6 Steps to a Growing Church. Yes, Even Here! – Part 2

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…

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Ben Rigsby (2nd from right) gathers with a small group at Murn’s Cafe in Archer City, TX

  1. 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.

  1. Take an Honest look at WHO you’re trying to reach
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First United Methodist, Archer City

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.

  1. 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.

  1. “Pray like everything depends on God, and work like everything depends on you”

IMG_6724I 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!

fumc-headshots-archer-city-uvrphotography-2-240x300Ben 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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6 Steps to a Growing Church. Yes, Even Here!: Guest Blogger Ben Rigsby

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

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Ben Rigsby mid-baptism at First UMC, Archer City, TX

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:

  1. fullsizeoutput_1874Ask 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.”

  1. “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.

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Ben with El Diablo at Murn’s

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?

In the next post, Ben talks about 4 more steps to reviving a church in a small town

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.

Waltzing (and Futzing) Across Texas: A review of Texas Blood

IMG_6669If you pick up this book you won’t know where you’re headed.  Texas, sure.  After all the title of Roger D. Hodge’s book is Texas Blood: Seven Generations Among the Outlaws, Ranchers, Indians, Missionaries, Soldiers, and Smugglers of the Borderlands.  And there are maps in the first chapter that will whet your appetite for West Texas adventures.  But this meandering book only occasionally stops long enough to soak in Texas.  You’re as likely to send time in Missouri or Arizona along the way.

41xqNH42f3L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Roger Hodge has his literary bona fides as an editor of Oxford American and Harper’s and he certainly can tell a tale.  But he’s not a crowd-pleaser.  He starts out this book sharing his dissatisfaction with the typical Texas history with its “generalizations and hoary meditations on Texas ‘character.’” Such grandiose pretensions are “self-congratulatory nationalistic rubbish” in Hodge’s view and need a perspective that is more diverse and tragic, recognizing the many crossing trails of Europeans, Native Americans, Mexicans, and Anglos who met each other here.  And he promises a personal story based on his own multi-generational family history in the state.

He finds some interesting stories, landscapes, and peoples.  What he never finds is a through line that can pull it all together.

Much of this is forgivable because the terrain is under-appreciated and richer in history than is usually acknowledged.  Out there in the canyons and deserts there are pictographs of the ancient Trans-Pecos peoples, abandoned cinnabar mines in the Big Bend, and artist colonies like the ones I discovered in Marfa and Terlingua last summer.  Hodge recreates western migrations along the southern route from San Antonio to San Diego complete with thousands of thirsty cattle, Apache raids, and roadside graves of those who didn’t make it.

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Roger D. Hodge

His own family appears frequently to remind us of Hodge’s connections to the state, as does Hodge himself who uses the narrative form to explore border issues like drugs, immigration, and walls.  You can’t help but feel that, as the line on the map hardens into actual structures that something precious is being lost.  Hodge’s memories of casual crossings from his home town of Del Rio into Acuña, Mexico highlight what used to be and is no more.

There’s an unhurried air to life in the borderlands.  People move slowly and always keep an eye on the horizon.  Hodge does the same as he wanders around this book.  He’s a fan of Cormac McCarthy and he has imbibed McCarthy’s sense of the mythical journeys you can take on the border.  Unlike, McCarthy, however, Hodge is cool and bloodless.  You get the sense he’s more interested than committed to the subject of his book.  Given the outsized role of Texas in our national story and politics these days, it seems more should be at stake here.

Sunset in Archer County – A Poem

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photo by Ray Hennessy via Unsplash

If coyotes howl at sunset

why do we sit in silence?

Staring at our screens

or dumbfounded by our electrified darlings

we let the miracle pass

unnoticed

day after night after day.

That a nuclear furnace on which all life depends

some millions of miles beyond us

is passing once more out of sight

plunging us into dark from which we could

never recover

and we chose diversion

instead of braying into the dying light?

How unevolved.

The creatures are more wise than I.

 

I want to strip down naked

and join the coyote clan.

I want to skulk beneath a barbed wire fence

leaving tufts of hair to mark the passing.

I want to move lightly over loose rock

and spiky ground

to gather on a height,

there to loose the cry

that would squelch the yearning

lodged in my chest.

Joined in song—this desperate song—

by others of my breed

To note this orange moment

this golden moment

this vermillion moment

this inky moment

this night of the full moon’s rise

Because it may not come again

And where would I rather be on my or the earth’s

last day

than basking in that light

with all my wildness hanging out?

–Alex Joyner

God, love, God, love: The Winn Collier Interview Concludes (3 of 3)

winn-mountain-lumber_largeIn previous segments of this interview with Winn Collier we talked small towns, small churches, and his use of letters to tell the story of Granby Presbyterian Church, the fictional congregation at the heart of Collier’s new book.  Love Big. Be Well.:Letters to a Small-Town Church is a big-hearted, hopeful book that celebrates what Christian community can be.  My review of the book is accessible through the title link above.

In this segment we talk about the book, the recent Texas church shooting, and the rhythm of writing:

I was reminded of [Marilynne Robinson’s] Gilead as I read your book.  When your preacher, Jonas, starts talking of the virtues of blessing, it reminded me of the story in Gilead of trying to baptize the cats and just the importance of blessing.  They’re both very human stories and a very human vision of what life in a community of faith is all about. 

How do you connect that to how God works in the world? I’m thinking about Karl Barth who said, “You can’t speak about God by talking about man in a loud voice,” but in a sense, you are kind of pointing that direction through human relationships.

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Again I go back to Incarnation.  In the world I grew up in there was a grand separation between God and the rest of the world. The culture and the creation and all these things really, they were just functional they had nothing to do with God’s revelation to us. I was overwhelmed and saved by sacramental theology and so I reject that.  But I am aware that it’s possible, if you never name God, then our human mind really can forget God.

Jonas, in Love Big. Be Well., talks about how his job as a pastor is to stand within the community Sunday after Sunday and point to God and to speak the words of God and to speak the word love and speak ‘God, love, God, love’ into the world.  And that’s how I see it. I think that’s fundamentally my job.

I think that’s what a small church, or every church, should do—to stand in the middle of this community, to be enmeshed within it, just as Jesus was, not separate from it, not trying to draw these huge dividing lines, but to say, “We are here.  We are immersed.  It is messy.  It’s wheat and tares.  We’re going to be here.  We’re going to claim the love and presence of God in the world.”

That’s a destabilizing factor because I think God is a disruptive reality.  If the church forgets its mission to be the presence of God and not just a vague idea of God as we define it but the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ…If we don’t speak that presence into the world then we are abandoning our identity and our calling and ultimately, we are abandoning the possibility for the depth of healing and redemption that God is inviting us to bring into the world.

So it definitely is not just, in a loud voice, saying all our ideas.  But it’s also not divorced in any way.  It is manifest through or built through friendships and dinners and work and all the things that make up human existence because that’s how God has chosen to reveal himself.

imagesWe’re talking in the week after the shooting in Texas in a small church. I was doing some writing this morning to the churches here on the Shore about church security and  struggling with what that means and trying to come to terms with what it means to be vulnerable, which is part of our call as a community.  Do you have any reflections in light of that event about what small churches mean?

I’ll tell you one thing I love: I love the way the community of Sutherland Springs, even ones who were not part of that church on a Sunday rhythm, seemed to see that church as very much part of who they were and their identity together.  I think that’s potent.

My hunch is that in Granby (the fictional town of the book), Jonas would have had a couple people who really wanted to make sure the next Sunday they had their fire arms to use.  I think Jonas would have resisted that with everything within him simply because we are peculiar people who are here to proclaim God.   And to proclaim God means to lay down your life and it’s very hard to simultaneously say you’re going to lay down your life and at the first trouble pick up a weapon.

“To proclaim God means to lay down your life and it’s very hard to simultaneously say you’re going to lay down your life and at the first trouble pick up a weapon.”

At the same time, I think Jonas is kind of befuddled about some of these things.  He’s not a consistent pacifist but in his heart he is. So, I think he would struggle with that like all of us are in knowing where is wisdom and where is the prophetic voice. But at the same time, I think he would just keep bringing it back to Jesus and what does it mean to be a people of Jesus and trust it in the long work.

That’s well put because I think the struggle I’ve had this week is allowing the gunman and the incident to determine the field on which we play and the kind of things we talk about and it’s so easy to do because it seems like an easy fix to just say, “Well, if we just had a good guy with a gun at the door, it wouldn’t happen.”

Yeah, and this is for every Christian and every church, but if we can hold on to the fact that we are resurrection people and that death is our enemy but is not our final enemy, then there actually are things worse than dying.  If we can release that stranglehold on our heart then it opens up a lot of possibilities.  As long as our self-protection is the ultimate god to us and God will never be God then we are ultimately going to make grave errors.

Well how are you finding ways to keep writing a part of your life these days? This is me being curious about how you fit it all in.

aaron-burden-90144I have a weekly rhythm and Monday is set aside as my creative day so anything like writing, sometimes other things, but that’s my day. Most of this book I actually wrote on sabbatical two and a half years ago.  I wasn’t planning to finish it but I just knew I wanted to write every day and have that as one of my main practices and it ended up happening.

I’m actually working on a biography now and I’m finding it much more difficult because the kind of research that has to happen is of a different level.  I am actually in this precise moment feeling more anxiety about that because that’s basically the time I have.  The rest of my time is given to church and family. So, every once in a while, if there’s a week here or there where I don’t have to preach or other things are less pressing I’ll slip in some extra time but I am definitely wondering how this is going to work.

I know that struggle when you’re trying to be precise about some things, like you’d have to do with a research-oriented book, coming back to it after you’ve gone away from it for a while.  It’s so much uploading of information again just to get to the point where you can write again.

Yeah that’s right!

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photo by Peter Feghali via Unsplash

Anything else about the book that you would particularly like folks to know?

I would be really pleased if people read this book and felt more hopeful.  Because I feel like we’re in a time that’s devoid of hope.

Winn Collier is the pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville.  You can access his blog at winncollier.com.

How to Make Your Church Inefficient: The Winn Collier interview continues (2 of 3)

fullsizeoutput_18a7In the first part of my interview with Winn Collier, pastor of All Souls Charlottesville and author of Love Big. Be Well.: Letters to a Small-Town Church, we talked about his decision to set his novel in a small town.  We also talked about the use of letters as a way to tell the story of a pastor and his congregation.  In this segment we dig deeper into why small congregations should treasure a particular kind of inefficiency.  Click on the title link for my review of the book.

I know you lived in Waco, Texas.  Did you grow up there?

From sixth grade on, yes.

Before Chip and Joanna Gaines turned it into what it is today right?

Exactly.  Now it is the Magnolia Mecca.

Yes, and with the new Baylor football stadium.

Oh, it’s massive.  Yeah, it’s changed drastically since when I was there.

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Winn Collier

So, when you were there it was probably more of a small city.  You’re living in a small city now.  How much is Charlottesville or the places you’ve lived before in the place you imagine in the new book? 

[The fictional town of Granby is] definitely smaller than any place I’ve lived so in that sense its feels very different but it feels like a lot of places that I’ve maybe visited.  It’s probably more like places that I drive through and maybe towns that I’ve visited when we lived in Colorado.  One of my favorite authors is Kent Haruf and all of his stories are set in one fictional town in Colorado, and there’s just something I think that I love about that.  So it’s just where I go.

Where I live now on the Eastern Shore is very rural and I’m working with a whole lot of churches that feel like the kind of church you’re imagining in the book.  Confronting a  narrative of despair and decline is a huge challenge.  Do you see new opportunities even in places like that?

Absolutely!  I absolutely do.  In fact I think in some ways these small, rural churches are actually on the front lines of what’s happening because it’s a place where we are grappling with the most human realities that we are struggling with.  Sometimes in massive churches with massive resources, that are run in many ways like a Fortune 500 corporation, they are actually more disconnected from some of the harsher struggles that our communities are facing.

I’m not trying to paint one as bad and the other one as good. I think these large churches also are able to amass energy and resources towards large questions and they are able to ignite some kind of movement and responses to things.  Sometimes it’s really helpful and sometimes it’s very short-sighted.

In some of our larger expressions of faith it’s just very difficult to keep the human at the center and if the incarnation tells us anything is that this joining of humanity with God is at the very heart of what God’s doing in the world.  To be large and efficient you have to, in some ways, reduce the inefficiency of what comes from human relationships.

In the smaller churches that’s not even a question.  Everything is inefficient. And that’s seen typically as a real negative and I want to say: Let’s flip that story because it’s not.  It has its own struggles.  It has its own questions about sustainability and we have to be creative about those sorts of things, but there are things a small church is attuned to and can respond to and be for people that a large church absolutely never can.

“To be large and efficient you have to, in some ways, reduce the inefficiency of what comes from human relationships. In the smaller churches that’s not even a question.  Everything is inefficient. And that’s seen typically as a real negative and I want to say: Let’s flip that story because it’s not.”

In some ways, lots of small churches spread all over the vastness of our country is actually our hope way more than a growing handful of massive churches.  So I think that there’s actually a lot of hope there and in lots of churches where people are.

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_What I find most encouraging and interesting and hopeful is those small churches that really are reflections of their community.  They really are a part of the fabric of the life of that community.  They’re living out a parish model that most of the rest of us are doing our best to try to fabricate and so were left at the end of the day doing the best we can.  We do have to do the best we can but doing the best we can is trying to fabricate something.  That’s why we have things such as small group ministry.  It’s important because where else are you going to get connected?  But we have to be honest and say were having to do this because we are so uprooted and because our lives are no longer bound together.

Yeah.

We’re no longer working in a couple square blocks or neighboring our neighbors farm, and were no longer going to one another’s place when it’s time to harvest, pulling up tobacco or corn or what have you.  We’re no longer showing up at the same diner at noon for lunch as three or four of our other friends and we’re going to see them two or three times a week because there’s only one or two places to eat in town.  We have three churches to choose from and it’s one of the three and five times a year those churches are going to get together and do pancake suppers.

That kind of life that was so common fifty years ago, for many of us, because we’ve moved to urban centers, has been obliterated and so now we’re trying to find ways to get people in proximity.  That’s always, to some degree, going to feel orchestrated because it is.  In small churches all they have is each other and the storyline they’re being told is that’s the problem, and I think it’s a gift.

Winn Collier is the pastor of All Souls Charlottesville.  His blog can be found at winncollier.com

The final segment of this interview, ‘God, love, God, love,’ can be found here.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017: #7 All the Pretty Horses

51+nxfaxmXL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_I’m sure Cormac McCarthy has been dying to see if this accolade would come his way.  His 1992 novel, All the Pretty Horses, is now 25 years old, but I just got around to it this year.  Something about spending a month in West Texas made it seem like an appropriate companion.

And it was.  McCarthy captures the harsh beauty of the terrain and peoples it with characters that are hard-bitten, philosophical, and even funny.  I never expected to laugh so much as I did reading the dialogue of Jimmy Blevins, one of the three teenagers at the center of the story.  What you wind up with at the end of this reading experience is a fine meditation on home – the place Americans have always had a hard time locating.

As for Billy Bob Thornton’s 2002 movie of the novel–well, I’d give that a miss.

So congrats to Cormac on making #7 on the 2017 Best Reads countdown.  I hear Dostoyevsky is looking to make the 2018 Heartlands’ list.

Click on the title link above for my review of the book.

Coming Off Leave(s)

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photo by Scott Webb via Unsplash

Leaves don’t so much change color in the fall as they become what they’ve always been.  The chlorophyll that gives all deciduous trees their summer uniform of green begins to break down in the cooling days of autumn.  The carotenoids in the leaves remain, lending trees their brilliant yellows and oranges.  Those colors have always been there, they are just revealed in the retreat  of the chlorophyll.

I believe I have experienced a little of the wisdom of trees in my own leave, which comes to an end with October’s arrival.  Over this time, I have allowed the identity of my role as a clergy person to draw back and underneath I discovered colors I hadn’t seen in a long time.  Of course, that clergy role is not like a coat that is shed.  In fact, it’s more like a brand burned in by an iron.  But it’s not all that I am.

Who I discovered on this journey is a little of the boy who used to follow his instincts with a nagging sense that they made him somewhat strange and unfit for normal society.  Lo, these many years since, I found that boy charming and needlessly burdened.  He was on to something that I still need.

fullsizeoutput_18a2So, on this renewal leave, I wrote like that boy, who would come home each day and tap fantastical stories at his father’s Selectric typewriter.  I wandered the small town of Archer City, Texas like that boy wandered his own home town, fascinated by the people whom he met and wanting to get the mystery and wonder of the place somehow into words.

I sang along to Tennessee Ernie Ford gospel songs with a 70-something cowgirl late into the night in her West Texas garden festooned with strings of light and a bright pink rifle.  I ate dinners with friends who, amazingly, are still good friends years after leaving Dallas.  I took a road trip with Suzanne back through the heart of the country staying ahead of a hurricane.  I explored the desert and the prairie.  I stayed with a cousin who told me family history I had never heard.  I heard more from my father as we shared a few nights in his hospital room.  I worshipped in a Latino church, a cowboy church, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  I talked with shop owners in East Jerusalem, walked miles through Bethlehem, and floated in the Dead Sea.

The boy loved such adventures and moments as these.

But about that wisdom of trees…

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photo by Matthew Payne via Unsplash

Once I had a revelation under a tree.  I was at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan and I had just attended a session with the great poet and memoirist Mary Karr.  She told about a spiritual director who got her out of a stuck place by asking the question, “What would you write about if you weren’t afraid?”

I left the session and went out to sit under a spruce in the April sun.  I opened my journal and asked the same question.  As clearly as I have ever heard God speak in my life I heard three things: “Be free.  Tell the truth.  Don’t do it alone.”

I strive for these things, but I tasted them more fully in the leave.  I glimpsed the colors that had been muted by the drive to produce and the wholly worthy work of turning energy into sustenance, which is the work of chlorophyll.

In his book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr talks about the journey into the second half of life as a kind of search for authenticity.  He sees our stumbling forward to understand life as “a gnawing desire for ‘ourselves,’ for something more, or what I will call ‘homesickness.’”  I understand that desire and it is a kind of rediscovery with acceptance—a knowing that the people we have been in the past are the people God has made us to be, but we have never fully received that gift.  I trust, as I return, that the colors will remain and that the boy will flourish yet.

Five Things I Learned from a Cowboy (Church)

IMG_6710I love a horse trough baptism as much as the next guy, but I have to admit that I’m a traditionalist at heart.  I appreciate the time-worn beauty of prayers passed down through generations, the mystery and splendor of a good four-part choir, the movement and purposeful flow of a well-planned order of worship, and attention paid to, you know, words.  On the other hand, I’ve been known to lead a rousing chorus of “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir” with the Bishop and Cabinet.  What I’m saying is, I’m flexible.

So, recently I went to Cowboy Church and here’s what I learned.

I was in the Big Bend country of West Texas, so it was a place with real cowboys, though this phenomenon has been spreading out to many far-flung places where ranch hands are more rare, including Virginia.  The American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches counts over 200 member congregations but that’s just one organizantion.  There are many more in the US, Canada, and even Australia.  But, of course, the epicenter and place where it all began is Texas.

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Pastor Wendal in the Pen

What did I find?  Well, the Big Bend Cowboy Church is an unassuming metal building with a Western-style wrap-around porch.  Walking in the front doors I was greeted by Pastor Wendal Elliott, who was dressed in a spotless white Western shirt, jeans, boots, and cowboy hat.  There was all the evidence that I was in a church narthex, just with a few more frayed rope and barbed wire decorations.  There was the prayer board, the doughnuts, the coffee, the styrofoam cups.  So far, it was all feeling very familiar.

It was only when I rounded the corner to head to the worship space that the ethos of the place became clear.  Behind another door was a big warehouse space on a concrete pad.  Metal roll-up doors were opened to the Glass Mountains beyond.  An old rail fence decorated with American flags, saddles, and wagon wheels framed a…chancel?  Corral?  Let’s call it the Preacher’s Pen. There was more barbed wire, including the crown on the large wooden cross on the wall.

A large group of people were milling about greeting one another.  Some in the rows of chairs near the front, others around the cafeteria tables set up in the back.  The vibe was friendly and  aggressively casual.

The service began without warning.  Pastor Wendal just leaped up into the Pen and we were off.  There were a few announcements.  “The Cowgirl Gathering is coming up next weekend.  Thanks to those who showed up to the rodeo yesterday.”  Then he invited up a man who leads a ministry to those in prison.  He shared a heartfelt testimony about his son’s incarceration and about the importance of reaching out to the children and families of those in prison.  I was moved.

IMG_6699Then it was time to sing…briefly.  A man with an impressively groomed mustache and a bright green flowered Western shirt got us to our feet to sing songs “which I’m sure you know.”  There was a songbook, but I don’t think these were included in it.  There was also a screen that we didn’t use.  “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Do Lord,” back to “I’ll Fly Away,” one verse each, all to the accompaniment of a single guitar.  Then we sat down while Brother Mustache’s wife came up to join him in a medley of country-western gospel tunes, some self-written.  Good folks with good voices, but I couldn’t help feeling shorted on the music front.  This constituted the whole of the music for the day.

I also wondered how and if this music would connect with the theme of the day, which turned out to be self-control.  Pastor Wendal quoted Proverbs 25:28, “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a person who lacks self-control.” Then, he shared his experience in the cutting competition at the rodeo the day before and how winning requires discipline, training, and preparation.  We looked at other Bible verses praising self-control as a fruit of the Spirit and an essential feature of the Christian life.

Pastor Wendal struck me as a perfect Cowboy Church pastor.  He was direct, humble, not flashy, and seemed to be thoroughly of a piece with the culture the church so clearly celebrated.  He had authentic twang and the dramatic hand gestures so common in rural Texas.  (Think Robert Duvall in Lonesome Dove.)  The message was the kind of life application preaching heard in so many non-denominational and Baptist churches these days.

fullsizeoutput_1877Then it was time to go to the stock tank.  Two teenaged worshippers came forward to be immersed by Brother Mustache, who apparently is a pastor himself.  He offered a straightforward believer’s baptism explanation of what was about to happen and then proceeded to the act.  The United Methodist in me longed for some…any…description of God’s act in the baptism, but the emphasis was definitely on personal witness.

Pastor Wendal followed it up with a low-key invitation to faith.  “Meet me in the back if you’d be interested in baptism yourself.”  And then, as suddenly as the service had begun, it was over.  Pastor Wendal jumped out of the Pen, without a benediction (or an offering!), and it was over.  People headed for the pick-up trucks and rode off into the sunset.

So what did I learn?

1) The emphasis falls heavy on the ‘cowboy’ and much less on the ‘church.’  This is by intention.  “Unchurched people view a traditional church as an organization that just wants their money and they also feel that the institutional church is too ‘righteous’ for them,” Frank Sanchez, a cowboy church planter told the Waxahachie Daily Light. “What we want to do in the cowboy church is to lower those barriers built up between the church and the unchurched, and make people feel comfortable – that they can come as they are.”

I heard the same thing from the police chief in Archer City when I talked to him about cowboy church over chicken-fried steak at Murn’s Cafe.  “I don’t have to dress up and I understand everything they say.”

Surely, it’s a good thing that people are working to lower the barriers and to help people who have been alienated from the institutional church, and institutions in general, to find their way into worship.  By so heavily emphasizing the Western heritage culture, however, is Cowboy Church failing to be church?  Is it so identified with the culture it promotes that it cannot stand against that culture when needed or initiate those who come into the culture of the reign of God?  That’s a question for every church, by the way.

2) For a place with no dress code, there was a dress code.  Cowboy hats, boots, jeans, your best Western shirt, cowgirl chic for the women—you definitely had to be duded to the nines to feel at home in this place.  Even the children were outfitted appropriately.  I don’t think this was out of the norm for this community.  I saw this dress everywhere I went.   So, the police chief was probably right that people didn’t feel they were having to dress up by dressing this way.  But if you came dressed otherwise, you would have felt out of place.

3) Connection with the church of every time and place is not a priority.  Pastor Wendal was headed to a convention of cowboy churches and asked for travel prayers, but otherwise, the focus of the service was entirely on the individuals present.  It was not just the baptism that was individually-focused, everything was oriented to individual choice.  The multiple US flags seemed to be the most prominent nod to any kind of larger community.  It was the Sunday after the protests in Charlottesville and not a word was said.

4) Cowboy Church didn’t tell me how to be a disciple.  How does a church that is so focused on removing barriers to participation move those who attend to greater discipleship?  There was not even an offering, which made me wonder how people are challenged to think about the discipline of generous giving.  There were men’s and women’s groups meeting later in the week, but I did not feel that I was being told much about how to grow in the Christian life beyond advocating self-control.

fullsizeoutput_18765) I like cowboy duds.  I could get used to this get up.  And for bald guys, (check that—persons with baldness), a cowboy hat is a very practical piece of headwear in the Texas sun.  I did meet people who probably wouldn’t have been in church otherwise and there were a lot of them.  They felt comfortable.  But a cowboy church, like every church, has the challenge of being not only accessible, but faithful to the world-challenging message of the gospel.

John Wesley once accepted the call to field preaching with coal miners by saying, “I submitted to be more vile.”  I think he’d have donned a bolo and submitted to be more Western if the occasion had arisen.  But for what purpose?  I ask the same thing of Cowboy Church that I ask of all the churches I visit these days.  And we’re doing this why?

In Which I Tumble Out of the Tumble In and Head to Terlingua – A West Texas Adventure

IMG_6683The bright lights and hubbub of the big city (Archer City, that is – population ~1800) were starting to get to me, so I decided to head even further out into West Texas.  Out to where the skies stretch out like God’s own Imax screen.  Out to where coyotes howl at the setting sun and the rising moon.  Where javelinas, those tough little pigs, take chunks out of prickly pears and diamondbacks thick as a tree trunk slither across the roadway in the heat.  Out to Big Bend country.

Who am I kidding?  All those things happen in Archer City, too, but you need to savor the differences.  Texas has more layers than a sweet Vidalia, though you wouldn’t know it from the coverage it gets, pro and con.  And if Jerry Jeff Walker found a piece of Texas essence in the Chisos Mountains, maybe I could, too.  Viva Terlingua, y’all!

IMG_6639I set up camp at the Tumble In RV Park just outside of Marfa where, I kid you not, a major poetry festival was going on.  I wandered over to the El Cosmico Campground  and we sat by the light of the setting sun among the yurts and teepees, listening to poets from exotic places like Tucson and New Jersey wax about border crossings, Wall Street, and childhood trauma.  We laughed.  We cried.  (On the inside.  We are poets after all.)  A band set up to play some desert folk.    It was like what Woodstock would have been if people had brought vegetables to grill and had really good footwear from REI.

I didn’t survive at the Poetry Festival past the first night.  Marfa, I realized, was not for me.  Every gas station has become an art gallery and every quonset hut an organic burrito joint.  I needed something that involved more existential wondering, more sense of place, and more sweat and misery.  Poetry can do that when its good, but not in fru-fru Marfa.  So after a hearty breakfast at Buns N’ Roses, (it’s a flower shop after breakfast, OK?), I headed for the Chihuahuan desert.

fullsizeoutput_184cRoadrunners darted across the road as I wound down the mountains south of Alpine.  A coyote slipped under a barbed wire fence and disappeared into the scrub.  The landscape turned from a fragile, vibrant green to yellow dirt and gravel.  Strange, volcanic mountains off in the distance and not a house in sight.  Eighty miles to Terlingua, and nothing in between.  And Terlingua was supposed to be a ghost town.

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Viva Terlingua!

Only it’s not.  The cinnabar mine from which the military extracted so much mercury to blow up things in the World Wars, has closed.  But the end of the mercury trade has not meant the end of the crazy in Terlingua.  Jerry Jeff put it on the map with his iconic 70s album, but competing international chili cook-offs and an earned reputation for offering refuge to misfits have made it a collection point for a wide variety of eccentrics.  I stopped at La Posada Milagro for a coffee.  “Espresso…y poco mas!” the sign said.  Very little mas as it turned out.  But, hey, I was not expecting coffee in the desert.

IMG_6669I sat on the patio and looked out towards the valley and the Chisos beyond.  A small cemetery filled with bleached wooden crosses marked the final resting place of former Terlingua residents who had braved this unforgiving terrain, coffee-less, in years past.  The heat made it feel as though everything beneath it was grilling – not just the vegetables back in Marfa.  I couldn’t imagine thinking clearly in such heat in the days before air conditioning, never mind that they were, you know, mining mercury!

Big Bend offers two spectacular parks, the national park—which fills with visitors during its peak season March-June to hike the Chisos basin, ride the rapids through Santa Elena Canyon, and perhaps to sit in the natural hot springs baths and watch the sun set over the Rio Grande, and the state park—which offers unrelenting desolation, no services, but the greatest drive in America.  That’s where I was headed.

IMG_6677I stopped in the visitor’s center in Lajitas to check in with the ranger about what I should know about hiking.  Turns out what I should know about hiking is that I really shouldn’t do much of it.  It was 100 degrees, you are absolutely exposed to the sun, and everything out there, plant and animal, wants to hurt you.  Or even if it doesn’t, it will do it incidentally.  That in mind, I headed to the Fresno Divide Trail, a pleasant little jaunt just south of El Solitario, the major geologic feature of the state park, which is a massive eroded volcanic cone.

Forty-five minutes into my hike, I had found what I came for – the splendid isolation of the desert, the remarkable flora and fauna perfectly adapted to their environment, the absence of pretentious poets.  To be in such a place was lonesome communion with the Creator and creatures.  My inner space expanding in this big space.

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The Rio Grande from the Greatest Drive in America

Then it thundered.  Black clouds began rolling up from the Mexican side of the river and to the north over El Solitario.  Two storms were coming and I knew, because I watched my fair share of Westerns, that a feller could drown in the desert if he got stuck in an arroyo in a rainstorm.  Not that I was in an arroyo, but I liked the word so much that I repeated it out loud on my jog back to the car, racing the clouds.  Arroyo.  Arroyo.  And to be fair, Fresno Canyon was just to my right.

IMG_6696The rains did come.  After driving a while along the Rio Grande, I found myself stranded between two improvised rivers on the road to Presidio (aka The Greatest Drive in America) and had to wait for the waters to go down.  I stood by one of those rivers with the surprisingly refreshing smell of the damp creosote bushes in the air.

The rest of the day was not so pleasant.  The rains returned when I got to the Tumble In and I had to retrieve the tent from a lake and pack it wet.  I ended up at the Bien Venido Motel in Alpine about which the less said the better.

But if I can’t recommend the accommodation, I can encourage you to take to the desert.  The Bible says that hope comes like streams in the desert and I’ve seen those streams.  They flow through ocotillo and lechuguilla down to the canyons of the Rio Grande.  I hope we never see a wall in such places.  The glory of God needs to flow.

Oh, but I gotta tell you about Cowboy Church!  Next time…