open about what they mean. “Authenticity and honesty are more important than worship style,” Armstrong says. (44)
Every size church can do these things and it doesn’t take a big budget to do them. A worship service that feels like someone planned it carefully and with the expectation of welcoming new folks is a breath of fresh air in any environment. And worship that holds on to its purpose as praising God in union with the church of every time and place is going to be faithful and powerful.
I felt like we were onto something with worship in a tree. But possibilities abound in the sanctuary, too. And maybe the tree wasn’t all that relevant. Instead, let everything that has breath praise the Lord!
It’s Spring Break time for a lot of college students in the next few weeks and around this time of year my thoughts turn to doing construction work poorly. That’s how I spent my Spring Breaks for seven years as a campus minister—taking my willing hands and severely limited construction know-how to diverse places in the company of bright and energetic young people. Sometimes we got more into my skill set as when we sorted food in a Philadelphia food bank or when I sang “I Will Survive” at a karaoke night with people served by a St. Louis program for mental illness.
But a lot of times it was construction—on roofs in the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico, at a Native American church in Yuma, Arizona and on a trailer in eastern Kentucky. I learned a lot, but it was the cultural stretching that mattered—for the students and for me. We met God on those trips.
Not only do those times stick with me, but they also lead me to believe that campus ministry is one of the most under-appreciated areas of the church’s life. It’s not too much to say that those trips and the many other seemingly more mundane interactions of campus ministry changed lives. I still remember driving down a South Texas road and looking over at a student who had been very affected by the realities of life on the border that week. She looked out the open window of the van and mumbled, almost to herself, “I could see myself working here.” It was a moment of calling and it led her to ordained ministry and eventually back to the border.
In a recent podcast of Crackers and Grape Juice, the Rev. Christy Thomas, a long-time commentator on the United Methodist Church, said something to the effect that if the church really cared about its future it would invest heavily in campus ministry since that is where it is most likely to touch and be transformed by young people. Back in the early 60s, the church made such an investment and many of our Wesley Foundations on college campuses have their roots in that period. Generations of new church leaders came from those Wesley Foundations.
Things happened in the relationship between our campus ministries and the denomination. As campus ministries addressed the social movements of the day and welcomed vibrant discussions on issues like race, sexuality, and peace with justice, it unsettled older generations. Over time, the buildings, that were innovative and useful in the 60s, got old and tired. Financial support from the connection waned and campus ministers began to spend more and more time in fundraising. In the face of tight budgets, campus ministry didn’t fare well on a cost-benefit analysis if the benefit was seen strictly in numbers.
And yet, some of the most vital things that are happening in our church are still happening on the campuses of colleges and universities. New worship communities are being formed. New clergy are finding their call. Strong lay leaders are emerging. The potential is there to re-form a church that worries it is too old to survive. And yes, a lot of inexperienced carpenters are still heading out to learn a little bit more about construction as they encounter God in the people they meet.
What can churches do to support campus ministry? Connect young people with their campus ministries when they head off to college. Support the apportionment giving that helps fund these ministries and the United Methodist Student Day offering. Invite campus ministers, chaplains, and college students to share the stories of what’s happening in their lives and ministries. And get on to the campus yourself, even if your local campus is a community college.
There is an unsubtle bias that I sometimes heard as a campus minister—a belief that what happens in campus ministry is somehow less engaging or important than what happens in more traditional forms of church. I sometimes heard it starkly put, as when a colleague would say, “When are you coming back to real ministry?” I knew then and I know now that it was the most real ministry I was ever a part of. Even if I never did learn how to fix a roof.
Sometimes I have a fantasy that March 2019 will come, the special General Conference of the United Methodist Church designed to heal our rifts will have passed with a grand reaffirmation of our union, and we’ll all go back to normal. That’s the funny thing about normal in the church, though—there’s no going back there.
Being the Church in the 21st century is going to involve some of the basics that have made us the Church through the previous centuries, but one of those basics is that the Church does not exist for itself but for God and for the new people God is welcoming in to the body of Christ. And new people will need new spaces.
At least that’s the argument of Jacob Armstrong, the founding pastor of Providence Church in Mt. Joliet, Tennessee. In this continuing series where I dialogue with Armstrong’s book, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation [Abingdon, 2015], I have tried to think about the implications of the ideas here for rural communities like the Eastern Shore. And much as I love the church as it was, which raised me, it’s hard to look at the changing world around us and argue with Armstrong’s thesis:
“A major adaptation is needed to reach people who have stopped feeling the need to come. Almost everything will have to change. When worship, children’s ministry, youth ministry, and adult discipleship are all built around knowing what to do with the people when they get in the building, we can’t make incremental change here. An adaptive change is required.” (28)
Easy to say for a guy who is starting a church without a building, (which is what Providence Church did), but that congregation eventually did move into its own space and now they faced a challenge—fighting the temptation to turn inward. Armstrong proposes a question to counter that temptation: “There are many ways to leverage the land and the buildings you have to serve the community, but for a couple of events a year I suggest pretending like you don’t have those things. How would you reach out and encounter new people if you did not have a building or land?” (30)
For Providence Church this meant holding a free cookout at the local trailer park, recognizing Armed Forces Day with a community event for military families, and showing up at public places and festivals. Several churches on the Eastern Shore have tried similar things. Franktown UMC has done that cookout in a local trailer park under a tent. St. John’s took over the Pocomoke coffee house for a young adult night. Grace Church went out on the Parksley square for a Halloween Trunk or Treat. Drummondtown and Metropolitan churches marched together in Accomac on the Fourth of July and Trinity UMC has taken a decorated golf cart and a kazoo band into the Cape Charles parade.
Efforts like these not only help the community know about the churches, they also help the church see and get to know its mission field. We break the pattern established by that unusual period that reached its peak in the 1950s and 60s when it was possible to build something and they would come. What happens in our buildings is still vitally important to who we are, but the new people God desires to know about the good news of Jesus are now going to be “out there” for the most part.
I do recognize that the fantasy I have about “getting back to normal” is just that and that the future will have some discomforts as we do the work of adjusting, whatever the shape of our denominational home. But I also get excited when I recognize that God’s Church does have a future and that the mission it has always had will not be changing. In fact, I do believe that I am meeting that future in the faces of those who are searching for a home in God’s love.
Sure, there’s no going back. But there are a lot of places yet to go!