Pastors Standing in the Surf of Change

By Steve Lindsley

It’s around 11am, and our family is at the beach. It rained the first few days here, but now the sun is shining bright and the place is packed.  We’ve carved out a few square feet of sand for our two folding chairs.  We won’t need much room, though, because the majority of the Lindsleys will be out in the water, out in the waves. I’ve always loved the body surfing/boogie-boarding thing, and I’m proud to have passed that same love on to my sons.

It’s different being out there as a father, though.  It’s a bit of a juggling act between satisfying your own desires to enjoy the waves while owning up to your parental obligations.  I have to shelve my desire to plunge headfirst into the oncoming wave to make sure my kids are safe.  And “safe” in the ocean is always a tricky thing – that huge wave that doesn’t materialize until its right on you, undercurrents and rip currents, and all the unforeseen marine life that – as I’ve had personal experience with – can cause, ahem, severe complications.

What makes it even more of a challenge is the difference between my two boys.  My oldest shares my tendency to throw himself into something with reckless abandon.  I want to go out to the big waves, he tells me.   We can’t, the lifeguard says there are rip currents out there, I answer.  What does he know, he’s way back there in the lifeguard chair!  And so it goes.  My younger son, though, is much more tentative.  Or “smart,” as his mother would say.  He may want to follow his Dad and older brother, but for him, the threat overrides the potential thrill.  But he’s not going to sit up in the beach chair, either.  So in his mind he’s determined the parameters of how far he’ll go into the surf, and he’s not about to exceed it.

It’s a lot to manage.  In fact, it actually feels a lot like being a pastor.

The waves of change are swirling around the church in a big way these days, and in many ways it’s been going on for years.  Much of this change – all of it, perhaps – has come from the outside: civil rights movement, women’s liberation, postmodernism, gay marriage and stances on homosexuality, the equalizing of the human experience via mass technology and social media.  I could go on and on.

The point is, the church is facing change whether we like it or not. And we differ greatly on how we respond to and cultivate that change, even within a single congregation.

Some folks are like my older son, feeling the urge to plunge head-first into the waves of change.  Why delay the inevitable?  Things like the emergent church, contemporary worship, congregations that look more like coffee houses and even NEXT Church in my denomination are signs of those who recognize that the wave is coming – so why not go and meet it?  We know we can’t “change the change” any more than my son or I can alter the direction of the wave that’s heading straight for us – as my friend and fellow songster David Lamotte sings, “The water’s gonna win.”  As does change.  Why fight something that is going to happen with you or without you?

Hold on, say people like my younger son.  For these, change – like the waves – are not just a sign of something different, but the essence of the difference itself.  And the very fact that “it” can’t be stopped elicits fear – or, as writer Diana Butler Bass suggests in her recent book, grief over the loss of what was familiar and comfortable.  There are degrees to this category of folks.  Some remain stubbornly on the shore, plopped down in the beach chair and observing the change from a safe distance.  Others, like my younger son, may wade in the surf, but only up to a point.  They engage change in the church with conditions and qualifiers: contemporary music… but only at the early service.  Women in positions of leadership… but not the lead pastor.  Acceptance of gays and lesbians for church membership… but not for ordination.

And there’s the pastor in the middle of it all.  They’re standing in the surf, calling out to one group of folks to come back, not so fast, wait up for everyone else.  And they’re calling out to others: come on in, it’s not so bad, you’ll be alright.  They’re well aware of the threats that can be seen – all those undercurrents and rip currents swirling around them – as well as the threats no one can see yet.   They’re trying to care for people and help them meet their needs, while also caring for the church and meeting God’s needs.

Like I said, a lot to manage.

I got to thinking about this while scanning my Facebook feed this morning and coming upon this from The 70 Sent Project:

The church is a paradoxical mixture between the desire to transform a world that clings to old forms and prejudices, and the desire to find stability and peace in a world that is changing too rapidly. Often this paradox is found within the same person.  The role of the church leader is to stand in the middle of this paradox, facilitating the flow of the Holy Spirit between the transforming and stabilizing impulses. (emphasis mine)

That’s the huge task facing pastors and all church leaders in today’s church: not trying to be everything to everyone, a common misconception (and the cause of clergy burnout for anyone who tries it).  No, the task of those in ministry in the 21st century is trying to bring everyone together into some sense of cohesion and mission when people are different (thanks be to God for that, by the way) and when people respond to change differently.  That along with facing the fact that the change, like that big wave, is coming.  In fact, in a sense it’s already here.

It’s a challenge, to be sure. But it’s also a wonderful opportunity and privilege, to stand there.  Change means that God is in the midst of doing some pretty amazing stuff. Here’s hoping that, wherever we are standing in the surf – right at the breaking point or a little further up shore – that we all eventually get swept up in the wave of God’s change together.

In other words, time to get our sea legs under us.

 LindsleySteve Lindsley is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Mount Airy, NC. He blogs regularly at http://thoughts-musings.com.

Curing Presbyopia

By Rebecca Gillespie Messman

prebyopia“One in five Americans is now a NONE.”  It’s a clever word to describe those who when asked their religious affiliation respond simply – none. Not surprisingly, what jumps out to Presbyterians is the decline in mainline Protestantism in the last ten years, especially in people ages 18-35.

We grieve what was. We wring our hands about the future. Presbyterians start sounding like Eeyore, the sad, gray donkey-friend of Winnie the Pooh who always has a rain cloud over his head. It’s hard to bear good news when all you talk about, all you see, is bad news.

Do you know the technical term for the eye condition that develops as we age? The one that means you lose the ability to see things that are close?

It’s called presbyopia. It means “old eyes.”

We, as a church, have developed old eyes, presbyopia.

We see the distant past…when every sermon was masterful and coffers spilled over and there were traffic jams of Dodge DeSotos cramming into church parking lots.

We see the distant future…when we fear moss will overtake pulpits and raccoons will take up residence in the organ.

Grief, fear, difficulty moving forward.  These are symptoms of presbyopia.

The cure for presbyopia, I’m told, is either better eyes or longer arms.

Jesus models both. He focuses on what is near and he reaches out in ways that are uncustomary.

Diana Butler Bass, in her book Christianity After Religion, suggests that within the statistics about those who no longer affiliate with churches are some hopeful signs.

These “nones” appreciate what they know of Jesus and his teachings; they just don’t know that much about him.

  • They claim to pray daily.
  • They yearn for community.
  • They value the spiritual life and connect with God in nature, music and art.
  • Very few of them self-identify as atheists or agnostics.

To cure our presbyopia – first, we need to see them. Then we need to reach out in courageous and creative ways.

Research from the Vital Churches Institute says that the main difference between churches that are thriving and churches in decline is not number of staff or the geographic location. It’s not buoyant balance sheets or genius pastors.

The main difference is doing ONE new thing. In the community.

One Thing that draws church into the community.

I have seen that to be true.

I came to serve a church that had been divided by a clergy sexual misconduct case in its history. I came a town that was divided. The immigration “issue” landed the town on the front page of newspapers across the country. The church was caught in the middle. At my second Session meeting one of the elders said, “I think we need to have a lunch here at the church, bring those day laborers here, and I think our new pastor – who speaks Spanish after all – should lead it.”

Gasp.

The meeting got pretty stormy.

Folks were concerned that boots from the day laborers might damage the sanctuary carpet.  Folks were concerned that with our preschool… well, folks might not want their kids to go to a church with those kinds of people in it.

One woman took a deep breath and her words changed the conversation: “I wouldn’t want my child to go to a church that DIDN’T have those kinds of people in it.”

The Holy Spirit moved. It was unanimous. Lunch for the Soul was born. That was seven years ago.

Lunch for the Soul is a ministry of three churches, working together. We feed up to 200 people every week. As a result we have planted a church – 100 people – worshipping every week in Spanish.

There is a man in my church named Dan.  He tears up when he talks about the sacrifices people made at Normandy. He grieves what is going on in our country, in our denomination. He was rabidly against the Day Laborer Center that was at the center of the firestorm that led to the inception of Lunch for the Soul, so you can imagine my surprise when he showed up to help at Lunch for the Soul one day.

I’ll admit I was concerned he was scoping out the ministry to find fault… that was my sin speaking out.

I saw swarthy Salvadorans leaving his shiny white Oldsmobile… Dan stood in the back and ducked out early. We debriefed the experience later. While others benignly shared their insights on serving together at Lunch for the Soul, Dan stood up and said, “You all know my feelings about immigration…..[we sighed, yes, we do….] But, if members of our church were HALF as excited to get to church as those men were to come their church… this church… we would not be talking about decline in the mainline.”

One Thing that gave us all better eyes and longer arms. It started changing the way we saw ourselves as a church. No longer a divided church, a dying church, but a church that reached out. It was contagious. Folks want to reach out more.

Folks said – you know who else is near? The elementary school across the street. We formed a partnership with them. So, now, we do a coat drive each winter. Folks have signed up to help with tutoring. With mentoring. One lady in our church was laid off and instead of atrophying in front of the computer, she got up early twice a week to take two little girls to school – because their mom works and the bus doesn’t come that early. It’s an awakening. It changes the story we tell.

Colleen had been a ghost on the church rolls for years. But she is a Fairfax County School teacher, and she heard about this partnership. Now she is at church again. In her gravelly voice, she offered, “What can I say… you came to my doorstep.”

We are – each of us – bearers of holy possibility because we see this world through God’s eyes. When our arms are long and open wide, we may see what Christ proclaimed: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.  The kingdom of heaven is near.”


SONY DSC

Rebecca Messman is Associate Pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, VA. Want to learn more about Lunch for the Soul? Listen to the webinar led by Becca and Edwin Andrade.

 

Image credit: shutterstock/paul prescott

NEXT Church Evangelism

by Jessica Tate

We are in an evangelism crisis.cross cut out

You know the statistics. The PCUSA 2012 statistical report came out last month. The news isn’t surprising or good. The decline marches on.

Last Fall a Pew Forum study documented the continued decline in religious affiliation in the United States. “Nones” are now 1/5 of the US population and a full 1/3 of adults under 30 years old. For the first time, Protestants are less than 50% of the population.

According to Pew’s findings, we can’t blame liberal arts colleges and universities for undermining Truth or being hostile to faith, because religious affiliation declines among non-college educated people in the same rates as college educated people. Furthermore, it’s not true that if a church simply offered/hired/advertised [insert your community’s silver-bullet-idea here] the church would be overrun. 88% of “unaffiliateds” aren’t looking for a spiritual home.

Over dinner recently, a friend of mine asked me why I go to church. It was a serious question. He’s wrestling with who God is and what the church is good for.

My first instinct was to say that I’m Presbyterian; we don’t talk about those things. That would be evangelism.

But the truth is, I did have an answer. I had been wrestling with the question as I find myself more and more often in places where church attendance isn’t the norm, where belief in God is intriguing at best. Or I find myself in conversations with people who are so accustomed to the trappings of church that we can’t articulate the “whys” of church.

I answered my friend saying that I believe the central story of our faith is the movement from fear and death to hope and new life. I see that most clearly in the cross and resurrection and believe that movement is what God is about. In a world that feels like it is always tipping between fear and hope, I trust in God’s movement and I need to regularly gather with other people who are trying to embody that trust and movement in their lives.

Regardless of what you think of my answer, this is when the conversation got interesting. My friend said he’s been asked a dozen or so friends and colleagues why they go to church. I was the first person to answer the question theologically. Mostly he’d heard from our Christian brothers and sisters two answers:

1) community.

2) to do good work in the world.

Those are fine answers. But I’m not convinced Christian community is superior to other authentic communities. Likewise, churches do great service projects, but there are a zillion organizations doing good work (arguably in ways that are much more effective than the ways of the church.)

My point is this: we need to articulate the faith we trust. And it can’t just be the pastors doing the articulation, but all of us.

A year or so ago, the Christian Century ran a story that challenged people to state the Gospel in seven words or less. Based on Will Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly and the challenge he was issued by a friend: State the Christian message in 10 words or less. Campbell obliged saying, “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” You can read more answers in the Christian Century blog series.

My challenge to you, gentle readers: What are your seven words?

Articulating our faith isn’t going to be enough to end the march of numerical decline in our churches, but it will remind us of the Good News that has saved our lives. And that is a crucial first step.


Jessica Tate1Jessica Tate is the director of NEXT Church.

The Competition

by John Wimberlycalendar

For forty years, I lived in a Sunday morning bubble. I got to church around 7:00 a.m. and left church sometime after 1:00 p.m. As a result of living in this bubble, I never experienced what is going on in the rest of the world during that time frame. Recently retired, I now know. And it is sweet!

As I have become acquainted with the non‐church Sunday morning world, I realize just how many wonderful, sublime options people have during this portion of the week. They are connecting with God in nature as they walk their dogs, work in their gardens, or hike/ride bikes/jog. They are connecting with the love of God through their families as they play with their kids, pack up the car and head out for some day adventure or invite friends over for brunch. They are connecting with the God of justice as they read the Sunday paper, listen to talk shows on important political matters or read books about issues in our society.

It would be easy and foolish for those of us in the church to label all of this activity as secular. It isn’t. As I suggest, in and out of church, people are connecting with God in some important ways through various activities. In fact, many of us preach that our members should spend more time with family, in nature, and become knowledgeable about the society in which we live. Many people are doing just that…on Sunday mornings.

So this is the competition we face when we offer a time of worship, education and fellowship in the middle of Sunday morning. When people choose to come to church, these are the delightful, fulfilling things they give up. They forsake activities that have a compelling spiritual value in and of themselves to come into our sanctuaries.

The church’s Sunday morning activities are competing with family, nature and self‐education. It is stiff competition indeed. If worship attendance statistics for PCUSA congregations are correct, it is competition we are increasingly losing.

However, it isn’t a competition we need lose. The act of liturgical worship is a unique way to connect with God. We are offering something people can’t get anywhere else. However, our worship better be good. If our worship and education are inspirational, people will make time for us as surely as they make time for their gardening or jogging. If a sense of community is strong in our congregations, people will view church friendships as important as maintaining friendships with neighbors and co‐workers.

How many of us look out at our congregations on a Sunday morning and think, “Wow, these people gave up a lot of great stuff to be here.”? Well, they did. In response to understanding this choice, how many of us have made preparation for worship one of, even the highest, priorities in our ministry? Have we spent hours upon hours crafting the worship service and writing our sermons? I hope so. Because the competition for the hearts and minds of our members is fierce. Our sermons better be as engaging as the guests on Meet the Press. Our church music better be competitive with the music people listen to as they jog.

We shouldn’t shrink from the competition that takes place each and every Sunday morning. We should welcome it and prepare for it. Aware of the Sunday morning choices people have, we will create even better Sunday morning options for people in the congregations we serve.


John Wimberly is enjoying life as Honorably Retired after serving a church in Washington, DC for many years. John is the author of The Business of the Church: The Uncomfortable Truth that Faithful Ministry Requires Effective Management. 

NEXT Church is Not About You!

By Frank Spencer

As I have continued to engage in the NEXT Church movement, I continue to find the extended community of the PC (USA) upholding me in my faith journey.  What follows is an excerpt from my book, The Benefit of the Doubt.  These passages are taken from the Chapter, “It’s not about you!”  Let’s keep this in mind as we all discern together how we will be Church together.

*****

Spencer BookIt’s not about you!  That phrase may not be the most fashionable in today’s world of customized products, online shopping, mommy make-overs and human bodies as walking billboards.  We live in a fundamentally self-centered culture.  Even old commercial slogans evoke melody and message in the TV generation.  I bet you can sing right along with these words:

“You deserve a break today!”

or

“Have it your way!”

From the TV generation to the Facebook generation the self-focus has intensified.  We have our own web pages.  We tweet about what we are having for lunch, as if anyone really cared.  We hire personal college admissions coaches, personal trainers, personal shoppers, financial planners, lawyers, and accountants, all to improve the life of ME Incorporated.

But it’s not all about ME, at least not when we talk about faith.  There are two dimensions of this external dynamic to which we should pay particular attention.  The first is that God is sovereign.  God has set forth the plan for the world.  We know God through God’s revelation to us………..

When we acknowledge that God is sovereign, the affirmation of God incarnate that has occurred in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has implications for the whole universe.  However, to acknowledge the truth of that claim requires the ceding of control by the individual because our finite minds cannot fully grasp the concept of an infinite God engaging humankind in this way.  Ceding control is something most of us fear on many levels…………….

The answer lies in the faith of the community.  This is the second external element of faith.  Faith exists within a community rather than as the province of one soul, one mind or one heart.  The faith of a community takes on dimensions that eclipse the capacity of any individual.  The first time I heard this concept, I wasn’t sure what exactly to make of it.  How can a community have a faith?  Surely faith is something we must each wrestle with for ourselves.  Like Jacob, I will grapple all night and will not let go of God until I am victorious or vanquished.  But it is my individual struggle.  Ironically, that attitude captures both the intellectual and the egotist in all of us.

But it’s not about me.  It’s about God and God’s faith in God’s people, us.  It is the community that preserves and passes the faith down to the next generation.  The community is there for me when I need support and sometimes I am there when others need help.  Even sinners and doubters can bear witness to the sovereignty of God and to God’s faithfulness to us.  In this sense the faith of the church relieves me of having to have it all sorted out myself.  I become part of the community that has wrestled with these same issues for centuries, and is still wrestling because we are not finished and will never be finished……………………..

Our Reformed theology specifically rejects the idea that each individual controls his or her fate relative to personal salvation.  In fact, it is not only OK to die with doubt; it is inevitable that each of us will.  God has acted in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and through that grace has redeemed the world.  Our human response is not determinative of the mind of God.

Thus, the community of faith that proclaims the truth of God’s revelation in Christ Jesus and welcomes those who doubt, wherever they are in their journey, is the place where faith can build and develop in safety.

“Wherever you are, there we will meet you.”

That should be our communal promise.  This is not to say that whatever an individual believes is right and true and that’s OK.  Such an attitude breeds a consumption notion of the church, a desire to extract whatever good I can for myself and move on.  Faith builds over time as one lives, studies and worships in a community.  That is how we live Anselm’s credo of faith seeking understanding…………………


Frank Clark Spencer is the President of Habitat for Humanity Charlotte and a student in the Masters of Divinity program at Union Presbyterian Seminary. Before turning to full-time ministry, Frank had an outstanding business career which included creating one of North Carolina’s 50 largest public companies, leading the company to its initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange, and being recognized by Ernst and Young as 2009 Entrepreneur of the Year for the Carolinas. Frank has been an Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) since 1994, is the past Chairman of Montreat Conference Center and currently serves on the Presbyterian Board of Pensions. He was a Morehead Scholar at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and was named a Baker Scholar at Harvard Business School. You may find additional information at www.FSpencer.com.  

Social Media and Ministry

coffee and mediaFrom Tahrir Square to grandma’s pie recipe, more and more of life is happening online. MaryAnn McKibben Dana and Adam Walker Cleaveland hosted a webinar conversation about social media and ministry.

Listen here. See Adam’s slides here.

MaryAnn is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia and author of Sabbath in the Suburbs. She blogs at theblueroomblog.org and is Co-Chair of the NEXT Church Strategy Team.

Adam is associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Ashland, Oregon. He thinks and writes about technology and faith. He blogs at pomomusings.com.

Theology Pubs with Glenn Zuber

Glenn Zuber shares practical ideas for creating communities of theological conversation using his experience as founder of Iona Conversations in Washington, DC.

Listen here to the webinar recording.

Check out the pictures here.

 

 

Videos from the 2013 National Gathering

On March 4-5, 2013, 600+ gathered at First Presbyterian Church of Charlotte to worship God with joy, deepen relationships with one another, imagine what the church born again might look like.

You can watch the videos from our gathering here.

NEXT Church has been asking the question: What’s next? We have been asking God, ourselves, and each other many more questions like: “What’s next for our denomination?” “What’s next for my congregation?” “Is what’s next better than what’s now or what was?” “Does what happens next include me?”

In John 3:4, Nicodemus asks Jesus, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

As we strive to answer the question of “what’s next?,” we claim and proclaim what we do know:

1) The good news of Jesus Christ,

2) Our call to spread that good news.

As Jesus said, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

At the 2013 National Gathering, we will focus on what is born from the Spirit.  We will lift up the magnitude of the message over the chaotic culture moment and the disappointments of our institutions. We will reclaim our calls to ministry even as those calls evolve. We will celebrate what the Spirit has done and is doing so that we can be open to what the Spirit will do.

We have to be born again. 

Image: 2jenn/shutterstock.com

The Language of Church

By Mark Thomas

Since New Testament times, the church has been understood to be the body of Christ, an organism made up of many parts, yet one in faith, purpose, and ministry. But most of us have lived through an era in which we have thought of the church a bit differently. We have regarded the church as an institution, as a kind of corporate entity, with budgets, strategic plans, classes, teachers, financial campaigns, officers, and a board of directors. Or we have regarded the church as a family of faith into which we are adopted, in which we have brothers and sisters, children and parents, and in which we share meals together. These two ways of regarding the church have been important, valuable, and efficacious for a long time. Unfortunately, the culture in which the church resides is changing. Institutions are no longer trusted as they once were, and an institutional church suffers in that environment. And families are no longer of one kind, but can be extended, blended, single-parent, divorced, empty-nested, and dispersed, but rarely multi-generational, and even more rarely do they sit down to eat a meal together. To call the church a family anymore can be as confusing as it is edifying.

connecting handsMore and more, I think the future well-being of the church will depend on us embracing again a New Testament understanding of the church as an organism, as the body of Christ, made up of many parts, but singular in faith, purpose, and ministry. But more, that we understand the church as the continuing incarnation of Christ, meaning that the church as Christ’s body strives to reflect Christ’s divinity as well as his humanity. Those outside of the body are quick to recognize how we reflect Christ’s humanity. But those of us in the body can also point to the ways in which the Spirit helps us reflect Christ’s divinity. The glory of Christ is that he is both. When the church reflects both, we reveal the living Christ in our words and deeds. The next generation of believers doesn’t want to join an institution, and they aren’t sure they want to get mixed up in another dysfunctional family. What they want is to meet the Christ, and participate in God’s new creation. It’s up to us to make Christ known.

I think the participants in NEXT are well on their way toward making this subtle, but absolutely critical, transition in our self-understanding, and I think it is a movement of the Holy Spirit. It’s important, however, that our nomenclature reflect this new self-understanding. Bodies, for instance, don’t have strategic plans, boards of directors, or church schools. Body language is more personal, relational, physical, and spiritual. It’s been so long, though, since we have used such metaphors that we have forgotten them. What are the metaphors that describe the body of Christ? What language shall we use to tell people who we are? This, I think, is part of the growing edge of what is NEXT.


Mark P. Thomas, Pastor of Ladue Chapel Presbyterian Church, St. Louis, Missouri.

Preaching Series: A Testimony

by Tom Are

Adapted from the 2012 Currie Lectures, given at Austin Theological Seminary.

For 19 years I preached the lectionary. I loved it. I couldn’t imagine preaching in any other way. But I have changed my mind. I am among the growing number of preachers who find the most important approach to proclamation of the word for the salvation of humankind to be preaching series. I doubt I will ever return to the lectionary. My congregation just listens differently to series.

In my lectionary days I sat with the text, studied the text, prayed over the text until a word would come. Then I would turn and look at the people and search for the point of connection.

But, what happens if that process is turned around?  The people come to the sanctuary with questions and confessions, with hopes and with their own stories of faith to tell. What happens if the preacher begins by paying attention to the people? Begins with the questions and affirmations that are in the pew?  And once a clear engagement of the community is experienced, the preacher then turns to sit with, prayer over and study the text to find a point of connection—a word to speak to the context.

I believe this is how the New Testament has come to us.  Paul’s letters are not based on a text for the day, but are shaped by the issues on the ground. Matthew rewrites Mark because Matthew is speaking gospel to a different community.  The entire New Testament is shaped by the questions in the pew.

This is “incarnational preaching.” To begin with the people is faithful to a God who chooses to take on flesh and dwell among us.

What might this look like?

Let me give you an example or two from my own context.

I live in Kansas—only six blocks from Missouri.  In 2005 the Kansas Board of Education made a change in public school curriculum.  They determined that in addition to teaching the theory of evolution, public school science curriculum should include instruction in what they called “Intelligent Design.”[1]  This time, calling supporters of Darwinian evolution “fundamentalists captured by secular dogma,” the Board changed the definition of science, saying it would no longer be limited to searching for “natural causes for phenomena.”

Kansas City also boasts the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, one of the places in the nation that does stem cell research.  It has been hotly debated in the state, and the local Catholic Bishop has organized protests declaring the medical research conducted at the Stowers Institute consists of murder.

scienceThis is my town, so I preached a sermon series exploring the relationship between Christian faith and science. It was entitled “Jesus and Galileo.”

We explored Genesis 1 and the claims of Intelligent Design.

I visited with Dr. Bill Neaves, Director of the Stowers Institute, to learn what is involved in “somatic cell nuclear transfer” or stem cell research. The sermon explained the basics of stem cell research and also offered reflections on Psalm 139… you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

The series also included a sermon on Climate Change, again providing scientific research, not limited to but including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and reflection on Genesis 2 where finitude applies to not only the human creature but to all creatures, including the planet.

This is just an illustration of how a series can hold a longer conversation with nuance that the lectionary is less likely to provide.

Another example:

A few years ago I read David Jensen’s book, Responsive Labor.  That got me thinking about work.  I preached a series entitled Labor Daze: Church on Sunday, Work on Monday. To prepare I took fifteen members of my congregation to breakfast. Each was engaged in a variety of aspects of business.  I asked them to talk to me about how their faith connects or doesn’t connect with their work.  Their comments were very instructive for me in shaping a theological conversation about vocation, call, stewardship and Sabbath rest.

Some of the sermons were “What is your calling?” rooted in Mark 1:16-20 and the calling of the disciples and Exodus 3, the call of Moses.

A sermon about stewardship entitled “trust that you are gifted” proclaimed from 1 Corinthians 12.

The final and fifth sermon in the series was preached from Deuteronomy 5, and entitled “Sabbath: it’s a commandment, not a benefit’s package.”

One last example: Bible Stories from Childhood

I invited the congregation to submit requests of Biblical texts from their childhood on which they would like to hear a sermon.  Here’s why. Almost 70% of those who join Village Church do so by Reaffirmation of Faith. They come mostly as ones who do not know our practices, our language, our holy stories. Yet they may bring memories of their childhood church days. You can imagine the stories they would know: Noah and the ark, the Good Samaritan, Daniel and the Lion’s den, David and Goliath, the prodigal.

It was exciting to see members hear anew a childhood story that has grown up to become a new word that speaks with power and grace to orient the community?

I have changed my approach to preaching because I believe we must pay attention to our particular context.   It’s incarnational. It’s Biblical. It’s certainly not the only way to preach, but in our day it has much to offer.

Other examples of series:

Joy Even on Your Last Day (a series on the Philippian Letter)

9-11: Things Remembered, Things Forgotten, Lessons Learned (preached the four weeks leading up to the tenth anniversary of 9-11)

Just Can’t Say Enough about That Baby (An Advent Series exploring the unique portraits of Jesus found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John)

Where is God when it Hurts? (a series on theodicy)

Sacred Sound Bites (Words we hear every week in our worship liturgy)

Questions thinking Christians are asking (invited the congregation to submit questions on which they would like a sermon… preached on the most popular requests)


[1]  Both times the following election cycle replaced enough of the Creationist/ID supporters that the curriculum returned to traditional scientific standards.


Tom AreTom Are is the Pastor of Village Presbyterian Church and Co-Chair of NEXT Church.