Chicken Houses and Change

animal-avian-beak-891223The 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.

41yErQDxaLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_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?

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Adapting Worship without Climbing Trees

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photo by Heidi Sandstrom via Unsplash

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.

41yErQDxaLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_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)

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Jacob Armstrong

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!

Why Churches Can’t Be Normal Again

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photo by J.D. Mason via Unsplash

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)

41yErQDxaLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_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!

How to Get Out of the Inner Circle: Ministry with the Poor

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photo by Tom Parsons via Unsplash

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” [Philippians 2:5-6, NRSV]  This, I believe, is one of the greatest biblical expressions of what ministry with the poor means.  In this passage, Paul gives us an image of God’s identification with humanity in all its limitations and also how God took on that humanity to restore it.

So if our ministry as Christians is to model Jesus’s, (“Let the same mind be in you…”), what does it say that we have so much difficulty getting beyond mere charity to really being with people in poverty?

41yErQDxaLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_“In so many churches, what they call missions or working with the poor is simply donating,” United Methodist pastor Mike Slaughter says in the book The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation [Abingdon, 2015]. (23)  If the measure of our ministry were clothes, kits, and shoeboxes, we’d have to say we’d arrived.  But most of us know what we really long for is relationship.

We are, as United Methodists say in their most ubiquitous confessional prayer, “a church that has not loved its neighbors and has not heard the cry of the needy.”  But Jacob Armstrong, the principal author of The New Adapters, feels this is “our greatest opportunity, because when we connect to the stated vision of Jesus, the church is unleashed…To do this we must move from inward-focused ministries and simply having ‘missions’ and ‘outreach’ as subsections to a church that sees all of its ministries as focusing on the poor, which includes everyone.” (15)

This is not a matter of glossing over the differences and affirming that “all lives matter.”  It’s a way of seeing with the eyes of God and knowing that God not only doesn’t shun our poverty, but enters into it because our poverty is the best we have to offer.  God sees us as we are and loves us all the more.

So Armstrong encourages churches to grasp the reality that “the gospel is not good news unless it is good news to the poor.” (15)  So how can we see the poor around us—in our neighborhood, in our community, in the world beyond?

rawpixel-com-384899In small churches, we often pride ourselves on the ‘family feel’ of our congregations.  Even churches despairing about declining attendance will often list their welcoming hospitality as one of their greatest strengths.  But how far does that perceived welcome extend beyond the doors.  When we are encountering people who find churches to be intimidating, are we able to see through their eyes?

Here’s an experiment: Find someone who doesn’t attend church and ask that person to talk about her/his experience of church.  No need to try to convince them to change in the moment.  Just listen and see if you can hear in their stories the deep desires of their hearts.  What would it take to touch those needs?  How are they the same as yours?

At the end of the experiment, you may have a glimpse of what church looks like through their eyes and that will be useful.  More useful may be the relationship you have started to build with someone who is, like you, looking for a place to belong.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.  Beyond donation, find connection.

How to Know Your Mission Field: Adapting with Jacob Armstrong

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photo by Justin Luebke via Unsplash

Jacob Armstrong, founding pastor of Providence Church in Mt. Joliet, Tennessee, offered a provocative and helpful workshop on evangelism during the 5 Talent Academy in Virginia last October.  Provocative enough that I bought his book, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation [Abingdon, 2015].  In an occasional series, I’m going to take a look at how some of the ideas in his book might apply in small towns and small congregations.

The title of Armstrong’s book encapsulates his basic belief that churches need to  adapt in order to thrive.  But what that adaptation looks like will vary with context.  So the first chapter in the book deals with finding a vision that matches the mission field.

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Jacob Armstrong

Armstrong went back to a community he grew up in to start his new church, but he didn’t assume that he knew that community.  He and his leadership team began their ministry by listening and praying.  He describes driving through town on a Sunday morning at 10 AM when church people were in church and getting to know those who weren’t.  The team rolled down their windows at stoplights to hear what was on car radios.  They observed what people were doing.

What they discovered is that the community didn’t need a hip church with a pastor in skinny jeans.  They needed a church that could connect with soccer moms and suburban struggles.  “As we began to pray for and over our community,” Armstrong says, “our hearts were turned to who they were, not what we wanted to do.” (5)

Armstrong goes on to outline other steps in developing a vision for your place:

  • use demographic studies of your community
  • spend time in the coffee shops and other ‘third places’ where people gather
  • identify & meet with people of peace
  • learn from other churches

As I think about Armstrong’s analysis I realize that one problem that established churches have is their unintentional insularity.  We spend so much time in our buildings that we lose the ability to see why they may be limiting our outreach to new people.  WE feel comfortable there, so why don’t others?

41yErQDxaLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_But most of the small churches I attend have tired buildings that have not been updated in many years.  They serve the existing congregation well, but they do little to recognize the barriers they present to new people.

In a similar way, our mindsets, especially as clergy, have been shaped by the environment we are in.  Getting our bodies and our minds out of the building has got to help us learn about the people we are not seeing in the church.

In small towns, the number of ‘third places’ is shrinking.  Coffee shops may not exist. Old civic groups like the Ruritans and Rotary are disappearing and those that hang on do not attract young people.  But there is the local diner or restaurant where everybody goes.  There are soccer fields and school events.  There is the local community college.  There are the aisles of the grocery store.  We can put ourselves in those places to listen and learn.

This summer, during my month-long sojourn in Archer City, Texas, I got to know Ben Rigsby, pastor of the local United Methodist Church.  Ben knew everybody in Murn’s Cafe.  He ate lunch with the police chief.  His church was organizing a neighborhood party at the community pool on a Friday night.

This kind of work doesn’t show up on many pastoral evaluation forms, but it makes a big difference in getting to know your mission field.  And it can make for a vibrant church.