Reviving a Church one Sunset at a Time

Can you discern if this is a sunset or sunrise?   --  Photo by  Johannes Plenio  on  Unsplash

Can you discern if this is a sunset or sunrise?   --  Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Not long ago I found myself in a conversation about how to help local churches embrace the end of different ministries. You know. those ministries that have little vitality and are more of a burden than a blessing. Those things we keep doing to not hurt feelings, keep the tradition alive or other  reasons of nostalgia. I have learned in my context that there are things that people want the church to stop doing, but we do not know how to set the ministry down with dignity so we do never set it down.

Setting ministries down can be a difficult thing, but it is sometimes easier to do when there is a ritual to do so. How does a church ritualize setting a ministry down? One way is through the ritual of sunsets.

At the church I serve sunsets are somewhat common to talk about and all they are is the way we give permission to set a ministry down. Here is how some sunsets look:

  • Finance - when there is money for a project, set a sunset date on that money so that when that date comes and the project is not done it can be asked - is God really calling us to do this project?
  • Small groups - when the group is getting a bit stale, call for a sunset break for a few weeks or months. Then call everyone in the group back together and ask if God desires for the group to continue, continue in a new way, or disband for a new thing. 
  • Annual events - Call for a sunset year where you do not do the festival or fundraiser. Instead, call for a discerning conversation about the reasons God may be inviting a break or a re-imagining of the event.
  • Choirs - take a month off and ask people to pray if God is calling the church to have a choir for the coming year. At the end of the month, if it is clear God is calling for a choir, invite people to consider if God is calling them into the choir for the coming year or not. Those who are not called are free to step away.

I assume you see how the sunset ritual can be used in many different ministries of the church. I have discovered the ritual of sunsets highlight at least two things - liberation and discernment. 

The church is liberated, it is free, to set ministries down in order to do other things. Rest and sabbath is needed for all things - ministries included. People are also free to set away without guilt or shame and the church is free to pick the ministry back up in the future if God desires. How do you know God's desires for ministry? Discernment. 

The pastoral role then is less about drumming up resources for a ministry or being scapegoated when the ministry is set down for a time. The pastoral role is not about green or red lighting different ministries, but about creating the space for the church to listen to God's call in their individual and collective lives. 

Church Leadership - From Committee Process to Leadership Positions

The Church often tells herself that she is counter-cultural. The reality is the Church is a cultural product and in influenced by the culture in many of the same ways other spheres are. For instance, the rise of the "big box" stores in culture, where one could get all they wanted in "one stop",  was also seen in the rise of the "mega church", where one can get all you want in "one stop." Or the rise of "Christian hip hop" comes after the hip hop movement is underway. There are moments when the Church is counter-cultural but the Church is more often a laggard to the cultural influences. 

Photo by  Samuel Zeller  on  Unsplash

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Since the early days of America, the United States government has relied upon a strong committee system to generate, build and adopt policy. Since the 1970's the government has made dramatic strides to move from a committee system and embrace more a party system. This is a long and nuanced history, but the essence is this: the power in the committee systems lie with the committee chairs whereas in a party system power lies with party leaders. Those in key leadership positions have not liked that there are committee chair persons who have great autonomy to "cut deals" and modify the agenda. Additionally, there was push for greater transparency in these committees and so the committee system has slowly been marginalized. 

The erosion of the committee system has contributed to a more polarized congress than ever before and it is now the small number of party leaders who wield the most power.

All of this relates to the Church because we are seeing now this play out in the life of the Church. While there is an ever growing push in culture to streamline decisions and consolidate power around positions, this is also making its way into the Church. 

Where was once a joke that Churches would have a meeting to decide if they were going to have a meeting, now Churches are making decisions to cut committees and move to "executive teams" or "governing boards". These teams/boards are very efficient and able to make decisions quicker than committees. This system also has a number of benefits that are favored in these times where so much of the church revolves around the pastor who is given even more power to "lead" the church. I am not knocking church leadership that moves away from the committee model; to each her own. What I want to offer up is the reminder that the Church is called to be a counter cultural voice, the place that values the still small voice and worships the God of all time not the god of efficiency.

Beer exposes the growing or dying fallacy in the Church

From the laity to the largest church pastors I have heard this phrase, "you are either growing or you are dying." Like many dichotomies that set up an either/or scenario in order to categorize good and bad, this "growing or dying" dichotomy is not Gospel but Empire building. 

To begin with this grow or die idea puts out there that there is prefered option - growth. And because we tend to have an unhealthy relationship with death, church leaders will lie to ourselves in order to paint the picture that our church is growing (just to show we are not dying). This is part of the reason why it has taken the UMC decades to come to terms with the fact that we are in rapid decline. 

Because fundamentally this growing or dying question is in our minds and we all desire to grow, we forget that the Gospel is not about growth but about dying. It is about dying to self. It is about dying in order to be raised by God. As such, in our efforts to always grow, Churches never learn how to die - as a body or as individuals. We are so growth focused that we shun death and dying thus retarding a healthy developmental relationship with death. 

 It may be the influences of Empire that Christians began to read the story of Jesus and elevate Matthew 28's commission over the other commissions of Jesus. The "Great Commission" of Matthew 28 is not great because Jesus said it was great. Jesus gave many commissions - forgive, heal, reconcile, welcome, visit, feed, etc. But it is the "Go and make disciples" commission that also helps fuel the growing or dying dichotomy.

"Westvleteren-beer" Attribution below.

"Westvleteren-beer" Attribution below.

As an example of what is might look like to add an additional way to the grow or die mentality lets talk about beer. Specifically the beer that is brewed by the Westvieteren Brewery. This brewery is run by the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus in Belgium. Their three beers have been talked about as some of the best beers in the world. With such high demand you might think this brewery is looking to expand, because we all know if they are not growing they are dying. 

However, the monks there make a set amount each year to meet the financial needs of the monastery and their mission. At that is all they will make until the next year when they make roughly the same amount of beer. 

When asked by commercial businesses why they do not make more beer to meet the demands of the market I imagine the monks might say something like, We do not make beer for the market, we make the beer for God who has put before us a specific mission and purpose. To be move too far away or become focused on growth we miss the mission God has set in our hearts." 

Of course it is exciting to hear about the visions growing churches have. It is equally humbling to hear of the dreams that dying churches hold on to to preserve the saintly work of the past. But it should also be admirable to the churches that seek to be who they are because that is what God is calling them to be.

These churches are not growing or dying perhaps they are, like the monks in Belgium, focused on meeting the call of God and not the demands of the market. 

Source: "Westvleteren-beer". Licensed under CC ...

Introducing Preacher of the Month

Recently I asked a prominent female preacher who is another female preacher that I should be listening to. This preacher looked at me and said, "I cannot tell you a single female preacher in a large pulpit." I was struck at her assumption that the only people worth listening to were those with a large pulpit/platform.

After sharing my shock with a trusted friend about this experience, my friend (also clergy) said, "Jason you say that you want to advocate for the voices that are not in large pulpits. What are you specifically doing to advocate for those preachers to help get their voice heard?" She allowed me to steal her idea and put it on this blog - "Preacher of the Month". 

Each preacher is asked to respond to the same set of questions so you can quickly get a sense of who they are and where/how to learn more about their efforts in ministry. And because I do not appreciate it when someone suggests something to me without telling me why they find it compelling, I also will put a note at the bottom of each profile of why I think you should know about that particular preacher.

It is my hope and prayer that you might find a new voice that is compelling for you to guide you in your faith formation.