Posts

Re-post: The Challenge and Opportunity of Timely Adaptations

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on September 19, 2014. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Christopher Edmonston

I sat on the third pew and listened as Scott, the inspiring pastor of Saint Matthew’s, a Church of Scotland congregation, told us story after story of what ministry is like there.

St. Matthew's

Take a look at this picture. The place, the sanctuary, the space is huge.

St. Matthew's Front View

And far too often it is empty. Pews and balconies once brimming with gospel proclamation and ministry remain silent too much of the time. They are silent in spite of the fact that the pastor is an inspiring, dynamic, and amazing disciple of Jesus Christ. He is a faithful risk taker. I found myself marveling at his energy and integrity. I found myself listening to the invigorating work that he is doing. I found myself thinking: that is the kind of ministry I want to be doing! He is the kind of pastor I want to be!

For years I have said, in meetings public and private, that the future of the church depended largely on leadership. Here before me was the kind of dynamic and wonderful leader that I have long admired.

Even more challenging was this realization: every pastor we met from the Church of Scotland was theologically engaging, intellectually astute, and pastorally alive. They were each of them willing to be creative for the gospel. Compared to the churches I have served, some of the Church of Scotland congregations were years ahead of us in innovating new ways of being church.

And yet too often the church in Scotland struggles to find an audience for the beautiful message of the gospel in its cities and neighborhoods. Scott talked about feeling lost sometimes. He gave witness to the ecclesiastical depression that comes with empty pews, programs, and worship.

What happened to the church in Scotland?

Not being from there, the best I can offer is an educated guess. But here it goes:

The towns were changing, the culture was changing, attitudes about the relationship between church and spirituality were changing and the church was not adapting alongside the larger shifts. On Sundays people were going to soccer (across the pond – football) games, rugby matches, yoga classes – finding in these events and activities ritualized practices, community interactions, and authentic meaning. They were doing all these things and more, and going to church less and less or not going to church at all.

The statistics are sobering. Presented by Doug Gay from the University of Glasgow, we learned that during the two decades of the 1990’s and 2000’s, the Church of Scotland lost thousands of members. They saw it happening, and yet, they were paralyzed — paralyzed by the pain they felt as their faith communities dwindled. Big churches became empty churches. Downward trends became downward spirals. Budgets collapsed. It was a negative exodus.

Scott arrived at St. Matthew’s six years ago in the middle of that storm. The church has added 62 members since he arrived, which makes St. Matthew’s among the faster growing communities in the Church of Scotland.

This story may seem far off, across an ocean. But it is very close.

At White Memorial, where I serve, our Clerk of Session writes to the congregation annually. This year, our clerk, Laura, wrote about her sadness in sharing our congregation’s booming baptismal records with a church who had only one baptism in 2013. That church, the church of one baptism, is not across an ocean. It is here in North Carolina, in the Bible belt.

It is my experience that whenever things go wrong, people frequently start looking for causes. They start looking for something to blame in order to cut the source of decline from their midst (think: I am going to cut carbs out of my diet; or, we are going to stop wearing robes in worship).

But what if there is no one thing, or even no one, to blame?

I remember a church I once visited in New York. It was a Czechoslovakian Reformed Church, and for generations they worshipped using Slavic languages. As the neighborhood evolved and there were fewer and fewer Slavic speakers, fewer people came to church.   Keep in mind that their core membership still spoke in mother tongues. To change the language whole-heartedly would have been pastorally unacceptable and unkind.

But that pastoral reality did not stop the world from changing around the church. By the time I arrived in 2010, there were a dozen or so members in a church that once held hundreds.

I thought about the church with one baptism and the Czechoslovakian Reformed Church as I sat in St. Matthew’s.

As we look around, there is ample evidence of the church’s end if we deny ourselves a commitment to being adaptable to the changes in our midst. But it doesn’t have to be so. Nowhere in the great commission (Matthew 28) does Jesus suggest that the disciples are never to change or adapt. Indeed, by the Apostle’s reckoning, everything is adaptable in order to spread the gospel’s good news (1 Corinthians 9). In Scotland, I became convinced we are living, even in our strongholds of church (like Raleigh, NC), in an age of adaptation.

My new friend Scott is hopeful and passionate about his ministry. His is a faith in God to do all things – a faith tempered by trial and error and the realization that the status quo will neither save the church nor share the gospel in his context. In his hopefulness he has become an adaptable pastor in an adapting and adaptable church.

Am I?

Are we?


Christopher Edmonston and Amelia - DEP

Christopher Edmonston began ministry at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in September of 2011. His primary responsibilities are preaching, teaching, pastoral care, membership development, staff development, and long term planning. Christopher has moderated Presbytery Committees, serves on the Montreat Retreat Association Board, and serves as the President of the Board of the Presbyterian Outlook. He is a contributor to the forthcoming Feasting on the Gospels and is on the national strategy team for NEXT Church, a renewal movement within the Presbyterian Church (USA). He was recently recognized as a William Friday Fellow (2011-13). Christopher is a graduate of Davidson College, Union Presbyterian Seminary (Master of Divinity), and Columbia Theological Seminary (Doctor of Ministry).

He is married to Colleen Camaione-Edmonston, who is a 7th grade grammar and literature teacher at St. Timothy’s School here in Raleigh. They have three children, Patrick, Gabriel, and Amelia, ranging from sixth grade to first grade, all three of whom attend St. Timothy’s as well.

Moving Beyond Sexy Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Billy Honor

“Make it sexy!” I hear these three words whispering in my brain every time I’m planning anything pertaining to ministry. It doesn’t matter if I’m planning a bible study, sermon series, worship experience, service project, or leadership meeting, somewhere along the way I’m going to ask myself the question: is this sexy? I know it may seem odd to think about ministry in this way but I’ve come to understand that making ministry sexy is one of the most pervasive ways ministry is practiced today.

Those who pay close attention to the contemporary Christian landscape can attest that a goodly number of churches and ministry facilitators spend a significant amount of time thinking about whether their ministry activities are sexy, i.e. attractive and appealing. One of the ways this is clearly seen is among the churches that call themselves “seeker sensitive.” These are congregations and faith communities that are unapologetically invested in making their activities attractional and alluring to those they are trying to reach.

Over the last couple decades, this attractional approach to ministry has become more wide-spread than many want to admit. Though most churches would never describe themselves as seeker sensitive, the fact is most church leaders are constantly wrestling with how they can make their ministries more compelling.

On a personal level, in my own ministry development, I can admit that I didn’t always have this mentality. In fact, I distinctly remember when and where I learned it. It was during my time serving as an intern at a megachurch while I was in seminary. We would have staff meetings once a week where the leaders and department heads were expected to report their upcoming plans and projections. As we’d go around the table, it was not uncommon for the executive pastor to ask someone in response to their plans, “but it is sexy?” This was her not so subtle way of asking: will this plan bring out big numbers? Will it create mass community appeal? Will it look like a success?

Rethinking Ministry as Sexy

Initially, I thought this was a very effective way to lead and supervise – especially given the fact that most of what I’d seen growing up in a very large congregation gave me the impression that ministry effectiveness is about the numbers. However, as I grew and became more experienced as a ministry leader, I started to become ambivalent and increasingly weary with the “sexy ministry” approach.

I can vividly remember how I felt when I started pastoring and I realized that most of the shortcomings of our church could be mitigated by the fact that we had people in seats and money coming into the accounts. Whenever I’d fill out our annual denominational assessment forms, I’d get this unsettling feeling about having to deal with a report that was so numbers-driven. Each year, the same questions. How many people were baptized? How many people made a profession of faith? How members are active? How many participated in Christian education? How much is the yearly budget?

Quickly it became apparent to me that our numbers (though consistently growing and exceeding our projections) did not tell the most important story of our congregation. From my viewpoint, the more significant story was how we as a church were faithfully participating in the Spirit’s movement in the world and this was a story that could not be told by numbers alone. Rather it had to be told by a narrative articulation of how the Divine is moving in the lives of those who share in the church’s ministry.

Eventually I transitioned from pastoring that church to accept a call to organize a new urban church. Part of my reason for choosing to do this was my desire to shape a ministry from the inception that assessed church vitality by its faithfulness to the stated mission and not merely by the numbers.

A Different Way of Assessing Ministry

Now, after almost two years as a church planter, though I still think about how to make ministry sexy, this is far from my primary concern. To be sure, we still count the numbers, but our primary focus is whether we as a faith community look like our stated core values. In other words, no matter our congregational statistics, if we look and function like our mission statement, then we are being faithful.

Leading a new congregation with this approach has been refreshing – but it’s also been very challenging. There have been times when I felt like we were just spinning our wheels without any clear measurement of our work together. This is why I’m so thankful that I was asked to participate in the NEXT Church think tank on ministry metrics. It has been a great opportunity to consider new models of assessment that make faithfulness to God’s mission in the world the primary concern. It’s also been a great way for me to seriously reflect on how our church can be more intentional about understanding the ways our activities contribute to the Spirit’s work.

In the days ahead, our think tank will have the opportunity to take our work public. I’m excited about this because I know it’s desperately needed. Very often the conversation around the mainline church is saturated with narratives of decline but I’m hopeful new insights on church vitality and “cultivated ministry” practice can help shift the conversation.

If nothing else, I’m hopeful this will provide an opportunity for churches and ministry leaders to slow down and ask critical questions about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how we can do it better.


Billy Michael Honor is a minister, public scholar, and social critic who writes and speaks about issues in faith and culture. He is also an ordained PC(USA) minister and the founding pastor of Pulse Church in downtown Atlanta.