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For the Love of All That’s Sacred

By Jessica Patchett

Standing in St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, I was reminded of a conversation I’d had years ago in a small church in Concord, North Carolina. That particular evening, our session had an important matter in front of us: While a church member was mowing the grass one Saturday, a pregnant woman approached him wondering if he could unlock the church door for her. One of her sons was playing soccer on the church fields and her other son needed to use the restroom.

“Well, why didn’t we think of that? We should open the doors every Saturday morning,” one elder said.

“We took on debt three years ago to renovate this building and are about to pay off our loan. We can’t let little kids in cleats run around our sacred space. If you open the door for one of them, they’ll all come in,” another elder replied.

“Why don’t we hand out water bottles to soccer families?” asked another elder.

“Then we’ll have to hand out toilet paper, too, and we definitely can’t afford that,” someone quipped.

“For the love… Hundreds of people show up for soccer every Saturday and would come in and use our bathrooms, but would never come back for worship. They probably have games somewhere else on Sunday mornings. Is nothing sacred anymore?” This elder clearly didn’t want an answer, but it was a question we could no longer avoid.

What is sacred?

If it was once sacred, is it always sacred?

How can the same ritual point some toward the divine and others toward the door?

Some 15th and 16th century Christians raised questions like these:

Does bread become sacred when it’s placed on the communion table?

Does it change when an ordained person says ‘This is my body’?

Protestant Reformers dared to answer that the words ‘hoc est corpus’ (Latin for ‘this is my body’) did little to leaven the church that was supposed to be nourishing their souls, and went on to create new churches, sacred rituals, and expressions of Christian faith. Others, who were equally unmoved by the Catholic ritual, responded differently. In John Stewart fashion, magicians of their day appropriated these words for both show and social commentary as they waved their wands and made a mockery of the church’s ‘sacred’ words saying, “‘Hocus pocus’ – now you see me, now you don’t”.

Now you see me, now you don’t. It’s the reality that has left many contemporary church-goers in Scotland, the United States, and elsewhere wondering why their neighbors, co-workers, and many times, children or grandchildren aren’t coming to church.

I wonder if some of the people who disappeared from our churches experienced something like the Reformers and magicians did centuries ago. I wonder if some of our neighbors and family members were sitting in worship one day, looked around and thought, ‘These words, these rituals aren’t sacred. They’re not pointing me toward God and the source of my life. So, why am I here?’. And, waking up to this new reality, people just didn’t come back to church the next week. Or the next week.

It would be easy to hear such a reflection as an indictment on the patterns of worship many long-time church goers have found and still find life-giving and God-honoring. But I believe there’s another way to hear and understand the experiences of many people who have left our churches.

Standing in the St. Giles Cathedral, our tour guide pointed out a series of windows. One looked very different than the others.

‘See this one? It dates from the 1800’s, a Victorian era stained glass series that depicts the life of Christ. That one over there? It was added in the 1900’s and depicts Jesus commanding the storm and walking on water – probably an important statement for a generation who remembered the World Wars and the German bombing of the British Isles. Look behind you. This window is strikingly contemporary, installed in 1985. It depicts people of every race, color and creed standing in unity in a lush, green garden. It reminds the congregation here at St. Giles that though they stand in the shadows of a long historical tradition, they are not just here to preserve the architecture – they are a working church on a mission that is unique to their time.”

The congregation that worships where John Knox once preached does so in a very different space and style than he outlined when he brought the insights of the Protestant Reformation to Scotland. It seems that what the congregation of St. Giles learned from Knox is that worship is the work of the people of each new and changing generation. And, each generation must decide how to draw on both the resources of their forbearers and the creativity of their God-given gifts to offer worship in such a way that it points their community, neighbors, and loved ones toward the beautiful and life-giving reality of God in their midst.

What makes something sacred?

Does it inspire real people with unique experiences to notice God calling and carrying them into new life and vitality and wholeness?

Is it an open door through which the human soul and the Holy Spirit can conspire, breathe together, in the divine work of restoration?

Is it a window into the new creation that Jesus unveiled and invited us to enjoy and share in unique ways in every time and place?

One of the things I appreciate the most about the congregation in which I serve is that its members create and offer a diverse range of sacred doors and windows through which they can invite their friends, neighbors, and loved ones to experience the divine life. Choral anthems soar through our gothic sanctuary and inspire people to know that God is greater than the expanses of the universe; a dynamic band offers a soulful ballad in the Fellowship Hall that helps people put words to their most intimate prayers to the God who is as near as our own breaths; a piano and violin liven the steps of those who gather around the chapel communion table to be the body of Christ in the world.

It’s beautiful. It’s sacred – all of it. And, as people live longer and generations change more dramatically with the racing speed of innovation and global travel and communication, our congregations may look more and more like that sanctuary of St. Giles, proudly displaying new windows into the divine life side by side with those created by previous generations. For the love of all that’s sacred, I hope so.

The Rev. Jessica Patchett is Associate Minister at Covenant Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, North Carolina.

Change is…What You Need to Ride a Scottish Bus

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. This reflection is reposted with permission from Robert’s own blog, Lighthouse/Searchlight Church

By Robert Austell

 

The danger and lure of change is that it become the thing in itself.

My previous two posts – “Change is Death” and “Change is Life” take a look at some of the dynamics of change. Hopefully, it became clear that my titles were meant to point to a range of meaning from: “change feels like death” to “change involves some things ‘dying'” to “change can lead to new life” to “change feels like life” and more in-between.

There is much written about change, from “managing change” to “surviving change” to differentiating types of change (technical, adaptive, etc…). And all of that language can be helpful! But it can also imply that change is our savior. Rather, I have found that even the best teaching about change is better understood as descriptive (here’s how one person/group/institution navigated change) than as prescriptive: “Here’s what you must do.”

Said another way, it is vital to distinguish between authentic change (what is needed) and imitative change (what worked for someone else).

Scottish Buses scottish bus

On my recent trip, my host, Michael Mair, arranged most of my transportation, but on one occasion it looked like I would need to take public transportation (a bus) to get back to his house. Not only did he tell me which bus line, route number, and stop I needed to take, he also mentioned that I needed exact change (or at least that the bus driver would not make change). And indeed, there were a few occasions where we both were waiting on a bus and he stopped into a small store to buy gum and break a larger bill in order to have exact change. Good to know!

Change is…

To be sure, people and institutions facing change (precipitated, voluntary, unexpected, or other) are well-advised to know enough about change to board the bus in the first place. But to over-focus on the change process MAY leave some folks an expert on how to ride the bus, yet no clear indication of where they are headed or if they are even on the right bus.

I’ve heard it said that “leaders lead” – in other words, they know where they are headed, whether by bus, car, foot, or windswept night. All things being equal, they will do well to have “exact change,” but that ends up not being the most important thing.

I keep coming back to the conviction that there are deeper and more important questions at stake, questions that do not dismiss the change process or diminish their value, but questions which ultimately tell us more about where we are and where we are heading. Again, from the “Change is Death” post:

As those created, loved, redeemed, called, and sent by God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit…

  1. Who are we?
  2. Why are we here?
  3. What are we doing and why?
  4. To whom is our allegiance?

To that I would also add my best question from the past 5-8 years of ministry: What is God doing in and around us and how can we be a part of that?

Change is important, to be sure. Some days it can feel like death and other days it can feel like life. But at the end of the day, change is just what you need to ride a Scottish bus.  🙂

Addendum:

The metaphor has been rolling around in my head all night since I wrote the post yesterday and it also strikes me, in the language of the metaphor, that change is what it takes to get where we are going… no more and no less.  That’s another way of saying what I’m trying to say: it’s important, but it’s not the thing itself.


Robert Austell is the pastor of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. He blogs regularly at Lighthouse/Searchlight Church.

The Challenge and Opportunity of Timely Adaptations

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 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.

Taking the Step – A sermon

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 post. 

 

By Pen Peery, preached at First Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, NC on September 14, 2014

 

A few weeks ago I preached a sermon about Moses hearing God’s call from the burning bush. God told Moses to return to the land of Egypt, where Moses’ people were serving as slaves to Pharaoh, and to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free.

Our scripture for today picks up after Moses has followed God’s directions. As you may know, it took a little convincing for Pharaoh to comply with Moses’ demand. There were plagues – 10 in all. Flies, gnats, frogs, boils, locusts, and finally the Passover – where God struck down the first-born of every house and field in Egypt, save for the Israelite children. After that, Pharaoh decided he had had enough – and he let Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt so that they could enter into the land that God had promised them.

I am reading from the 14th chapter of Exodus, beginning at verse 5. Listen for the word of God.

+++

When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed towards the people, and they said, ‘What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?’ So he had his chariot made ready, and took his army with him; he took six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly. The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, his chariot drivers and his army; they overtook them camped by the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’ But Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.’

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.’

+++

Let’s be clear about what is going on in this passage.

Moses answers God’s impossible sounding call from a burning bush with a “yes.”

He finds the courage to stand up to Pharaoh and make his demands.

He stays the course through 10 plagues.

He rallies the Israelite people to follow him out of Egypt.

And then, with the taste of victory still sweet on his tongue, Pharaoh has a change of heart and decides to send – not just a militia – but the entire Egyptian army…every chariot, every horse, every officer…after this rag-tag group of Israelites who are trudging toward the Promised Land.

As he tries to flee the Egyptian army, Moses marches his people straight onto a peninsula. The word Pi-hahiroth literally means “mouth of the waters.” On three sides of the Israelites is the Red Sea. On their fourth side is the Egyptian army with Pharaoh perched on his chariot.

Faced with this scenario Moses’ people do what people always do – they complain.

Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?

But you can understand the complaint, right?

When the future that lies ahead seems unclear, at best, it is natural for people to long for what is familiar…even if what is familiar isn’t all that great.

“What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”?

Poor Moses.

At least he can count on God to be helpful and supportive.

Except when God is the one who hardens Pharaoh’s heart (you noticed that, I hope…the scripture says that Pharaoh didn’t really change his own mind and start chasing the Israelites. The scripture says that God changed Pharaoh’s mind so that he would start chasing after the Israelites).

At least Moses can count on God to be helpful and supportive.

Except when Moses is standing with his back to the strongest army on the face of the earth and his front to the shores of the Red Sea when God says to him, “why are you calling out to me? Just tell the people to walk forward.”

And if I’m Moses, I’m thinking: Really? Thanks.

Of course, we have the benefit of knowing what happens next.

We know that the Israelites do walk forward.

We know that the Red Sea parts so that the Israelites can cross safely to the other side.

We know that God’s plan all along – the reason for God’s curious behavior in hardening Pharaoh’s heart – was to get Pharaoh and his army in a place where there would be no denying the fact that the Lord – and not the Pharaoh – was a sovereign power not to be trifled with.

step forwardBut what I want you to imagine this morning is what it would have been like to be standing on that peninsula if you did not know the future.

“Just tell the people to go forward.”

+          +          +

I think Ruby Bridges and her parents know what that must have felt like.

Ruby Bridges turned 60 years old this week. Most of you know her story – but if you don’t…

In 1960, when Ruby was a six year old with pigtails, she became the first person of color to integrate the New Orleans public schools.

She was the only black student assigned to William Frantz Elementary School. On Ruby’s first day, the school erupted in protest. There were threats. White parents pulled their children out of school. Ruby spent that first day in the principal’s office because the administration thought it was the safest place for her to be.

The second of day school was different. Ruby actually went to class. The only teacher who would teach Ruby was a woman named Barbara Henry. So for more than a year, that is what Mrs. Henry did. She taught a classroom that was empty except for one desk – where Ruby Bridges sat.

Because of the threats against her life and the protests that raged across the city, Ruby spent her first few months being escorted by Federal Marshalls from her mother’s car to the front door of the school. Every day, she would walk past throngs of people who would scream and taunt and gesture.

One morning in class, Mrs. Henry told Ruby that she had noticed that Ruby’s lips were moving while she made that terrifying walk. “What were you saying to those people?” Mrs. Henry asked. “I wasn’t talking to them,” Ruby answered, “I was praying for them.”

Usually, Ruby said, she prayed on her car ride to school but that morning she had forgotten, so she prayed on her walk. “Please be with me, God,” she would pray, “and be with these people, too. Forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.”[1]

The Lord said: “Just tell the people to go forward…”

It’s a hard thing when you can’t see the future.

But that is what the people of God have been doing since the beginning.

Moving forward into a future that they cannot see – only one that they can trust.

+          +          +

Some of you know that Lindsey and I had the opportunity to go to Scotland last month. We were there for a conference – it was a conversation, really, in which 12 Presbyterian pastors with Charlotte connections met up with 12 Church of Scotland pastors in a town a little north of Edinburgh.

The conference was the second iteration of an event that First Presbyterian helped to host in 2006. That year, 144 Scottish Presbyterians came to Charlotte for a week of worship, workshops, relationship building, and – yes – a little golf. Many of you may have hosted a Scot or two in your homes.

The focus of our time together this year was less about our common heritage and more about a shared challenge – namely, how is the church called to respond in grace and truth to a culture that says that they are “spiritual but not religious.”

If you have been to Scotland, and you have been to church, you know that our sisters and brothers there face a stark reality. By numerous estimates, only about 3-4% of Scots attend a worship service…of any kind…during the week.

I had a chance to preach while we were there – at St. Columba’s Church in Glenrothes…again, a town a little north of Edinburgh. St. Columba’s is a delightful parish with an energetic pastor named Alan Kimmett. The church is faithfully teaching and preaching the word, they are reaching out to the community, they are nurturing one another – and the church is struggling.

My sense, when I looked out at the faithful remnant of St. Columba’s Church that Sunday morning is that they are a people who don’t quite know what happened – or what changed.

And, to be honest, that experience of preaching at a church in Scotland gave me a sense of urgency. Not panic – but urgency. I couldn’t wait to come home to you – my congregation – and tell you that what we have in front of us…as a healthy, growing, vibrant, congregation, in the center of a growing and thriving city…is such an opportunity to share the truth about Jesus Christ and the joy of authentic Christian community and the power and possibility of a group of believers committed to Christ’s mission and justice with a people who are hungry for it!

But how we do that is going to require for us to walk forward – to trust our steps into a future that we cannot yet see – because the people who are going to be a part of our church, those whom God will gather into this community – are going to be different.

They are going to look differently.

They are going to dress differently.

They may not come with much language of faith.

Their questions may not be our questions.

Their understandings of what it means to be church or belong to the church or participate in the church are going to be different.

But they are curious.

And they do want to be in a relationship with God.

And – as our preacher Rodger Nishioka said last week – they want to give their lives over for a purpose…to something that matters. And that makes being a church in the middle of a city a pretty exciting place to be.

During the conference our conversation was led by two scholars – an American named Diana Butler Bass and a Scot named Doug Gay. Diana is a Sociologist of Religion and Doug is a theology professor at the University of Glasgow. I learned a lot from Diana and Doug – more than I can summarize in a sermon – but there are two points that they made that are worth sharing this morning.

Diana – who is a student of history – believes that what is happening to the religious landscape in our country has all the signs of what we have – in the past – called “A Great Awakening.” It’s an audacious claim, but she makes a good case for it. When you look at previous Great Awakenings you notice that there always comes a point when the people of God have to make a choice – to walk into the new thing that God is doing, or to escape to their familiar ways of being.

It’s a choice – not one that takes place in an instant – but over a generation or two of decisions. Diana thinks the church in America is in this moment.

The other point I want to share with you about my time in Scotland — where I got to think and pray about the church — was made by Doug Gay. In the midst of our group of pastors wringing our hands over all the talk about trends and “adaptive challenges” that demand new dimensions for our leadership, Doug huddled us together, looked us straight in the eye and challenged our group to consider what it was that we say we believe about God’s promises.

And what we say is that God is faithful.

And that God has established the Church of Jesus Christ to be his instrument in the world until the kingdom comes.

This is our challenge – when it feels like the people of God who are the Church are standing on the shoreline and facing a sea of change – perhaps we should do what we have always done: step forward, trusting that we are not alone.

+++

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,

Amen.

[1] As found on Ruby Bridges’ website: http://www.rubybridges.com/story.htm

 

Pen_websitePen Peery is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC.

Dinnaefaschyersel! (Part II)

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 Lori Raible

 

One of my closest childhood friends was diagnosed with a brain tumor. We knew the news was bad, but couldn’t believe what we heard: A glioblastoma, in the most ‘elegant’ part of her brain. Tentacles. Twists. Turns. Inoperable. Unstoppable. Inevitable.

The most elegant part of her brain.

 

Now its one thing to preach the ‘Good News of the Gospel,’ and another thing all together to live it.

It takes a lot of faith and courage to stare death in the face.

 

‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘Those are just numbers, you are not a statistic.’

‘An experimental trial may work’

‘We’ll pray for a miracle.’

‘You’ll beat it.’

‘The doctor’s not that smart.’

‘The doctor’s wrong.’

‘The doctor’s a jerk.’

Denial. Anger. Fear. Disbelief. Blame.

 

It didn’t matter how many doctors she saw, how many trials, surgeries, pills, needles, green smoothies, massages, scans, or shunts she endured.

 

A diagnosis is a prediction based on facts, but is it a death sentence? Sometimes.

Leaning into the truth allows space for God to do some Holy Spirit stuff. As pastors, a diagnosis allows us to assess, adjust, and go to the place where we are needed the most, even in the face of death.

 

Even The Scot’s good-humored rhetoric could not withstand the mounding evidence of decline Diana Butler Bass presented to our group.

 

“Dennesfaschseryel, don’t worry, it will all work out…”

 

Will it? Tentacles. Twists. Turns…

 

I was grieved by Diana’s slides, and grateful to her for sharing them with honesty, hope, and compassion. From there she led us to a different conversation of great hope for what lies ahead for Christ’s Church. It takes a lot of faith and courage to lean into the work of incarnation.[1] It’s uncomfortable, dangerous, and risky.

 

Ever have a baby?

Ever watch your wife have a baby?

Ever see a woman having a baby on TV?

Amazing, but it’s a scary mess.

 

 

The place we are needed the most is not found in history. Memories are important places to visit, but Jesus isn’t there.

The place we are needed the most is generally not inside the walls where we feel safe. The comfortable constructs of our tired habits, boundaries, egos, and insecurities won’t have room for Jesus to do ‘His Thing.’

 

The future of the church is outside the bounds, ‘on the fringe.’[2] Always has been.

Out there, we reach beyond what we thought was possible.

Out there, we find each other because we are forced to ease our grip, for the sake of embracing one another through the change: for the sake of being the Church.

There in the embrace, is that moment when we throw our arms out, and our heads back, to breath, to laugh, and to give thanks for the whole ridiculous truth of the Gospel.

 

It’s one thing to preach the Good News of the Gospel and it’s another thing all together to live it.

 

It’s time for us to GET OUT THERE, and BE the Church! Not in the face of death, but in light of a God who refuses to let death have the last word.

 

Our final night in Scotland was marked by a Scottish ceilidh (mandatory square dance, plaid, drums, accordion, lots of laughing.) We spun until our bellies hurt and our legs ached. Old, young, and in-between, were joyful and convinced by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, things may be changing, but it really is going to be just fine.

Dinnaefaschyersel!


 

[1] Diana Butler Bass presented new thoughts and work regarding incarnation.

[2] Diana Butler Bass discussing the way transformation occurs.

 

Lori Archer Raible is an associate pastor at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. A graduate from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, Lori is passionate about connecting people to one another through faith and community. Married to Rob, they have two children Joe (8) and Maeve (7). Currently her vocational work includes work with the NEXT community and the TRENT National Conference, which is being created in support of pastors in their first 7 years of ministry. Most of her free time is spent running both literally as a spiritual discipline and metaphorically to and from carpool lines. Deep within her is a writer vying for those precious minutes. 

Dinnaefaschyersel? (Part I)

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 Lori Raible

Scotland’s national identity is so deeply rooted in the history of the Reformation, that it is nearly impossible to untangle the two. Except for the fact, most folks in Scotland already have.

Within ONE generation, a profound emptying of the pews has crippled the Church of Scotland’s ability to maintain its cultural, societal, and spiritual significance. With 37% of her citizens claiming no religion at all, church membership has declined from 1.3 million in 1957 to just 400,000 today. Not to mention, claiming membership doesn’t always equate to going to church. Attendance numbers in Scotland are said to be around 3%.

Secularization. Decline. Mass Exodus. Call it what you will, but it’s a grim diagnosis. As townspeople bustle passed the bowing stone kirks with their stretched steeples, folks wonder ‘if the future has a church at all?[1]

The truth is this: The Church of Scotland as they had known it, is done.

And another truth: Our US churches face the same diagnosis.

The Holy-rollers, Evangelicals, Catholics, Mainliners, the Mega-Jesus-and-me churches… all of them. In the U.S. 20% claim no religious affiliation.[2] The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has lost 20% of its members over the past decade, and 100,000 last year alone.

Some will say,                     ‘No kidding, I’m exhausted from the dying.’

Others will say,                  ‘Not us, we have an endowment.’

A few will say,                     ‘Not my church, I’m like Jesus. I’ll fix it!’

And a few more,                 ‘Yep, stinks for you, I’ll be retired by then.’

Many will shove our fingers in our ears and shout, ‘LALALALALA’… lest we hear the truth. Many more out of fear, will polarize and politicize the Church … lest we face the messy work of transformation.

Oh wait, we are already doing that.

The Church just ISN’T going to look the way it has in the past.

 

So, twelve US pastors hopped the pond, and gathered with twelve pastors from the Church of Scotland to face the truth together, with an ounce of hope, and a pound of honesty.

The Scots are authentic, unpretentious, hardworking, and tenacious. All this, softened with the warmth of radical hospitality and good old-fashioned humor. The first Sunday of our visit, I teetered within the tall wooden pulpit of The Wellesley Church of Methil Parish, where Rev. Gillian Paterson, assured me they could handle the thick twang of my southern accent.

‘Dinnaefaschyersel,’ she said.

‘I’m sorry, WHAT?’

‘Din-a-fash-yer-sel,’

‘And also with You?’ I asked.

“Dinnaefaschyersel, Don’t get yourself all worked up, it will be okay,’ Gillian assured me with a laugh. Friend for life.

Low on jobs, the social issues impacting the good people of Methil take their toll, but they are the real deal. Tired of dwelling on a long-term diagnosis, Wellesley Church is humble and bold enough to step into the future with God’s purpose at heart.

As the product of two congregations who were forced to yoke, Wellesley has something new growing from the fertile ground of what used to be.[3] With hospitality that can only come from a well-seasoned bunch, gaggles of children from the community are showing up on Wednesday evenings, and young families are peeking into worship on Sundays. With bold leadership, intentional planning, and faith, they hope to build a functional community space to support their rebirth.

Besides meetings, programming, teaching, and preaching, Gillian is trusted to provide extensive pastoral care to a community with the complex needs that accompany a very depressed economy. Within her parish (the physical geography surrounding her church), she officiated 73 funerals, countless weddings, and served as a chaplain within the public schools last year alone.

Yes, she is tired.

No, she is not weary.

 

But, Dinnaefaschyersel?

 

Rooted by the sanctity of worship and fellowship within communities we visited, our group began navigating the trajectory of western religion with American writer and theologian, Diana Butler Bass, and Rev. Doug Gay from The University of Glasgow.

By mid-week, The Scots shared several other peculiar words. Ignoring a theme that seemed to develop, I kept a list:

Dither:                   Acting confused or unsure.

Bizzim:                   A cheeky girl.

Bletherer:               A chatty person

Hadyerwiish:        Hush it.

I simply could not contain my enthusiasm for our new Scottish friends, the camaraderie of my American colleagues, and of course the important conversation we had been invited into on behalf of The Church.

However, on the second day, Diana Butler Bass, shared a couple of compelling and haunting slides. Numbers projecting our demise. Graphs mapping the polarization of religion. Charts proving just how stupid we can be when we take a good thing for granted, and refuse to budge.

 

 

Then there was a photo of a goat.

…with sharp arrows hanging all over it.

No more blethering. We just stared quietly.

 

It was one thing to visit the realities of Gillian’s Parrish. I could even conceptualize the impact this ‘decline’ has had on our American Christianity at large. But no way was I ready to acknowledge the implications these cultural shifts were having within the intimacy of my own ministry.

How American of me.

I cried.

 

I cried because I love our denomination for all it does well. Presbyterianism is grounded in the Gospel as expressed by Word and Sacrament. The integrity of our creeds comes to life through creativity expressed in community and mission. The roots are deep.

I cried for Wellesley church, because now in I love them, and I want them to flourish in a new life they had not imagined.

I cried for the members of my church in Charlotte who know little of these worries.

I cried for my colleagues in ministry who are brave enough to help congregations die well.

I cried because instead of paying attention to what is happening to all of us, we are busy fighting, dividing, ignoring, and clenching to whatever we can with hierarchy and antiquated models of power and exclusivity.

I cried because I have children who love the Church, and know of God’s love through their baptisms of belonging.

I cried because what we practice as pastors is often sacred beyond a chart or statistic. Who am I really… without the Church?

 

Dinnaefaschyersel?


 

[1] Rev. Doug Gay. Book info.

[2] Pew Research Center. www.perforum.org, October 9, 2012.

[3] Butler Bass, Diana. In conversation re: letting go and letting come.

 

 

Lori Archer Raible is an associate pastor at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. A graduate from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, Lori is passionate about connecting people to one another through faith and community. Married to Rob, they have two children Joe (8) and Maeve (7). Currently her vocational work includes work with the NEXT community and the TRENT National Conference, which is being created in support of pastors in their first 7 years of ministry. Most of her free time is spent running both literally as a spiritual discipline and metaphorically to and from carpool lines. Deep within her is a writer vying for those precious minutes. 

When the Floor is a Ceiling to Ministry

By Robert Austell

Here is one example of a church far exceeding the “minimal hospitality threshold” in its ministry. I was deeply encouraged and challenged to hear the story of St. Bryce Church in Kirkcaldy, Scotland.

St. Bryce Sanctuary, where floor was raised to the level of the balcony.

St. Bryce Sanctuary, where floor was raised to the level of the balcony.

The Rev. Ken Froude is the minister of St Bryce Kirk. With no precipitating crisis other than a 1200-seat sanctuary “that was always too big and only used once or twice a week,” he had the vision more than 25 years ago to redevelop the building. Under his leadership a floor was put in the old three-story sanctuary was at the level of the gallery (balcony), creating a large auditorium upstairs (still seats 400) used for worship, conferences and concerts. The downstairs, where the old sanctuary floor once stood, was converted into office space, group meeting rooms, and a lounge and a coffee bar for the community.

 

 
That main floor community center – the St Bryce Kirk Centre – is open Monday to Friday for people of all ages (toddlers to senior citizens), organizations of all kinds, charities, public services, activities and help-groups. The building is totally handicapped-accessible and equipped with up-to-date technology for conferences and concerts, with full in-house catering options (which our pastors’ conference enjoyed throughout the week!).

I have two further observations on which I will elaborate in other posts:

  1. This kind of transformation of an institution and community does not come easily or quickly. In fact, one of our two lecturers (Diana Butler Bass) spoke to this very process that Ken and some others of us have lived through (more on that coming). Ken led the congregation (and community) through very intentional transformation, facing resistance and pushback. And the new life flowing in and out of St. Bryce is unmistakeable and inspiring. I applaud this pastor’s courageous leadership and faithful pursuit of where the Holy Spirit led him.
  2. Related to #1, the purpose of our pastors’ conference was to get together a group of U.S. and Scottish pastors and share stories and ideas with the assumption that Scotland (as much of Europe) may be some 20-25 years ahead of the United States in terms of Christianity moving out of the center of cultural and community life. Many of the churches in the Church of Scotland are aging and dwindling (as are many in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.); but we were privileged to meet a number of pastors and congregations that are nonetheless thriving in 2014 (whether you want to call it post-Christendom, post-Christian, secularized, etc…). One of the key features I noticed of the thriving churches were the move from being a church for those inside the walls (sometimes even for the sake of the walls!) to being a church for the community. Rev. Froude and St. Bryce made this shift early on and the difference it has made is palpable. (I shared some of this story and reflection in the sermon [audio link] on the Sunday after I returned from Scotland as a closing illustration of the text of Jeremiah 29:1-11, about God’s people finding faithfulness in exile through praying for and seeking the shalom of the city.)

At my own church, we’ve had a similar transformation of perspective to open our facilities fully to our neighborhood. We have invited and welcomed any community group from our “parish” (ok, we don’t have parishes, but we called the 1-mile radius around our church that) and have seen the facilities used by multiple girl scout groups, a 12-step group, several neighborhood associations, the Hospice/Palliative care organization, a Foundation related to the nearby elementary school, and several others. We also welcomed some neighborhood sports teams (little league baseball and rugby) to use our sizable ball field which had sat unused for a number of years.

While this didn’t create an immediate influx of new members, that wasn’t the point. We determined to be “good neighbors” and what we have seen is a tangible increase in awareness that our church sits at the heart of the surrounding neighborhoods, cares about the people and children of our neighborhood, and over time, we have met and even welcomed into worship some folks that probably would never have darkened our doors before. We’ve had neighbors who don’t go to our church (or any church) recommend us to other neighbors.

All this is to say that I think one very important move the Church needs to make as Christianity moves away from the center of American culture is to rediscover (because it is an OLD value – think not only Jesus, but the Abrahamic covenant!) this: the church does not exist for its members, but for it’s Savior, whose very mission was to come and make a home out in the world.

robertRobert Austell is the pastor of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. He blogs regularly at Lighthouse/Searchlight Church.

Does the Church Have a Future?

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