Thursday, December 19, 2013

Revitatlizing Missionary

My first inkling I was out of my element was when I asked someone for their phone number.

You see, I had recently moved to a small town in Western Oklahoma.  Population 600.  I came from Oklahoma City, and had been married about a month before.  I had been doing ministry for some time as a pastor, youth pastor, college, music, and anything else.  I had moved to First Baptist Church in this small town to be youth pastor.

So I  asked a student for their phone number and they replied "5309".  I was still in college but I did know that was not a full phone number.  I looked at them confused, waiting for the punchline.  It never came and as they left my wife quickly informed me of the true meaning.  She was from a small town too and became a saving grace for me in that small town.  I didn't stay at the church very long, for many reasons. But I was a stranger in a strange place.  I didn't know how to operate in a small town.*

Even though I grew up in OKC, just two hours away, this place was different.  I spoke the same language, watched many of the same movies, and cheered on the same sports teams.  But that small town was a whole different world to me.  I crossed cultural lines when I moved there.  The power structures, the lines of communication, the formal and informal rules of the whole place was a mystery.

As a teenager I sat in a pew and heard God's call very clear.  I was to preach.  At 16 I didn't know what that meant or where or how. But I knew I was to preach.  So I began to do so.  I found myself, like many, starting ministry work with youth and college.  As an 18,19, 20 year old, those were my people!  I knew this crowd, got the cultural references, watched the same movies.  Before moving to that small town, I had pastored a little church in OKC.  I didn't know to reach out to adults as well, so I moved back to youth.  I thought youth pastor in a small town would be easy!

I am not the first one to get lost in small town.  My wife saved me in many ways, but I was in over my head.  Every church and town has it's own culture.  But as a staff member there and elsewhere I had to learn to reach across cultural lines, and then across generational lines as well.

Churches that need revitalization, often, but not always, have elderly congregations.  And many of the pastors that go to those places are young.

So a pastor of a revitalizing church must make sure that he takes the time explore the culture of the place he is called to. He must work to study his culture like a missionary would study upon moving to a new country.  Even though he might have just moved across the state, the culture and values are probably different than his.  The revitalizing pastor must know that in order reach all for Christ, he must start with those in his own pews.  Understanding our community starts with understanding those in our pews.  Their values, belief systems, power structures, and communication lines will most likely be different than his.  And so he has to work hard to reach across cultural and generational lines to revitalize the church.  A reach across the pew leads to a reach across the street, and a reach across the world.

*Only giving four numbers means that everyone in town has the same first 3 numbers, for you non-small town folks.  

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Communication Is Key

I had a woman call me wondering if I had seen what so and so had posted on facebook.  She didn't know how someone who called themselves a christian could post something like that. So of course she posted back and tried to change the other person's mind.  It didn't work of course, as no ones mind has ever been changed by a facebook argument.  I relayed this to a pastor colleague who told me that's why he's careful about who he friends on facebook. Teenagers are prone to drama, you know.  The problem, I informed him, was that this was a 85 yr old woman talking about a 75 year old woman.

There are many challenges in church revitalization.  There can be budget issues, a reputation to overcome in the community, or motivating people to do outreach.  But a great challenge can be communication, especially when communicating among multiple generations.  By communication I mean anything from casting vision, to prayer requests, discipleship, and more.  

We like to say that our world is more connected than ever, and indeed it is.  With facebook, twitter, email, and more, it is so easy to get word out to people.  Gone are the days of complicated phone trees where every church member can be notified.  It's tempting to try and pigeon hole people by generation, but that is just not the case anymore.  As the story above shows, older people can be heavy users of social media.  But people next to them in their Sunday School class might not tweet, text, facebook, or anything else!  While more uniform adopters of technology, young people cannot be pigeon holed either.

As a pastor, I know it is important to communicate with people. But how do I do that?  Should I write a blog about it?  Send out a text?  Send postcards in the mail?  Many leadership blogs and journals write with waxing prose about the need for pastors to be on twitter, facebook, etc. And I am!  But I believe pastors at churches striving to revitalize face a challenge in that they must be versed in and use many forms of communication.  Information can be spread through snail mail, twitter, facebook, phone calls, and more.  Not to mention Sunday morning, Sunday Night, Wednesday Nights, and more.  All of these are necessary and helpful tools to a pastor of a revitalizing church.

I sat and listened to a pastor of one of the larger churches in my state share with other pastors he had gathered for a conference out of state.  The wives went one way, the men another, and informal talk followed.  He spoke to us of the necessity of using time wisely, and how to delegate.  He explained that his deacons have a team for hospital visits, a team for outreach, etc.  And when someone in his church goes in the hospital, an email gets sent to his secretary, who then notifies the hospital team leader of the deacons.  A visit is made, a report sent via email, and the pastor is copied on all these.  He can then know the visit was made and can be notified when he needs to go himself.

A good plan for sure.  It's a great method.  But I sat next to a pastor at a rural church who had one deacon.  I might have six, but not all of them use email or even text!  So this plan won't work for me.  The small church, revitalizing pastor must work at using all means of communication to carry out all the regular duties of a pastor. This is a challenge in an intergenerational church, and particular one in which the majority of people are older.

Maybe I write a great blog post sharing the vision for the church, or link to an article I read on twitter about living missionally in my community. It does no good for anyone besides me if no one reads it.  So I have to use the coffee shop, the barber, the potluck lunches, the lines at the grocery store, the blog, facebook, texts, phone calls, and good old fashioned face to face time to get the message across.

Communication in an intergenerational church can be a challenge, as it may be like some people are living in a different world than us.  But if we work hard to use all forms of communication to our advantage, the Kingdom of God will be strengthened for it.

What's the primary means of communication in your church?  Does it work?  Could it be more effective if you added strategies to what you are already doing?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Why I’m tired of hearing about church planting.

When I was in college, I interviewed to be a youth associate-type-intern person with a mega church in OKC.  It was a typical interview, Q and A type things.  Greatest strengths, weaknesses, and so on.  He then asked me a new one.  If I was standing before two rooms, one with people who were not followers of Christ, and one with lukewarm church people, and I could only enter one to speak to, which would I choose?  I thought about it for a while, and finally answered that I would take the lukewarm church people.  He seemed surprised by my answer.  I didn’t get the job, or didn’t take it at least.  But I have mulled that question in my head for a while since then.  Was it the right answer?  If asked again now I would go and share with the people who were not Christians, that much is sure.  Always take a chance to share with people who don't know God.  But that answer then began to show me the heart God had given me for the church. The lukewarm, the burned out, and the never was.  I love the church.

In the early pages of the book of Acts, the early church spreads with earnestness.  The church grows in leaps and bounds. I have sometimes wondered, as a nerd might do, about the logistical dilemmas it caused the early church.  How they communicated, passed word along, etc.  As Acts moves along, Peter begins preaching to the Gentiles, and then Paul enters and the church begins to explode across the western world. Churches pop up everywhere.  

Many people today seek to emulate the Acts model, to go and plant a church where there is a need for the gospel to spread.  And rightly so, as this is a great way to spread the gospel.  There are seemingly endless amounts of funding, training, mentors and resources for church planters.  

 I long for more churches to be planted, in my own community, and around the world.  I count many church planters as my friends, and considered the call for myself.  I know many organizations exist to help churches plant churches, to fund, train, equip, support and more.  I'm proud to be part of a denomination that recognizes the need for that.  

But I am tired of hearing about church plants.   Don’t get me wrong, I think we need more churches.  But still I’m tired of it.  My heart has always been with the local church, and  I have a great desire for existing churches to be revitalized.  This is not meant to put down church planters or the need for more churches.  It's a call to remember the task before us with the churches we already have.  

Revitalize.  It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, with increasing frequency among some people.  But there are precious few resources devoted to this.  My own denomination, the SBC, will spend over 50 million dollars this coming year on church plants through the North American Mission Board.  I applaud that.  But I constantly see every week in our state Baptist paper a list of churches that have shut their doors.  I know it’s not limited to my state either.  Thousands of churches close their doors for good every year, from all denominations.  

So what is to be done about it?   “Church Revitalization”  is a popular term, but it garners nowhere near the popularity or articles or funding of church planting.  A quick google search yields these results for number of hits on these terms.  

church planting

Church revitalizing


Church planter

Church revitalizer


“to give new life or vigor to” 

That’s the dictionary definition of revitalize.  But what does it mean for a church?  For something to be re-vitalized, it must have had life at some point!  This is the primary focus of revitalization, bringing back the life that was once there.  In a church setting, this life might have been very far in the past, sometimes over a hundred years.  More likely it was a few decades ago, a generation or so.  The church was full of life, busting at the seams, with programs, outreach, training, missions, and more. But as time wore on, the community changed, or there was a fight, or there became just a general lack of drive.  Maybe there was a moral failure in the leadership, or a local economy collapse.   And so attendance fell.  Pews were empty, baptistries still.  But there is hope still!  Revitalization.    When these churches get revitalized, they get new life!  Not old life, or the way things were in the good old days.  But new life.  New people.  New ways of thinking that are outward focused, that spread the Gospel, and grow God’s kingdom.  

But it seems for some, the solution  is just plant more churches.  Those churches had their heyday, now it’s time for someone else.  Let those old, stubborn, unchanging churches die.  

My church sponsors a mission church in a un-incorporated community about 20 minutes from ours.  It is a mission church, and will always be that for us, a mission.  We sought help for the funding of this church, and a few agencies told us to close that church down, give it six months, and open again as a church plant. Then we would have access to lots more funding, resources, missionaries, and more.  But for our established mission church, there was no help they could give.    

As I provocatively said,  I'm tired of hearing about church plants.  We need them.  But I want to see the resources, blogs, pastors, networks and funding that goes to church plants be put towards helping churches get new life. 

Without existing churches getting healthy, I don’t think we can reach our towns and cities effectively for Christ. 

Please note:  Revitalization is just that:  New Life!  It is not church growth, it is not church plants, it is not even tweaking a good church to make it great. It’s helping existing churches become healthy.  There is a time and space for all those other things, but revitalization of sick churches is one of the greatest challenges facing the church today. 

So what are you going to do about it?