Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Membership and the Church

One of the topics being debated at the General Conference of The United Methodist Church this year is the ability for a pastor to define membership. In particular the ability of a pastor to say that a person is not fit to be a member. I just finished a book "The Search to Belong" that talked about how different people belong in different ways. One of the illustrations used was of a woman who identified as a member of the church because she watched the worship services on television. The church may have had strict membership rules, it may have had lax requirements, none of that mattered to the woman, she got her sense of belonging through the connection she shared over television. This story to me speaks to one of the challenges around church membership. Does it matter what we say a member is if that is not what is practiced by those around us?
As I think academically at this I can see a value for the church to work hard to maintain boundaries around membership. I mean, if we are to be a Christian church certainly membership should in part be about a belief/relationship with Christ, shouldn't it? The more I think about it however the more I question whether I can fairly dictate what it mean for someone to belong to the church. Some people find belonging to mean still receiving the newsletter in a nursing home hundreds of miles away. Other people think that it is really about a core commitment to give of our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. I guess I just wonder if we are ever able to legislate the idea of belonging, or if we are better off simply working to enhance the belong of everyone through a variety of ways. Other than for the purpose of quantitative analysis what value is there to counting membership? I think it would be possible to encourage participation and even highly active participation without enforcing standards around "joining" a church.
My closing question is how do we encourage various ways of belonging while still try to appease the structures of the church that ask for a formal status of belong called membership?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Feeding the Root

I was listening to a speaker from the Minnesota DNR talk about trees yesterday and one thing he said struck me as particularly profound for church growth. "Do not fertilize a stressed tree." He described a stressed tree as one that was in a drought, or afflicted with an insect attack, or similar strain on it. The problem with fertilizer is that all it does is force trees to put out more leaf growth. This extra growth does not help the tree, but instead increases the strain on the tree as it forces it to put even more of its scant resources it to extraneous leaf production. From what I can tell it is the equivalent of opening new stores when sales are down.

So how does this all connect to the church? For me the connection arises out of a recent conversation around the pressures of benchmarks in churches. With the budget strain that churches face, and the pressures facing denominations as a whole, there is increased pressure for churches to demonstrate growth, to be able to clearly measure and express the effects they are having. In the midst of a potential church-wide drought, there is a great deal of pressure to show lots of leafy growth in the church. There is a real pressure for a church to pour on the fertilizer in an attempt to create showy numerical growth without seriously addressing the deeper needs. From what I gather, fertilizer will not really help feed and grow the roots. In fact a lot of the deeper growth needed for sustainability in the long term is hurt by extraneous growth for show during hard times.

In a time where benchmarks and measurable growth is needed, how do we in the church attend first to the immeasurable growth that goes on beneath the surface? How do we look first to building our root structure, so that when the rains do fall we are poised and ready to grow? How do we assess the rain levels for the church? How do we know when there is growth out there we are missing and when is it simply a dry season for the church? When it is time to grow within and when is it time to grow without?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Everything in balance

This weekend I was struck by the subtle balance that exists in nature. On Sunday it was difficult, even for someone with my young eyes to easily read the power-point slides during worship. After the service I worked with someone to try and find font combinations, contrast/brightness settings, and other technical changes that would facilitate people's viewing. After many different attempts I was ultimately unable to make a noticeable difference in the readability. The bottom line was that the screen was simply too washed out. We have had to battle a little with washed-out images in the past but this was by far and away the worst it had been. My theory is that it is because of the snow, which led me to a profound appreciation of the balance that exists in nature.

As we move closer and closer to the summer solstice the light from the sun becomes more and more direct, making things appear more and more bright. Usually however, as the sun begins to brighten the snow begins to melt, and a balance of light in the world is maintained. This year however, because of the weather we have gotten, the fourth Sunday of spring was probably the snowiest in the Brainerd/Baxter area. All of the direct rays of the sun we are now getting on this beautiful, sunny, spring days are bouncing off the glistening snow cover and further increase the level of light we have around. Short of shutting out the light there is nothing that we could do to fix the problems with our projection system. Normally nature helps us out, keeping a better balance to the light around us, but not this year. It often seem to take an imbalance for us to really appreciate just how carefully constructed and balanced nature really is. To appreciate all the work that has gone into Creation. All I ask is that next week Nature leave my worship power-point slides alone.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Founding the Church of Jeff Ozanne

The recent controversy around the sermon's of Jeremiah Wright, Obama's pastor, as well as recent studies which show the high percentage of people who switch denominations over the course of one's life raises an interesting question, how much do people need to believe what their pastor, their church, and their denomination believe? The other way of looking at it is how much do the pastor, the church, and the denomination have to believe what I believe. It is obviously impossible for church, pastor, and parishioner to be lock-in-step on every issue. The only way that is going to happen is if we each found our own churches. There needs to be a lower standard than 100% agreement, but what is it? Some people would say that the percentage of agreement is not nearly as important as what people agree on. It would be possible for an fundamentalist Christian and a fundamentalist Muslim to have the same beliefs around the importance of scripture, but what they call scripture is going to be different and that difference alone is enough to make them choose two very different places of worship. I think on the whole people look for people/ideas/experiences like theirs when they choose a place to worship. I just wonder how if there are things that are more important or less important around those issues.

One of the growing trends of the church is the mobility of members. This is not new in the last ten years but is certainly new over the life of the Church. A lot of church growth in the United States is not new people joining the faith, but people switch to new churches or returning to church after years of inactivity. We are not expanding so much moving around within the large tent of the Church. When is the right time to leave a church? Do you leave because the pastor is too liberal or too conservative for your views? What if you agree with the pastor but not the majority of the congregation? Many churches as a whole are asking the question of what to do when the denomination they are a part of makes a choice very different from their own. Do you stay in a church because of what it believes or because of what it is doing? How long do you try and motivate a church to take action before you leave?

When I was in high school my parents left the church we had been going to and joined another United Methodist church. I cannot recall all of their reasons for leaving. I stayed because I had hope that things could change, and I also stayed because ultimately what was more important to me at that point was the community of faith I was in. Though I was involved in the direction of the church and active in trying to make a difference in the church, ultimately what caused me to stay when my parents left was that I wanted to still be a part of that community. I know my parents made the right choice for them, they are at a new church, happy there and being part of exciting ministry efforts. There is obviously not a hard and fast answer, but I think the closest I come up with is the litmus test of ministry. Do you still feel you can do good ministry in the church you are a part of? If you cannot, then it is time to look for something new. I think we sometimes choose the wrong reasons for leaving churches or switching denominations but I think we can stay for the wrong reasons too. I think the church and the Church both need to look at the consumerist culture around membership we are creating and need to work to change that culture to one that is more oriented around calling and ministry. I think we need to look seriously at the importance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy in what church we choose to join and stay at. Lots of fun questions and challenges, but I think I will leave them for another day.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Mystery of Worship

We are starting something new at Park and Light of the Lakes this week, we are calling it AWE for Alternative Worship Experience. The hope is to create a viable worship alternative to the traditional and contemporary worship services that dominate Brainerd and Baxter. We want to give people a chance to engage in worship with their whole bodies, using all their senses, moving beyond their chairs. Understandably as the lead person at present on this project (I have an awesome team surrounding me) I am rather nervous about how this is all going to work this week. This new service is something we are trying in April just with the two churches so we can see how it works. What was really interesting to me as I worked to drum up enthusiasm for the service was the curiosity that naturally accompanied something new. People were excited to know what we were going to be doing. Maybe this is something that is missing from our worship.

Does curiosity add to the experience of worship? Is mystery something we are missing in our current models of worship? One of the things I was thinking about doing to generate interest in the service was to simple put out a list of all the different things we would need for the service so that people could be wondering how we would use a fish tank in worship? Most of us know what is going to be happening in worship on Sunday morning and I think because of that it is easy for us to fall into a bit of a routine around it. Instead of something that spurs us to knew depths of understanding around God, we simply re-emerse ourselves in the familiar. The United Methodist Church's study on communion described it as a "holy mystery" which I think is a fitting title for communion. How often do we marvel and wonder at the grace imbued in a piece of bread and a sip of juice? Can we worship in a what that is constantly filled with mystery, curiosity, and wonder or do we need something stable and constant in general which creates the contrast? As we move ahead with these new attempts at worship I think this question will continue to be explored. Do we need to have our own constant and familiar to use as a foil, or do the mainstream models of contemporary and traditional services create the necessary backdrop for the new, the different, the mysterious? Will this lead us into a deeper sense of worship or just puzzlement?

If you are curious about what we are doing, we are creating a blog of the experience at http://awe-inspired.blogspot.com