Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Church and community overlap in a small town, Part 2

As I was discussing yesterday, the evangelism efforts of a church in a large/larger city seem to be most effective to the degree that they are able to create a sense of genuine community. But the small-town church is significantly different. Why?

It’s so very different because all the things that a big-city church works so hard to create are the very things that a small town already possesses: Relationships? Most everybody went to high school together anywhere from five to fifty-five years ago. A place to be known? It’s impossible to walk down the street without someone calling out your name. Face-to-face human interactions? Every waking moment spent in public is an opportunity for personal chit-chat, to catch up with old friends. And as for caring? Why, you’ve never seen caring until you’ve seen an entire community rally around one of their own who’s fallen ill with a deadly sickness.

The hard-won sense of “community” that immediately distinguishes the church from the big city it ministers to is nearly identical in every major way to the type of community that is already—and inherently—existent in a small town. And so the small-town church unfortunately fades into the background of community life. Yes, it is generally agreed that church is a vital, appreciated part of small-town life, but the church is an undercurrent. The small-town church’s fostering of “community” does not radically stand out as being immediately and quantitatively different from the sense of community that is already found everywhere else.

And there, finally, is my dilemma. For decades upon decades, the church has been told that in order to have growth, it must be radically different from the city it is in: It must offer a genuine sense of community, of belonging, of caring. Entire outreach paradigms have been built upon this premise. An entire movement was founded upon the idea of creating small groups where community could thrive. But such church paradigms and movements do not—and I suggest can not—hope to ever rival the deep waters of community that are unique to the small town. In short: When it comes to evangelism, they do not work.

It’s time for the small-town church to have a new paradigm for evangelism. It’s time for the small-town church to understand the supporting role it plays in the community’s sense of wholeness. But at the same time, it is time for the small-town church to understand that it—and it alone!—has something to offer that the community itself never could. The small-town church offers, simply, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I don’t know of anything else that can make a small-town church stand out, to mark it as significantly different from the city it ministers to.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Church and community overlap in a small town

In my transition from big-city, larger-church work to small-town ministry, I’ve made most of my discoveries and insights simply by blindly stumbling over them. But there’s one observation that I’ve noticed for quite some time and nevertheless still fail to grasp a deep understanding of its importance. I’m talking about the overlap between church and community in a small town.

In a larger city the church typically operates with an “us and them” mentality. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but in a positive sense. The church is a group of people, bound together by faith and by a passion for mission, that looks upon their community and asks, “How can we reach them?”

This “us and them” thinking is pretty natural, as most of the faces in the large city are, well . . . faceless. Live in a large city and you see tiny glimpses of many, many people’s lives. The vast majority of the people are people you’ve never met. Go to a restaurant and you do so in relative privacy. See a movie and you do so in obscurity. Go to a park, a mall, a concert, a whatever, and by and large the chances are that you will be one of a faceless mass with precious little deep-level interaction with the throngs of human beings around you.

So the church in a larger city seeks ways and events by which it can create face-to-face human interaction. It seeks ways to create community. By necessity, the church in the larger city is forced to craft the type of authentic, Biblical community where a group of people care radically and deeply about one another. Where people can know one another. Where people can interact on a human—and not just transactional—level. And to the degree that it has success in doing so, it stands apart as a brightly lit beacon of goodwill and hope and having a place to belong.

That’s the big city, though (Which, for my purposes, is anything above a population of 5,000 or so.). The small town . . . that’s significantly different. So different, in fact, that it’s taken me an entirely new blog post to understand it. Look for that post tomorrow.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Book review: The Liturgical Year, by Joan Chittister

Review of The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life
By Joan Chittister

As a Lutheran pastor, I was intrigued by the opportunity to read and review Joan Chittister’s book, “The Liturgical Year”. In this book, Chittister shows how the faith community is bound together through the constantly repeating cycle of the church’s liturgical calendar. And as a Lutheran pastor, I was curiously both pleased and disappointed with this book.

What Chittister does quite well in “The Liturgical Year” is condenses centuries of complex developments in the liturgical calendar into an easy to read overview. With just a few deft strokes, the historical development of say, the Christmas season, is outlined for her reader’s understanding, and yet her underlying assertion that the church year is a spiritual journey taken for our benefit consistently comes to the fore.

Chittister’s book also does an admirable job of highlighting an essential tension in the liturgical calendar; that being the question “Do we do the liturgy or does the liturgy do its work upon us?” The book strikes hard at the personal transformation that the liturgical year eventually commands. Here Chittister’s insights are keen and penetrating, her application to living the Christian life challenging.

Ultimately, though, the book reveals a fatal flaw. Chittister consistently admonishes the Christian to make “contemplation” his/her focal point. This subtly but surely drives the reader towards the notion that Jesus Christ is properly entitled “Savior” only in that He is an exemplary model to follow. There is precious little talk about the true Gospel of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins. Rather than encouraging Christians to gaze upon the alien work of the cross, Chittister ultimately directs them back to their own navels.

Overall, I appreciated what the book had to offer historically. But when it comes to the book’s assertion of what stuff the Christian life is truly made of, I believe there is far, far too much “we” and not nearly enough “He.”

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

What’s the vehicle that gets us from point C to point D?

See that above? That’s my old Dodge pickup. Bought it off a friend when he moved out of state. She’s not too pretty to look at, I know. Tires are balding, paint is chipping, the rear bumper is more rust than it is metal, but she does what I need her to do. If I’m going hunting, she gets me from my front door to the land where I chase deer. If I’m hauling a bit of firewood, she’ll go from the trees to my backyard woodpile with as much wood as she can carry. If I need to drag some brush or yard waste downtown to our local drop-off point, she’s there like a champ. Yup, my old truck does a decent enough job of getting me from point A to point B. Not in style, necessarily . . . but point A to point B nevertheless, and that’s what matters to me. So I love my old truck.

It gets me to thinking . . . what’s the vehicle that takes Our Saviour Lutheran not from point A to point B, but from point C to point D? Like many smaller churches in rural areas, we’re finding out that point C (which stands for “churched culture”) just doesn’t automatically work in the way it used to. People in the community don’t just automatically come to church like they might have in decades past. Secular activities and events that used to religiously avoid Wednesday evenings—so that kids and parents could attend a mid-week church service—are now creeping into the calendar even on Sunday mornings. When people in our community need answers or direction in life, “church” is simply not the first solution that pops into their minds. Point C—the “churched culture” era where church was a constant staple in the heartbeat of small-town life—is rapidly passing away over the horizon. We need to get to point D.

Point D (the “D” stands for “disciples of Christ”) is the point we need to go. It’s the point where we gather together weekly for refreshing, strengthening, healing, and equipping so that we can head into our community throughout the rest of the week and be a visible mask of the invisible God to the people we know and love and work with and live with week in and week out. Where we love our neighbors first and then invite them to experience Christ’s love with us. Where we carry God’s precious Word in our hearts, keeping it at the ready for the eventual—but inevitable—time when our neighbors finally ask us, “Why are you always so kind to us?” Where week in and week out our lives are genuinely transformed by Christ’s redeeming love, and so it is the most natural thing in the world that we would desire that the people we know and love and work with and live with would come to know His love, too.

What’s the vehicle that gets us from point C to point D? Does it have to be shiny and new? Trendy and hip? Cutting-edge and attention-grabbing?

Or could that vehicle be something plain and ordinary? Something that looks a bit unattractive on the surface, maybe a bit worn around the edges . . . and yet something that when used, becomes much appreciated and well-loved? Could the vehicle that takes us from a declining “churched culture” to a thriving “disciples of Christ” be something as simple, as plain, as ordinary as God’s Word?

If that Word is learned and loved, if we load our burdens into that Word and let it carry them, if we use that Word to pursue a different kind of large game, if we talk about it and write it down and wear it upon our hearts and live it out in our lives and talk about it with our children as we come and go down the road . . . then yes. Yes, I believe it can. And yes . . . I believe it will.

Lord, let us love Your Word, and use it to make us disciples of Your Son.