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.

The Wilderness Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Liz Crumlish

Two years ago, I left a pastoral charge in the Church of Scotland to work on a project that seeks to transition congregations from maintenance to mission and from survival to flourishing.

Through a network of residential conferences, mentoring and learning communities, we seek to journey together, discovering God already at work in our communities and taking up God’s invitation to join in. Support, collegiality, and accountability are built in as we do theology together and as we respond to God’s mission in our many different contexts. We are engaged in a movement, not a programme.

That was why the theme of this year’s NEXT Church National Gathering, The Desert In Bloom, struck a chord. I was keen to find out how others were grappling with themes of dying and renewal in the church.

I was not disappointed. It was refreshing and encouraging to be with other church leaders who are not afraid to grapple with how to be church in the wilderness of today’s culture while remaining “rooted in the institution” of church, working out what wholeness looks like in community in the knowledge that “whole people heal their own communities.”

In opening worship, it was stated: “The church is in a searching season of wilderness. This is a message not of despair but of hope,” and “Stop complaining about the church you are part of and start being the church you envision.”

Throughout the gathering, there was an honesty about wilderness being an inevitable experience of leadership. And, in communion, there was the assurance that “We are held by a love we are not required to deserve.”

David Leong urging us to consider the “abandoned places of empire,” in their decay, becoming “fertile soil for renewal and rebirth,” and our call to spread the gospel through “compelling not conquering,” encouraged me to allow such places to “act as a mirror of what we really believe about our life together.”

Jonathan Walton’s words, “When it comes to Jesus, every act of grace is accompanied by an uncompromising critique of corrupt systems,” are the words with which I am currently wrestling, as I seek to speak “not just truth to power but truth to power in love.” And then there are Kathryn Johnston’s words in worship: “Every time a line is drawn, Jesus is on the other side.”

While there was a comprehensive selection of workshops, it was the in-between conversations, the connections made, the stories told, the testimonies shared that really made the trip across the pond worthwhile. I am profoundly grateful to all those who welcomed me and allowed me to be part of a journey of hope in the wilderness and signs of the desert in bloom.

And I look forward to continuing to be part of the conversation and the pilgrimage.

Liz Crumlish is a minister in the Church of Scotland currently working on a National Renewal Project in the church. She lives on the west coast of Scotland and blogs about her work at: Liz writes for Spill the Beans, is on the board of RevGalBlogPals and contributed to the book: There’s a Woman in the Pulpit.)

2016 National Gathering Ignite: Sarah Brown

Sarah Brown of the Church of Scotland shares about her churches’ merger and their participation in a pilot program to help them navigate the future.

2016 National Gathering Ignite: Michael Mair

Michael Mair, pastor in the Church of Scotland, shares his ideas on what makes sacred space at the 2016 National Gathering.

Growth on the Edges

This month, we’re sharing reflections from a group of pastors from the US and the Church of Scotland who recently met to talk about being the faithful church in a culture that is becoming more diverse and more secularized. We invite you to offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. 

By Eileen Miller, Church of Scotland

This year, for the first time ever, the apple tree in the corner of our garden produced apples! As someone who does not have ‘green fingers’ and is a bit of a novice in all things horticultural, I was so surprised that a tree which I had planted 5 years ago was producing fruit at all, never mind, producing a bumper crop of apples.

eileenThe truth is that I had little expectation about its fruitfulness possibly because in the previous four years there had been no sign at all of an apple. Meanwhile, the surprise was compounded by the fact that my attention was focussed on a harvest coming from a different part of our garden. In the spring, I had planted two small tomato plants and a pepper plant in a small greenhouse structure on our patio. I had been carefully watering, feeding and attending to these plants on a daily basis and even when we went on holiday, a kind neighbour took over watering them. My family and I were delighted to observe the rapid growth of the two tomato plants although the pepper plant did not flourish. We watched as the yellow flowers made way for small green tomatoes and delighted as they grew bigger and started to redden. Fruit was growing in our garden for the first time, tomatoes from plants that were carefully planted and attended to.

At the same time, and growing unnoticed, were apples on the tree in the corner at the edge of my garden. The tree was producing fruit, without any effort on my part, other than a severe pruning last winter. This was a reminder to me that it is God who causes the harvest to grow (Isaiah 55: 10-11) especially when I am tempted to think it is my own efforts that causes growth and flourishing, both horticulturally speaking and spiritually speaking! Sometimes the growth can happen in unexpected places and at unexpected times. Even in our churches, we can find growth and flourishing happening in surprising places and at unexpected times.

A few weeks ago, I was part of the Scotland Connection gathering in Kirkcaldy, Scotland where 12 pastors from the PC(USA) and 12 from the Church of Scotland met to share experience and to envision what the Church may look like in the future. The focus of the conference was the book by Diana Butler Bass’ entitled “Christianity after Religion: the end of the church and the birth of a new spiritual awakening”. The conference was led by Diana and Doug Gay, a Church of Scotland minister and lecturer at Glasgow University. We were asking where the growth and flourishing is in the Church at a time when statistics about the decline in church membership in the Church of Scotland makes bleak reading. The number of members in the Church of Scotland has halved in the last 30 years and the Presbyterian Church in the USA is beginning to experience decline, albeit not to the same extent as in Scotland.

photo credit: jkc916 via photopin cc

photo credit: jkc916 via photopin cc

As a Probationary Minister preparing to be inducted and ordained within the Church of Scotland, I have been looking around asking ‘where are the fruits of growth in the Church?’ and ‘where are the communities of faith that are flourishing?’ During this past year, I have been surprised by growth in unusual places in the Church. Growth on the edges, in unexpected places and with unexpected people.

An example would be Messy Church events where families who come along on a Sunday afternoon with their children for an afternoon of messy crafts around a Bible story theme, which also includes a short time of worship and a meal together. Many of these families are not members of the church but in this setting, there is a growing sense of community.

And then there is the meal every Wednesday night in the church hall, organised and prepared by another small group of people, for people in the local community who are dealing with issues connected to homelessness. Many have issues with drugs or alcohol.   Growth on the edge, in unexpected places, as the church extends hospitality in the name of Christ and relationships develop.

Also, there is the group of adults of all ages and all abilities who meet monthly for a special worship service which offers creative worship suitable for those with learning disabilities. This also includes making crafts, creative and visual illustrations of Bible stories, drama, music and, of course, sharing food together is also an important part of this community. Growth on the edges, on a Thursday night rather than a Sunday, although some of this group also come to church on Sunday.

Another group of volunteers welcomes between 50 – 70 mainly retired people from the community together for a few hours to share tea/coffee and cakes and chat and sometimes there is some musical entertainment. Many of those who come to this afternoon tea have been invited by people in the church and many are those who have lost their connection to the church for one reason or another and through this, people have renewed their connection with each other and the church. Potential for growth on the edges, as those who have lost a connection with the church find a way back in albeit for a social afternoon.

It seems to me that the growth and flourishing I have been witnessing is coming from projects and groups that offer a place to develop relationships and make connections; either renewing old relationships or making new ones. The groups I mention are meeting in the settings of Kennoway, Windygates and Balgonie: St Kenneth’s but there will be a diverse variety of other communities or potential communities ready to form in different contexts, in other churches everywhere! It struck me that the thing that all of the projects I mentioned have in common is food! Hospitality and enjoying a meal together were key features of early church’s ministry and mission and I suspect they provide a key to mission in our own contexts.

Many of those who come will not be reflected in membership statistics as they may not have joined the church. The groups often take place at times other than on a Sunday morning and therefore the participation of many in the life of the church is not reflected in statistics of membership or attendance. Therefore, statistics alone cannot provide an accurate reflection of the health, growth and flourishing of the Church. Let’s look for the growth on the edges, discerning where God is causing his Word to grow, remembering God is a God of surprises who is committed to building his church (Matthew 16:18) and who causes growth and flourishing in unexpected places by His grace and mercy.

Eileen Miller has worked in the fields of community education and counselling for many years and is a senior accredited counsellor with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. Her growing edge has been following a call into ministry and, after 5 years of training, she is about to be ordained and inducted into a church within the Church of Scotland.