Thursday, June 22, 2006

An Aniversary (of a kind)

The first day of Vacation Bible School started earlier than planned, last year. A little before 6 am we got a call that the Feed Store (our recently renovated youth building) was on fire. I rushed down to the church to see the fire department already at work. But it was too late. The building was totally destroyed. In the weeks ahead we learned that the fire was the work of an arsonist, mourned the loss of so much hard work, worked with the insurance company, and tried to figure out our next steps.We again find ourselves in the midst of Vacation Bible School. No fire this year. Instead, we are in the midst of great change. The slab where the Feed Store stood is on the way to becoming a basketball / volleyball court. While laying down the pavement for the court, we also had the adjacent parking lot redone. Here are a couple of photos. Note the two handicapped spots right up against the Fellowship Hall. Also note that traffic flow will now be one way - from Church St. (by the EMS building) up to the Fellowship Hall, and then left to an exit on Mt. Pleasant St.

Our new building for youth is The Filling Station. (Just as The Feed Store used to be a feed store, The Filling Station used to be a filling station. Both just happen to lend themselves to metaphorical interpretation.) Tim (and his whole family) along with the youth have been putting long hours into making it a home for the youth ministry. They're racing the clock to have it ready for an open house Thursday evening (after the VBS program & hot dog supper).

While the parking lot workers were in our vicinity, the trustees got them to go ahead an paint the stripes on the parking lot at Butcher Boy. The old ones were mighty faint. See how these look.

The work inside Butcher Boy continues also. Here are Mike, Charles and Paul taking a photo break.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

American Church Crisis

Outreach Magazine features an article on the crisis in the American church. Since their focus is evangelism and church growth, the crisis under consideration is the decline in church attendance across the country and a failure in every state but one (Hawaii) for church attendance to keep up with population growth. Here are their "Seven Startling Facts"

1. Less than 20% of Americans regularly attend church—half of what the pollsters report.

This is old news. The root problem is that people lie - or fudge the facts. Pollsters ask, "Were you in church Sunday," and since they know the right answer is "Yes," they give it, even if it's been a week or two or ten since they were in church. The upside to this bad news is that we have plenty of prospects out there who, though they might be something else by excuse, aren't actually participating anywhere. Instead if asking, "What church are you a member of?" We need to learn to ask, "What church do you regularly attend?" Even better, since lots of people will see no difference between the questions, is to just invite people with no reference to where they go or don't go - unless you know them to be active somewhere.

2. American church attendance is steadily declining.

You know what this means, don't you? Not only are we failing to keep up with a growing population, but we're also not even keeping our own. Now it may be the case that in a denomination full of senior citizens, that saints being "promoted to glory" is the problem. I think the even greater problem is that when our churches have children (many small churches don't) we're doing a poor job of discipling them and keeping them.

3. Only one state is outpacing its population growth.

That's where Hawaii comes in. Texas is at only 18% of the population in attendance.

4. Mid-sized churches are shrinking; the smallest and largest churches are growing.

By their reckoning we're a mid-sized church. We're growing. But I can feel us fighting our way against the current.

5. Established churches—40 to 190 years old—are, on average, declining.

We're 150 next year. Established churches have a strong base of "We've never done it that way before" that stifles innovation. They also tend to have so many established networks of members that they know fewer non-Christians to invite. Again, we're fighting upstream.

6. The increase in churches is only 1/4 of what’s needed to keep up with population growth.

We need more new churches. Bishop Huie wants us to plant 10 new churches a year in the bounds of the Texas Conference. (The Chappell Hill community out near NTCC main campus might be a possible site in our mostly rural area.)

7. In 2050, the percentage of the U.S. population attending church will be almost half of what it was in 1990.

I'm not content to let this happen. If it were only about keep an institution going, I wouldn't mind so much. But Jesus died for these people! The bible tells us Jesus said, "No one comes to the Father apart from me." On the off chance Jesus actually said that, AND that he knew what he was talking about, we have a pile of work to do.

The View from 35,000

We have reached our cruising altitude of 35,000 feet on our way to Newark Liberty International Airport. Though I have been flying since I was too young to know it, I still enjoy getting a window seat and watching the ground and clouds go by beneath us.

I didn’t get a window seat this time; my daughter did. I can see the distant landscape from here, though, and it is beautiful.

There is something peacefully freeing about seeing the earth from this far up. It is as if problems, difficulties, even disagreements are left way down there. The land rolls between densely developed cities, clearly delineated farmland, and rough, untamed wilderness. But from here, it all holds one thing in common. It is far from me.

Yet, distant as all that is, I am in a plane that has not a single empty seat. I am 35,000 feet above all the cares and concerns of my life, of the world, and still people, each with his or her own story, surround me.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Trusting the Bible

Dr. David Foster (a pastor in Tennessee) has a good post listing 21 Reasons why he trusts the bible.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Butcher Boy video

Our 149 year old congregation is on the northern side of main street. Bounded by the downtown businesses on the south, the Farmstead Museum on the west, the court house and jail on the east, our only growth potential was to the north. Earlier this year Oscar, the owner of the Butcher Boy grocery store across the street from the church, told us he planned to retire. He wondered if we had an interest in buying the property.

We'd been hoping for the opportunity for years. All of our parking is shared with other groups. Oscar had generously allowed us to use his lot, but there was no guarantee someone else movign in would have been so generous. We're also growing in numbers as God brings more people in. Our (old) fellowship hall is too small, and sometimes our educational space is cramped. Space sounded like a good thing to our leaders, so we have taken the plunge.

As a way to communicate with our people and other interested parties, I made a short video this week. You can watch it and get just a glimpse of what it looks like. Pray for us also - we need it.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Out of (our own) Control

An old high school friend visited my church Sunday. He’s traveled extensively in the Muslim world over the past 10 years, and shared some of his experiences with the people. After his stories of spending time in jail in the UAE and extended visits with Afghan refugees in Pakistan, one of our people observed to me, “He sure is brave.”

Here’s another way to put it: “He has faith.”

Throughout life we’re faced with situations that we don’t know how to handle and for which we lack the resources. My normal tendency in these situations is to back off. I like to be in control. I like to be able to make things happen – not to be at the mercy of events.

But as Christians, we don’t believe in fate – an impersonal force or set of events. We believe in a God who loved us enough to give his only son for us. So we’re not at the mercy of events, we’re at the mercy of God.

I’ve felt the closest to God and my faith has grown the most on the occasions when I’ve set aside my urge for control – my urge to make things happen by having my own skills and resources lined up – and trusted God.

Throughout scripture and Christian history it’s been fairly normal for God’s people to get into situations they couldn’t handle. Sometimes they trusted God to provide – to make a way. Sometimes they winged it on their own (I think of the kings of Israel who repeatedly went to Assyria or Egypt for help instead of calling on God).

I pray for myself and for the churches I pastor that we might be in a place where we need God – and recognize it for what it is. I heard a comment about a month ago. Supposedly a Korean church leader said, “It’s amazing how much the churches of America accomplish without God.”

Now we could take offense at that. How dare he say such a thing! We have God as much as the Koreans! We read the bible and pray just like they do! (Well, maybe not the fasting and long hours and days of prayer, but we at least say a little prayer before meals & at our committee meetings.) I’d rather not take offense, however. I see much truth in it. We’ve been rich and successful for so long that we thing we’ve done it ourselves. Our self-confidence is so great that when a challenge comes along we look at our resources and abilities. Can we do it? If we have all our ducks in a row, we go for it. But if we don’t – if we don’t have the money or people, we just assume that the opportunity is not “of God.” We’ve gotten to the point where we don’t’ need God, all we need is good organization.

I believe our church is now in a place where we need God. Our building acquisition is beyond our own ability. Our calling to reach our community and win people to Christ is beyond us. We need God.

Is this a bad thing? Absolutely not. I think we’re right where God wants us.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

What's the largest Turnip you've ever seen?

The 2006 session of the Central Texas Annual Conference is now over. We concluded on a hot Wednesday afternoon in Waco.

Hot as it was outside, it remained fairly cool inside. the closest thing to dissension was a couple of representatives from smaller churches pleaded, during discusison of the budget, that we are straining smaller churches. Both mentioned the old addage that "you can't squeeze blood from a turnip."

Interestingly, though, earlier in the day, we heard a similar whine on behalf of the big churches. The new pension plan that has now been accepted by our conference, has the larger (more accurately, the higher paying) churches paying a far lower percentage on their salaries toward the overall pension than are the smaller (lower-paying) churches. The leadership of the Board of Pensions defended this by throwing out some utterly irrelevant stats about what a high percentage of the overall apportionments these big churches pay. Awwww, poor, poor, big churches....

The truth is, churches, no matter their size, pay a fairly eqivalent amount of apportionments as a percentage of their overall budgets. So, yes, churches that spend more money on themselves pay more apportionments.

I think that no matter what size your turnip is, the addage is likely still true. Perhaps we are beyond the time of pitting "big churches" against "little churches."

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Divine Conspiracy

I've finally managed to upload the audio for the Divine Conspiracy sermon series (yes, I stole the title from Dallas Willard - but the content has nothing in common). This is my response to Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code.

In the first, The Mystery of Israel I suggest that Brown's biggest mistake is forgetting that Jesus was a Jew. We cannot understand Jesus unless we understand what God is up to in the Old Testament.

In the second, The Mystery of Jesus I examine the life and ministry of Jesus. Finding clues that point not only to the humanity of Jesus, but also to the notion that he is something more also, I suggest that the best response to the mystery of Jesus is what do what Philip told Nathanael, "Come and see."

In the third, The Mystery of Salvation I investigate the nature of salvation, through the Old and New Testaments. We see, contrary to much common belief, that it is much more than merely being forgiven or going to heaven when we die - MORE not less.

Each link will take you to a page where you'll have the choice of listening via streaming audio of downloading an mp3.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Truth or Inspiration?

People like to hear stories of success and happiness. I’m ok, you’re ok. That’s part of the genius behind movements as diverse as the Chicken Soup series and Guideposts.

I was talking to a pastor friend tonight whose Annual Conference has just begun. Once again they announced that membership of the conference is up. They take great pride in the fact that almost alone in United Methodism, they’ve been growing for over 20 consecutive years.

Except it’s not a fact.

Sure the statistical reports speak of growth. But the growth isn’t real.

My friend told me of a fellow pastor who moved to a new congregation and found hundreds of numbers on the roll that he couldn’t even match with names. The logical (and Disciplinary) thing to do would be to correct the role via charge conference action. But his DS disallowed it. “We don’t do things like that in our conference. That’s too negative. We grow here.” [Paraphrase of a paraphrase, but the general idea]

So conference-wide growth isn’t real, but at least it’s inspirational. But maybe not. My friend says everyone knows the growth numbers are fictional. This growth regime is what John Kotter calls “happy talk,” a mechanism to derail and prevent change. We don’t need to change, after all, if we’re already doing a great job!

I think we’re better off engaging Creative Tension (Bill Fritz wrote the book on this). Set a goal – in this case a conference growing in membership. Then tell the truth about the distance from that goal. Let the distance you have to cover create tension that impels you forward. Truth inspires better than fiction. Fiction lulls us to sleep. We might feel good about ourselves, but that is the way of death.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

2006 Episcopal Address

Things are BIG in Texas. I’ve heard many times that the Texas Annual Conference is the largest in the denomination (it’s not – either in terms of membership or area covered). We have the largest churches (we surely have some large ones). We like to think we’re something special. Unlike those western and Yankee outposts of United Methodism, we’re still growing. Or so we think. But not any more.

In her Episcopal Address Monday, Bishop Huie told us that our worship attendance was down by a thousand last year. Corrections in three large churches combined to produce a hit of 7700 in membership. Worst of all, 45% of our churches had no one join by profession of faith. If you’re not familiar with UM terminology, “profession of faith” means that someone is making a first time commitment to Jesus. And we can’t even brag that “at least we’re not as bad as everyone else,” since the national rate is only 42%. Ouch.

Bishop Huie said this poor performance – she called it a “dismal failure of Christian discipleship” – was completely unacceptable. She called on everyone to repent – not just in the comfort of our hotel room, but then and there.

Additional points from her address:
  • 2005 was a good year for giving. The TAC paid its full obligation to the general church. We hadn’t done that since 1972.

  • As bishop, she has observed that most churches ask for young pastors. The problem is, only 1 pastor in 20 is under 35. We have some serious recruiting to do. [We might also want to consider the long complicated road to being a pastor.]

  • The biggest thing we need to do if we’re going to turn the church around and get to the business of reaching people for Jesus is prayer.

Do They Really Mean It?

The first night of Annual Conference (when we had a youth service) some folks (not youth) were passing out buttons. The buttons featured the United Methodist marketing slogan, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors,” but added an additional line: “… No Exceptions.”

I don’t think they really mean it.

Do they really think it’s a good thing in all circumstances to have our hearts, minds, and doors open? I sure don’t.

It gets mighty hot in East Texas in the summer time. Not just hot, humid, too. In this climate air conditioning is a great blessing. In some parts of the country you can get by without air conditioning, but it’s tough here.

The downside of air conditioning is that it costs money. My wife said that our electric bill went up $50 last month because of the heat. Since we like both air conditioning and saving money, we try to insulate our house. We also try to keep the doors closed. While it’d be nice to be able to afford air conditioning the out doors, it’s not only really expensive; it’s also not very effective.

But maybe that’s not an exception for the Button People. Or maybe they’re only talking about church doors. Unfortunately, I find an exception there also.

Last summer an arsonist found a way into our youth building – and did what arsonists do. The building was a complete loss. Since many in the church had poured themselves into the renovation of the building over the previous couple of years, many hearts were broken. While the arsonist likely entered by breaking a window, we’ve not felt very welcoming toward other practitioners of the crime. We try to be pretty careful to not only keep our doors closed, but also locked, when no one is around.

But maybe the Button People don’t have a church building to protect, so that’s not an exception for them. I still have trouble believing they keep their hearts, minds and doors open to everything all the time. Minds open to atheism? Hearts open to hate and revenge? I doubt they would claim that. Of course, I don’t know the Button People personally, but I’m more inclined to attribute weak logic than poor character to them in this case.