Friday, July 18, 2008

Chapters 5 and 6 - Hospitality and Discernment

I'm back from vacation and am ready to get back to the book. I'm heartened to know that there are quite a few people reading the book even if only one or two are blogging in response. The 5 Year Plan Team and the Bucket Committee are both all reading the book and have discussed it.

So, Butler Bass has now moved to identify 10 "signposts" for us pilgrims on the journey. These are some of the characteristics she believes made the churches she has identified particularly vital.

First, the practice of hospitality. There isn't anything very shattering here. One good reminder is her statement, "True Christian hospitality is not a recruitment strategy designed to manipulate strangers into church membership." Not a controversial statement, but a good caution to always keep our underlying practices (and hopes for growth) in check. She quoted Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite spiritual authors: "Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place." If the church is doing something compelling and others want to participate in its mission, growth will occur. Wanting new members is more about finding (discerning) the direction God desires for the church than the right strategy for courting them. The Bucket Committee - our church's group responsible for evangelism, marketing, hospitality to visitors, website, and more - learned that referring to persons as guests instead of visitors changes the way we view people who are new to the church. It's really facilitated a shift and I believe may transform our ministry of hospitality. Inviting a guest to our home is much more powerful than thinking of them as a visitor who stops by when we aren't prepared.

The chapter on discernment was rich. I believe some of her comments really need to take root for us - and we shouldn't pass over this too quickly. Particularly the shift from "I language" to "God language." What does God want, not want do I want. Discernment is not about confirming what we think but involves self-criticism, questions, and risk - and it often redirects our lives. That's a good thought for our 5 year planning process. As well, to discern where God is leading us, not what we'd like to do and be. This can be a subtle shift, but life-changing. We are accustomed to thinking of the church in terms we are most comfortable with - but that is not always transformative and does not often elevate the discussion beyond our limited human imagination. But what does God imagine for us? The discernment process can end up with the lowest common denominator - what everyone can agree on - if we aren't inviting the Spirit to lift us beyond our own self-perceived limitations. "We could never do that." Why not? The willingness to risk, not as examples from our past, which is rich, but with our present. A congregation can decrease to a certain size where risk is avoided at all cost - at a high cost. The avoidance of risk is self-defeating and deflates the energy one might give to something compelling. It's amazing what people will do when they are inspired. Those who say no to a smaller mundane task required to maintain will often give untold hours to pursuing something of meaning.

I was taken by the idea of storytelling - asking one another to tell the story of how God is in their minstry. I'm going to find ways to incorporate that here. I've found that true elsewhere
Sorry this post is so short when the topic is so rich, but my plate is so full right now while trying to search for a new office administrator. Can you believe that Craigslist has provided almost 50 resumes in 2 days?
Blessings, David

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Chapters 3 and 4 - The New Village Church and Finding Home

First, I apologize for missing a week of this blog. I wasn't feeling well early last week, and with Sharon leaving, kept falling further behind. So, now back to the book. I'm combining chapters 3 and 4 for this post.

Chapter 3 begins with a powerful observation. She describes what has been true of many mainline congregations that have found themselves in decline: "their political practices of charity and social concern were basically secular," not really different from the United Way or the Rotary Club. "These mainline congregations, while they did many worthy things, paid little or no attention to people's spiritual lives. They simply assumed that people were Christians, that they knew how to be, think, and pray like Christians." When I started as pastor of Archwood UCC in Cleveland in 1993, I found this to be true and began to explicitly ask why the church was doing what it did. If we didn't have a spiritual "rationale" for the activity, let's not do it. We never stopped doing any of those activities, but we started to think about them differently. For example, when we had a dance, we recognized that we were doing it build community and fellowship - not just dance. Fun is spiritual too, but it also has a deeper resonance. When we had drag shows in the Fellowship Hall, it was to emphasize in the community just how wide our arms were open. When we wondered if such an activity was a little too far out, we embraced that such extravagent hospitality is the point of our congregation. One of the most faithful attendees was a 90 year old widow - who also never missed a dance either, or a weekend retreat.

So, as you can see, I really appreciate the point the author is making. "The primary job of church is to be a spiritual community that forms people in faith." It doesn't mean we stop being liberal social justice activists, but that we embrace our faith as central to the reason we are engaging in such activities. And that we participate in a wide diversity of practices. She describes "walks for the homeless and walking the Labyrinth; living wage and a way of living the Benedictine rule. Attention to inclusive language and deep attentiveness to the Bible. Social justice and spirituality joined in an open community of practice." That was part of the point I hoped to make with our "Jesus Has Left the Building" Sunday - to see that feeding the hungry, visiting the lonely, and sharing the good news of God's inclusive love, were in fact ways of worshipping. To physically do such things while we are supposed to be "doing" worship helps to reorient head and heart towards one another - and hopefully deepens practice.

I further appreciated her descriptive choices of "Tradition, not Traditionalism;" "Practice, not Purity;" and "Wisdom, not Certainty." I think most of us would agree with these, but it would be good to talk more explicitly about what that might mean at Park Hill. Wisdom as "Knowing God" might be the one that we need to engage more - more than intellectual integrity. We can't push mystery away if what we are seeking is greater spiritual depth. The intellect, of such tremendous value here, will leave us dry if not married to an embrace of the "unknowing."

In Chapter 4, the author introduces us more to the churches she has chosen to profile and why. Having already chosen to emphasize the phrase "Welcome Home!" in our church growth work here, I appreciated the imagery of people returning home in this chapter. The growth of my congregation in Cleveland was all about people looking for and finding a home - most often where they didn't expect to find it. When they first came to worship, former Catholics found the service a little too unpredictable - lacking the richness of rituals - while former Baptists and Pentecostals found the service too predictable - with too many rituals. Our challenge was to help one another embrace new expressions of their faith. And eventually, those who opted to try, found depth and meaning in more regular communion and more spontaneous expressions of prayer. The traditions of Advent and Lent were completely foreign to many, and while initially wary, they discovered them to be ways to ground their lives in some cycle that was reassuring - a use of ancient tradition in the midst of a chaotic life. So anyway, finding home is a strong spiritual metaphor for me and I've found it incredibly powerful for those who have been searching for so many years to find a place that wouldn't throw them out, as many had been.

I am still intrigued about "The WAY" that Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church developed to help people begin to grow in their faith. My inquiry to them from a month ago was never answered. It still strikes me as something we might eventually consider here, given that our traditions and beliefs are not always orthodox Christianity. It is then even more imperative to explain what we mean and why so others who are new can feel less like strangers in a strange land. Just learning the language is challenging at times. Imagine if you entered our church without any Christian background - which is true for a majority of young people today. In the future the chruch will have to be much more intentional if we will relate at all with those being raised today. Many in my generation grew up in the church and so we have something to return to. Many younger people have nothing of the sort. And yet so many others are coming from traditions unlike our own and are seeking a depth we may or may not be prepared to offer.

Any thoughts?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Chapter 2 - Remembering Christianity

In this chapter she makes some statements that most of us take for granted but that are controversial in many churches. I often forget that most conservative Christians believe this is a Christian nation, founded by evangelical Christians, and feel threatened by opposing views. When she taught history at an evangelical Christian college, whenever she noted that the "Founding Fathers had less-than-orthodox theological ideas and less-than-pious personal lives" students protested and insisted the founders intended this to be a Christian nation (people still believe this?!!!). But we are a nation of many stories. And, as she said, "European Christians [may have] politically established the United States, but this fact does not make us a Christian nation." She is reminding us that we are indeed often still "the Other Christians." Which is fine with me.

She describes a "Third Way" that runs between religious fundamentalism and extreme secularism/skepticism that we as the "Other" Christians have inherited - "an open faith that encouraged personal religious commitment and social responsibility." But she notes helpfully that this is difficult to maintain because it depends on moderating conflicting extremes. In some ways it becomes defined predominantly by what it isn't. This isn't too far from the way we often describe ourselves. "Well, I'm not that kind of Christian." But is that compelling? In some ways the Open and Affirming movement has helped many churches define themselves more confidently. Instead of implying that we are sorry we aren't in the mainstream of Christianity - those who exlude people based on some human characteristic - we have been empowered to define ourselves in such a way that those who would exclude need to explain why. Instead of, why do you accept "them," those on the defensive should be expected to say why they don't - the implication that they are the ones who are wrong. Or is that just trying to gain the upper hand. To put myself in a position of power. Having been among the excluded, however, I'm not opposed to having a little power. But, to remember the prophet Jeremiah, "if you're going to boast, boast of God," not yourself.

She notes that the creative "Third Way" congregations (don't Buddhists speak of The Middle Way?) provide open spaces amid cultural questions and tensions, and that they are found in congregations that value comprehensiveness over exclusion. "Church is the space where saints and sinners gather to hear God's word, engage in practices of prayer and service, and be transformed through participation. There is no spiritual test to come in, no intellectual position to which one must agree." Having noted this, I like it, but I also recognize the challenge to remain open to intellectual positions that I don't think are smart (or rather, that I think are ignorant - sorry). But let's not also forget that it is practices of both prayer and service - not just service. And it's participation that is transformational.

We need to keep coming back to this one - participation in the life of the church that is transformational. Note the key within that word for all of us - formation. To me, Christianity should be about a way of life and the church should be helping to form us to live in the world. If the church has no expectations of us, what is transformational about that? If we are not trying to transform lives, doesn't that just settle back into mediocre? And again, what is compelling about that for anyone who is searching for something deeper and passionate?

I would encourage us to think a little more about whether we are busy being the church or dedicated to changing lives - not in some "come and be saved" context but "this is a really difficult world and we have found something meaningful in our practice of faith that has radically transformed our participation in it. A way of being in the world but not of it - not escaping it but engaging it with the values of social justice that have been formed by our discernment and prayer and listening for God's will, exemplified in the life of Jesus." Too wordy?! Why are we busy being the church?

I'm enjoying the kinds of thoughts she is prompting in me.
What are your responses? If you are having a hard time writing a response on blog, send me an email at I know there are some folks who have written comments and they have disappeared into cyberspace.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Chapter 1 - The Vanished Village

There are a few lines I would like to highlight:
1) "I have been glad that my church is now marginalized in the secular culture, so that it might explore what it means to not be twinned with power." (Trinity Episcopal, Santa Barbara, CA)
In the 1950s and 60s, church and society were often indistinguishable from one another. I agree that without a differentiation of values, the witness of the church in the world simply confirms the status quo. The church is always stronger when it functions as a critique to society.

2) "It doesn't happen by osmosis! It had to be intentional for us." (Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church, Seattle, WA) The former pastor shared that every evangelism program they tried failed. He commented, "We didn't have an adequate way to embrace those people and give them the path that they needed to take." At first it sounds a little too directed to me, "just do this," however, he notes that in Seattle, 80 percent of people claim no religious affiliation and have no experience of church life (and certainly Denver must be similar). In such a context, unless we are seeking only those with prior church experience, we have to be conscious of how to help people find their way - otherwise they will leave with frustration, their needs never addressed. What might Park Hill do to help people transition into not only "church life" but the transformation of the spiritual life? After all, as I've said many times before, most people don't seek out a church for a place to serve on committees but to address a need they are feeling. I would suggest that all our boards and committees look at their work through the lens of those who are not yet here, that we begin to be much more intentional about looking outward.

3) "Nomadic spirituality, that sense of being alien, strangers in a strange land, is almost a given of contemporary life." How do we welcome them home?!

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Thursday, May 29, 2008


While you're waiting for your book to come, I want to highlight a few phrases from the Introduction that I think might help frame our discussion:
In describing the congregations that Diana Butler Bass profiles, actually the first 50 before choosing a final 10 to profile, she described them as "solid, healthy churches that exhibited Christian authenticity, expressed a coherent faith, and offered members ways of living with passion and purpose." Of those "solid, healthy churches," she noted that many of them had emerged from dire circumstances of decline or crisis. I don't think Park Hill thinks of itself of having had any dire circumstances. Though, consider that 40-50 years ago we had around 600 members and today we have less than 200. And the interim period wasn't necessarily a crisis, but it's been described by many as a very difficult and painful time, one in which some people left the church. Yet, I think of Park Hill as a very healthy church.

So, do we exhibit Christian authenticity? We'll have to read more to see what she means by that.

Do we express a coherent faith? Again, what does that mean? Do you think our faith is "coherent?" Without knowing more of what she means, I'd say that Park Hill's faith coheres pretty well around the identity of social justice. But is there more?

And do we offer members ways of living with passion and purpose? That's a good challenge for us to identify as we move forward together. Do you think of your involvement with the church as passionate and purposeful? Not everything can be - after all we have certain functions to fulfill just to be a community that pays its bills. But beyond that? Again, this might be something important for us to consider as we move forward in this conversation.
Thanks for joining it!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Virtual Book Group

Hi Everyone!
I want to try something different for a study group this summer. As I've learned, we are a travelin' folk! Including myself. So finding an evening to have a book study is perhaps hard. So, here's my attempt. I want to try to do a book study via blog. Will it work? Unless we try, who knows?!

I've chosen "Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith" by Diana Butler Bass. I've found it very interesting so far. And I think it will speak to many of us. She has identified a number of liberal progressive churches across the country in mainline denominations (not unlike Park Hill) that do not downplay their activism but have found vitality in deepening their practices of hospitality, contemplation, discernment, and seven more "signposts" of a vital congregation. It's a book I'd really love to have a number of people engage and I don't want to wait until we can find the time to fit it into the schedule.

I plan to begin the conversation on June 4 and will move to a new chapter or two every Wednesday - therefore, discussions on a particular chapter can go on for a week.

I'm going to order a few copies to have available at church; you can get a copy from the library or order online. It's about $10 on Amazon. If you buy it on, please go first to and choose Goodshop. It will show you several options, one of which is Amazon. Click on that icon and Park Hill Church will receive a percentage of your purchase.

I'm looking forward to trying this out.