Friday, October 17, 2014

A Healthy Church Is a Growing Church(?)

A healthy church is a growing church.  Someone quoted someone saying this in a recent conversation.  The question at hand was how to encourage (numerical) growth.  My attempt to respond was weak.  My response is one that needs to be processed in writing rather than subjected to the jumble of spoken words.

A highly influential book in my life is Hannah Whitall Smiths' A Christian's Secret to a Happy Life.  One of the most influential concepts in that highly influential book involves Jesus' illustration in John 15 of the branches and the vine.  (Jesus is the vine; we are the branches; God the Father is the gardener.)  The author points out that the way to bear fruit (which is not identified) is to focus on abiding in the vine rather than straining to bear fruit.  Fruit is a natural and inevitable result of focusing on our connection to the vine and accepting the pruning shears of the gardener.

I have found this concept useful in many areas of life.  Many things we most desire cannot be obtained by seeking them directly.  Rather, they are byproducts of efforts in a totally different direction.  Happiness is an example.  People who focus on their own happiness aren't likely to find true happiness.  Happiness is a byproduct of healthy relationships and healthy living.  Focusing on one's own happiness tends to damage the relationships that have the most potential to bring happiness!

So what about church growth?  While I agree that a healthy faith community is likely to be attractive to others, I think we are on the wrong track when we make growth our goal.  Growth is a natural byproduct of a healthy community.  Just as the individual who focuses on connecting to Jesus Christ will bear fruit in keeping with the strength of that connection, the faith community that focuses on seeing as Jesus saw and loving as Jesus loved and nurturing a spirit of compassion like that of Jesus for those who are harassed and helpless will be irresistibly attractive and bear the fruit of growth.  Perhaps connection can be assessed and measured by numerical growth, but when that growth is lacking, it's the connection to the vine that needs our attention.

In my own ministry to children right now I'm going with the philosophy that less is more.  Fewer children means more opportunity for one-on-one conversations, more mentoring.  There were seven in the beginning and I haven't looked for more.  But three more started coming.  Then three 7th-grade boys started drifting over from the teen group to forage for snacks in our area.

Can I do with thirteen kids what I could do with seven?  These are high-risk kids.  Can I foster spiritual growth as effectively with more?

I will accept all who desire to come.  I suspect the group will max out at a fairly small size until we develop enough inner resources to effectively welcome and nurture more.  Meanwhile, I will focus on nurturing those present rather than looking past them to those not yet showing interest in the group.  Maybe it will be a big fail to do so, but connection is my passion and we aren't there yet.  Growing the group by focusing on growth rather than on spiritual nurture could lead to a shallowness that would be difficult to overcome.

Do healthy churches grow?  Yes, barring liabilities such as a transient population I suspect they do.  But I think numerical growth is a lousy goal.  It's like setting a goal of so many grapes per branch while neglecting to make sure the branch stays firmly connected to the vine.  If growth is your ultimate goal, you would do well to set it completely aside while you nurture the connection between the branches and the vine.

Extraordinarily Ordinary

Left behind. Yes, it's the name of a book series with related film productions, but that's not what this is all about. In this case, left behind is how I'm feeling.

Several years ago I read The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical by Shaine Claiborne and wrote a review which brought an unusual amount of traffic to my blog. I was a bit embarrassed by the attention because it was a less than positive review of a worthwhile and popular book.  While I appreciate the efforts of the author in inner-city ministry, I felt at the time like he would have no regard for someone living a life of radical obedience to Jesus Christ in a more rural setting. Is there a place for ordinary radicals where I live or will urban ministries always have more glamor?  Does true ministry involve packing up and moving to the inner city?  If everyone does that who will do ministry to my hurting neighbors?

I'm still trying to bloom where I am planted rather than transplanting myself elsewhere and have moved on to other books.  Many of them likewise describe urban ministry but I find inspiration in them to get outside my comfort zone in ministering to people who are part of my rural community but still aren't like me.  Or like those with whom I gather on Sunday.

More recently, the only active 20-somethings in the aging congregation of which I'm a part announced they are planning to start a new ministry for their peers -- young adults who are spiritual but alienated from traditional church settings.  As a first step, they will step away from our congregation and seek alternative settings for worship.

This is very interesting to me.  I realize I don't fit their target demographic, but I would love to be part of the conversation.  Alas, it is not to be.  I'm in their rear view mirror as they move toward a shiny new ministry.  My books and what I have gleaned from them don't interest them.  They need to do their own exploration.

This week I found out the leader of a trip I'm taking in January won't be leading it after all.  He has accepted a position with a group specializing in new church plants.  I knew he was involved in that sort of thing and was looking forward to interacting with him maybe a little as we traveled, though his ministry looks different from mine.  Now he has moved on.  Others I thought would be in the group have also dropped out because of conflicts with other ministries.  Even when signing up to go where I thought they were going, I have still been left behind.

As part of my own journey, I extracted myself from the organizational structure of the local church in order to focus on ministry inside and outside the church building.  I hear that many Christians have no friends who aren't also Christians.  I may have fit that description at some points in my life.  I now spend much time in public places interacting with people whose lives are being torn apart by sin.  But I also still show up for church services or activities -- Sunday morning and evening, Wednesday evening, and more. There are many hurting people who show up there looking for a message of hope.  And it's my home.  I should be there to welcome them.

I've been sharing my journey into rural community ministry with an online fellowship group as something new and different.  But recently, I was reminded that I'm still in a traditional church setting.  What might feel radical and different to me looks extraordinarily ordinary from a more detached perspective.  On Sunday mornings I facilitate an adult Sunday School group.  On Wednesday evenings I try to speak some sort of word into the chaos of children's ministry with too wide an age range.  So very ordinary.  For a while I had a teen helper I brought in from the outside world.  My first success story in the making!  But she now has a job and can no longer be involved.

Jesus told a story about a farmer who went out to sow.  Some seeds fell on the path and were eaten by birds.  Other seeds fell in rocky soil and sprang up quickly but then died for lack of roots.  Other seeds grew but the growth was choked out by weeds.  But some seed fell on good soil and yielded a bountiful harvest.

I seem to be still in the sowing mode with no sign of a bountiful harvest.  What I thought was going to be new ground with new opportunities for harvest I now realize looks a lot like the old place.  And yet there is fertile ground here, in spite of rumors to the contrary.    I keep turning to the Master Gardener looking for new cultivation techniques, a fresh approach to the ancient practice of sowing seeds.  It all looks like ordinary gardening to the neighbors who are involved in more exciting pursuits, but I've never done it like this before.  Maybe I need to focus more on doing it and less on trying to present it as something fresh and new to those who surely see how extraordinarily ordinary it is.  Maybe I need to focus on what I'm doing and be less distracted by those who are moving on to greener pastures.

"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up" (Galatians 6:9).  

Faithfulness means continuing to study and practice creative agricultural methods while trusting the growth and harvest to the "Lord of the harvest" (Matthew 9:38).  I need to have faith in the viability of the seed, faith in the fertility of the soil, faith that rain will come when needed, and faith that there will someday be a harvest if I don't give up.  My ministry results may never look like anything worth looking at but I have a farmer's heart and cannot NOT sow seeds when the weather warms and the soil is dark and rich.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

I Love Juvenile Delinquents!

I'm at the library on a Wednesday morning -- working.  In walk two teenage boys.  School is in session.  They are not there.  Uh-oh.  Suspended.  Again.  One was expelled last year but later returned.  He came to me during that time asking for a job.  At 14, he is too young for me to hire even if I had an opening.  But I had a project that required multiple hours and offered to pay him to do it.  He did an excellent job with it.

Now he's back in school.  Except he's not.  He and his "step-cousin" (quotes indicate a need for a wedding to make it official) are suspended.  I ask how they managed that.  I don't comprehend much of their answer, but get the gist of it:  It's the school's fault.  And they have managed to be disrespectful to the wrong person.

Cool!  I'm all over this.  Do they need to do community service?  Because I love unpaid young laborers!  It's a gorgeous day and I have landscaping to weed!  Work at the library counts as community service.  How can I get in on this opportunity?

How I would love to reach into the lives of these young men.  And "young men" they truly are.  In other times and places they would be moving into an adult world, spending time with the older men, learning the ways of the tribe and their place within it.  In our time and culture, they are expected to sit quietly at a desk, pencil in hand, and take in the wisdom of their teachers.  It's obviously not working for them.  They need an alternative curriculum.

How in the world can I, a 56-year-old library lady, make a difference?  I'm old enough to be their grandmother.  Why would they have any respect for me?

My enthusiasm catches them and they agree to pull my weeds.  Except they need to eat lunch first.  Off they go, returning 20 minutes later.  Is it all right if they use the library computers before they start?  Ah, these child-men.  So used to asking permission for everything they do.  I ask, "Am I in charge of you?"  The older one cops an attitude and says, "No, I'm in charge of you!"  Ha ha.  Juvenile humor.  What a cut-up.  I smile and let it slide.  I hold him no malice for the comment.  I wish he could indeed feel in charge of something that would require him to pull his act together.

Since they seem to be open to direction, I offer to tell them they have ten minutes before they need to get back to work.  After fifteen minutes I hunt them down and lament that they are caught up in computer stuff and I'll never get any work out of them.  They're not sure how to take me, but they turn in the computers and go off to ask the town clerk about working at the library instead of the job she assigned them.

They come back with the disappointing news that they have to finish the task she assigned them first.  Aha, so there IS someone in charge of them.  Or at least one of them.  The other claims he isn't required to do community service and is helping only because he's bored.  I have no way of knowing how much truth he's telling as he carefully averts his eyes while talking.

It doesn't matter.  I love honesty, but have no expectation that juvenile delinquents will speak truth to me.  Why would they?  I listen carefully and add a grain of salt to every word.  I try to avoid making any response that depends on them telling me the truth.  But sometimes I detect genuine truth slipping out betwixt and between the lies and am grateful for every morsel of honesty they offer me.  Because I love them.  I know much more about them through my small-town connections than they know about me.  I know they are in difficult home situations.  I know the older one is attentive to his younger sisters.  I know he lied convincingly about his age so he could attend VBS a couple of years ago.  (But was eventually found out and told not to return.)  I know his "step-father" (more quotes for lack of a different wedding) is facing charges of disorderly conduct.  I know his previous stepfather died of cancer a few years ago and the extended family has grieved deeply.  My heart aches for him, a boy/man who has managed to alienate a lot of adults in his short life as a less-than-model student.

They return again.  They're not sure if they want to pull weeds.  We go out together and look at the weeds and they pull a few, but landscaping doesn't seem to be their passion.  They stay long enough for me to probe a little about the impact of this "time off" on their school career.

How I wish I could make a difference for these young men.  But all I know to do is to love them and embrace them with my words for as long as they hang around and then let them go.  My day is richer for the time I have spent interacting with them.  Is theirs better for having been seen and loved by me?  Is love enough?  And if not, what is more?