Sunday, May 13, 2012

I've relocated

This blog has a new address on the First Grantham church website.

To access the new address, go to the latest post at

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

All the Lonely People

I just read a great article in Atlantic magazine called "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" The writer examines whether people who rely on the "connectedness" of social media like Facebook are actually becoming more, not less, isolated from one another. He asks whether the kind of artificial, virtual community that people seek on   Facebook can be a substitute for relationships with real people.

The point I thought was really interesting was that people simultaneously hunger for human community, and avoid community because it takes work. At the same time we long for connectedness with others, but because relationships are demanding, we will find any excuse to avoid them. That seeming contradiction in human nature is an example of what the Bible would call "sin." Sin is that about us which creates estrangement, which undermines our fundamental need for relationships. It's about how we sometimes do the very thing that is harmful to us and to others.

Churches ought to be places where people can overcome their isolation and find community. Sometimes I think we don't work hard enough to make that available to people for whom isolation is easy and relationships are hard. And I wonder what steps we could take to break down the growing barriers in our culture to meaningful human relationships?

Here's the link to the article.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Person of Peace

In Luke chapter 10, Jesus sends out 72 disciples to go into the towns and villages and prepare his way. He tells them to be on the look-out for "persons of peace." "When you come to a house," he says, "first say 'Peace be upon this house.' If a person of peace is there, your peace will remain with him, but if not it will return to you." And then, Jesus says, you're not to press the matter, you just move on. It's not the right time.

Watching for persons of peace is a critical skill for Christians these days. We need to be attentive to those who are open to talking to us about faith, and learning more.

My son is getting married in the summer, and he and his fiance had a pre-wedding party at a local watering hole last week. I struck up a conversation with a guy and his girlfriend. Let's call them Tim and Melissa (not their real names.)

Tim remarked on the great weather and said he'd love to go fishing. I asked him about fishing, and he told me it's one of this favorite passtimes. Then he said something that kind of surprised me. He said fishing is the thing that makes him most thankful, that arouses in him the greatest sense of gratitude. I always knew people went fishing to relax, but I'd never thought of it as a way to encourage thankfulness. "So, it's a kind of spiritual experience for you?" I said, and then he launched into an animated description of the spirituality of fishing.

His girlfriend chimed in, and began to talk about her faith. She was raised in the church, her parents are regular church attenders, and while she is deeply respectful of them and their practices, she doesn't find church to be the place where her faith is nurtured.

"How is it nurtured?" I asked. And then she went on to tell me about volunteering at Out of the Cold, and the deep and meaningful connections she has formed with some of the people who go there to eat. She said, "You know the guy you see around town pushing the shopping cart full of junk? I've had the most amazing conversations with him. He's a remarkable person."

"Spirituality is about connectedness," I offered -- and that opened up a whole new area of discussion. She told me about her work at a hair salon, where people (usually women) come in stressed and upset and she sees it as -- she didn't use the word, but it would have been appropriate -- a ministry.

This is the very moment when I am trying to find people who are interested in forming Jesus-centred faith communities that don't carry all the baggage people traditionally associate with church -- and these two young people would have stood and talked all night about the many ways in which they live out their spirituality and faith.

They were persons of peace. I've asked them if we can get together again to continue the conversation.

I'm realizing that identifying and connecting with persons of peace is a gift and a skill that we have largely forgotten. I grew up in a church where you didn't have to seek out persons of peace because they came and found you. But it's not the same any more.

Each time I have a conversation like I had with "Tim" and "Melissa" I pray that I will gain confidence and skill in connecting with persons of peace.

Friday, April 6, 2012

"You Did That For Me" -- Good Friday sermon

I got a lot of feedback on my Good Friday sermon. I used Hebrews 10: 16-25 for a text. Here's the sermon:

"You Did That For Me"
Text: Hebrews 10: 16-25

“I will remember their sins no more.” This is the promise made through the prophet Jeremiah, 600 years before Christ, that comes as close as possible to a one-sentence summary of the Christian faith. God’s declaration, “I will remember their sins no more,” is really the Gospel in a nutshell. It’s all that really needs to be said. All of the New Testament, all of our preaching, all of our practice, it’s all commentary on this one amazing, incredible, almost unbelievable statement: “I will remember their sins no more.”

Because our natural human instinct is to remember sins, both our own and those of others – to hold onto them, to rehearse them, to allow them to work their way deeply into our hearts where they become the dominating reality in our relationships. We find it nearly impossible to let go of the things we have done that have wronged others, or the things others have done that have wronged us.

And we think of God primarily as the one who never forgets our sins – from whom there is no escape. “Be sure your sins will find you out,” is the way that so many people picture God.

And yet here is God saying definitely, without qualification, “I will remember their sins no more.”

Through Jeremiah, God promised to enter into a new covenant relationship with God’s people, in which the things we need to do to keep that covenant aren’t external laws, written on stone, that carry the threat of punishment if we do not obey them, that we struggle to apply to our lives – but instead are written on our hearts – God’s will penetrating our hearts and minds so that serving and obeying God become not something strange and alien, but second nature. God promised a new covenant in which God would come to actually dwell within us, God would confer on us a new identity, not of sinners deserving death, but of dearly loved sons and daughters.

It’s a puzzle that Christianity is so widely regarded as a religion of judgment and condemnation. If you ask people on the street their opinions about Christianity, their responses will usually have something to do with rules and regulations, with self-righteousness and judgmentalism, with people who go around behaving like they are better than everyone else.

Maybe it’s not a puzzle, though, because that is so often how Christians have behaved. Christians over the centuries have not really believed what they’ve been told: “I will make a new covenant with you. I will remember your sins no more.” All too often, Christians are guilty of doing what people accuse them of doing – simply carrying on with their old natural human life of judging and condemning.

Jesus puts an end to all that. Jesus puts an end to our need to prove ourselves worthy of God’s acceptance. Jesus puts an end to the need to offer repeated sacrifices in the hopes that we might appease the wrath of an angry God; that maybe if we give enough, or we’re good enough, maybe, just maybe, God will accept us.

So often we project onto God the harsh reality of many human relationships. If I just do a little bit more, maybe he’ll love me; if I just try a little bit harder, maybe she’ll approve of me.

The history of human religion has largely been the story of two struggles in the human heart – the struggle to prove ourselves worthy; and the tendency to condemn of others for not being good enough. The great theologian Karl Barth said that religion amounts to the effort of human beings to justify themselves before God. Jesus puts an end to that effort by making it unnecessary. We do not need to justify ourselves before God. We simply need to receive the grace of forgiveness which Jesus makes possible.

If we would only listen. “I will make a new covenant – not like the old covenant that required an endless series of ever more lavish sacrifices, offered day after day – but a covenant based on the sacrifice of the Son of God, made once, for all. Because of him, I will remember their sins no more – a clean slate. A fresh start. A new beginning.” And yet it’s so hard for us to believe. It’s hard for us to believe that it is true for us. And it’s hard for us to believe that it is true for other people, whose sins we think are simply too great, too heinous, to merit forgiveness.

”Where there is forgiveness of these sins, there is no longer any offering for sin.”

In other words, we don’t need to live like that. We don’t need to do it anymore. We can stop striving to atone for what we have done. We’re forgiven. We’re free.

But, the objection is always raised, doesn’t that encourage irresponsibility, letting people off scot free? Where is the incentive to live a better life if God has simply forgiven us?

No, the Letter to the Hebrews says. God has not left us in our old dead-end way. God has opened up a new and living way. Jesus has made it possible for us to entrust our lives to God without fear. Our hearts have been sprinkled clean. Our consciences have been purified.

And that means we really can be free to spur one another on to good deeds, because we aren’t dominated by the great weight of either our wrongdoing, or that of others. We can let go of the guilt of our own past; and we can let go of burden of other people’s sins.

St. Paul says it best. His critics asked, “If God just forgives us, does that mean we can go on the way we always have and not worry about it?” “Absolutely not,” Paul replied. “Christ has set you free from sin – from the need to do things that set you at odds with God and your neighbor. Christ has set you free from the need to prove yourself, or to build yourself up at the expense of others. Christ has set you free from being dominated by your destructive impulses. If you’ve been set free, why in the world would you want to go back to being slaves again?”

You see, forgiveness that just leaves us the way we were isn’t really forgiveness. It’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” True forgives always transforms and redeems.

What Jesus has done for us is to create the possibility of a whole new way of life. He makes possible a real change in our relationship with God – from being a relationship based on judgment and fear – to one based on acceptance and love – and because of that he changes the basis of our relationships with others.

The greatest problem is not that we need to be forgiven. Or that others need to be forgiven. Jesus has looked after that. The greatest problem is believing that it’s really true – and living like it’s true.

Because so much of the time we don’t live like it’s true. We continue to strive to earn God’s acceptance to measure up – to be good enough. And even if we don’t think of it consciously as trying to appease God, that’s what we’re doing. Or we simply rebel and say we can get along without God’s acceptance and go it alone.

Or we continue to try to make ourselves look better by making others look worse; to build ourselves up as if God has forgiven us because we’re such good people, and tear others down by saying that what they have done is so much worse.

Our great problem is that we can’t cope with the enormity of grace. That’s, I think, why many people don’t want to deal with Good Friday. It’s not just because of the violence and suffering of the crucifixion. It’s that we cannot deal with the size, the depth, the sheer vastness of what God has done for us. We either think we don’t need it, or we think we couldn’t possibly deserve it.

But that’s why we come here on Good Friday. On Good Friday we do stop to wonder at the enormity of what Jesus has done for us. “And from my smitten heart with tears, two wonders I confess,” the old hymn puts it. “The wonder of his glorious love, and my unworthiness.” That’s a lot to take in. But it’s the truth.

It’s what he’s done for us. We can’t earn it. We can’t deserve it. We can only accept it, and marvel at it.

Forgiveness is a Journey

I would have to say that the single most challenging spiritual issue that people ask me about is forgiveness. People don't know how to forgive, or be forgiven. They think that either they have never done anything that requires forgiveness -- or they think that forgiveness means just letting people get away with not facing up to the consequences of what they have done. Or, they don't know how to forgive someone who won't own up to the pain they have caused.

I just read a powerful book called Through the Glass by Shannon Moroney. The author had been married for month when the police came knocking on her door to tell her that her new husband had been arrested for committing two extremely violent sexual assaults.

Through the Glass describes her own harrowing journey through the shattering of her dreams, coming to terms with the unthinkable -- that she was married to a violent criminal -- and ultimately learning to support him, even as he was held accountable for his crimes. She describes the judgment and criticism she received for her decision to not simply write him off as a monster, and the reconciling encounters she had with his victims. Her story is an interweaving of the redemptive power of forgiveness and a vision of restorative justice.

The insight that Shannon has that I found really profound is that forgiveness is not a single act, it's a long process. We don't just forgive and forget, but having made the decision to forgive, we enter into a long, winding and complex journey of incorporating the reality of forgiveness into our lives and our growing and changing selves.

Anyone who has struggled with the pain of having been wronged or violated, or with the nature of forgiveness should read Through the Glass.

Find out more at

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Chocolate Chip Banana Cake

Well, my chocolate chip banana cake was a BIG hit at our Family Night on March 30. Several people asked for the recipe, which is one of the dessert staples in our house -- fabulously moist and rich, and keeps fresh for close to a week.

1 cup butter or margarine, softened.
2 cups sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla
2 1/2 cups mashed ripe bananas (about 5)
3 cups All-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 cup sour cream (we sometimes substitute vanilla yogurt)
1/2 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1 tsp cinnamon
2 cups chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350.
Cream together margarine and sugar on medium speed of electric mixer.
Add eggs and beat until smooth.
Add vanilla and bananas. Mix until smooth.
Sift together flour, baking powder and soda.
Add to banana mixture alternately with sour cream, ending with dry ingredients.
Pour 1/2 batter into a greased 9 X 13 inch cake pan.
Combine brown sugar and cinnamon. Sprinkle half the mixture over the batter in the pan with half the chocolate chips.
Repeat layers.
Bake at 350 for 50-60 minutes. (Because it's so dense, it may take longer. Test frequently.

We throw ripe bananas in the freezer, skin and all, and often use them. They're mushy, but work just fine.

Friday, March 30, 2012

What Isn't for Sale?

Here's a link to a great article in The Atlantic magazine about how market values -- the idea that everything has a price -- has infiltrated most corners of our lives. What does Christian faith have to say in response to this reality?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Church Planting

This is the text of a presentation I made on March 27 to Niagara Presbytery in which I challenged the Presbytery to get serious about planting new churches.

Over the last five or six years, we’ve had many conversations and meetings in Presbytery about church planting. We have closed a third of our congregations since I came to Niagara in 1996, and we have recognized that unless we start some new ones, the future of the United Church is not very promising.

Niagara Presbytery passed a motion a couple of years ago committing the Presbytery to starting some new form of Christian community.

In 2010, the Presbytery paid for seven people to attend the Vital Church Planting Conference in Toronto.

The Congregational Support Committee has held several discussions on strategies for beginning new churches.

Some of the assets of Central Ave. United in Fort Erie have been directed to the Extension Council, to be held for up to two years as seed money for a possible new church planting venture in Fort Erie.

Funds are available through Hamilton Conference and the General Council to support new ministry initiatives.

Hamilton Conference staff are enthusiastically supportive of church planting proposals.

Presbyters responded very positively to Pastor Mike Collins of The Village Church in Thorold when he spoke at the January meeting of Presbytery about how that church was started.

The time seems right to move ahead.

Church planting has become a personal passion and burden of mine as I have become convinced that the church cannot abdicate its mission to pass on the faith to a next generation and still remain the church. As it says in the Psalms, “We are God’s people, the sheep of God’s hand” – and healthy sheep reproduce. For 1500 years of Christendom, the church has been able to count on its numbers being replaced simply by birth as children inherited the religious identity of their parents, supported by the values of a Christian culture. We know that time has passed. So, we need to relearn how to plant churches.

I have been a member of the United Church my whole life, and despite wondering at times if we’ve taken leave of our senses, I have remain committed to the church that is my home. And I continue to believe that the streams of faith that gave birth to the United Church of Canada in 1925 can still be a powerful witness to Jesus Christ in the 21st century.

I spend a lot of my time thinking, learning, networking and reflecting on what is involved in beginning new churches in a post-Christendom culture. I’ve acquired a lot of knowledge which I want to place at the service of the Presbytery so that we can begin to start new congregations.

When I speak of church planting, though, there are a few things we need to realize.

First, any future “church plant” will bear little resemblance to the 1950s style “new church development” model, where the church went into a growing suburb, bought a piece of land, identified members of the United Church tribe who were moving there, invited them to start attending services at the local school or community centre, and gathered enough money to break ground and build a new building.

Today, you can’t build a church building in the traditional sense for less than $4 million. There are no burgeoning new suburbs in Niagara – or at least not many – and where there are, the majority of their residents have no meaningful identification with any traditional denomination.

There is enormous fluidity in the forms churches take these days, so we can’t predict up front what a newly planted church will look like exactly. But we can say a few things with confidence. The church of the future will not be primarily “attractional” – it will not be a place people come to in order to access programs and services. Instead, it will be apostolic – a community gathered around faith in Jesus, and sent out to live the gospel in neighborhoods, work places and places in need of hope and healing. It will not be centred around a costly infrastructure of programming and paid staff. Rather, it will be “lightweight and low maintenance,” centred on relationships and serving others, not burdened by impossible budgetary overheads.

Second, we will have to admit that we know longer know how to do this. We will have to have the humility to turn to other denominations that have a successful track record of planting churches. The Christian Reformed Church, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, the Mennonite Brethren and the Free Methodists are all active in church planting. Realizing that there may be significant theological and cultural differences between us and them, we need to be open to their skills and expertise in starting new congregations.

I believe the United Church has a unique mix of inclusivity, commitment to social justice, and willingness to ask critical questions that will resonate with today’s spiritually searching population. We also have in our historical DNA a deep commitment to Jesus Christ as the one who shows us the face of God, which will be essential in planting new churches.

But we also have a kind of institutional paralysis that prevents us sometimes from moving forward. Diana Butler Bass in her book The Practicing Congregation notes that mainline Protestant churches have done precisely the opposite of what thriving organizations do. They have changed their core traditions while resisting innovation in form. They have changed the content, but clung stubbornly to the package. That has to be reversed. We need greater clarity about basic identity – who we are and whose we are – while learning to be experimental and adventurous in developing new forms of church.

Third, we should not see any new church planting initiative as conveying the message that churches that have had to disband or amalgamate have somehow “failed.” There ought to be no implied judgment about any existing congregation in committing ourselves to starting new congregations. Nor should we see resources that might go into future churches as help that has been somehow withheld from current congregations. We need to have the grace and the faith to accept that every institution and organization has a natural life cycle.

As Diana Butler Bass says, what is happening to many of our churches is nobody’s “fault.” Most organizations do not endure for more than a few generations without reinventing themselves. Many of our churches have been operating faithfully out of essentially the same model of church for over 150 years. And we need to simply accept that some of our churches are at the point where they are not capable of making the kind of radical transition they would need to make in order to reinvent themselves. We should say this without a hint of judgment or condescension. We should celebrate the faithfulness and work of all of our congregations, knowing that not every church will last forever. Or expect that every church will be able to adapt to new realities. There is a new congregation in St. Thomas that was planted as a mission of a local Christian Reformed church. It is reaching out to whole groups of people, including young people and single moms, that wouldn’t normally be in a traditional church. The parent congregation realized that, you know what, there are certain people we will just never be able to reach. We shouldn’t try to draw them into our existing church, but start something new.

We should continue to do everything we can to support the good work of our existing congregations, at the same time as we work to plant new forms of church that will more effectively address the cultural situation of the 21st century.

I would like to issue a challenge to Niagara Presbytery to stop simply talking about church planting and begin to do it. I propose that we commit ourselves to move ahead with planting at least one new church in the next two years. In order to do that, we need more than nodding heads and murmurs of support. We need people who will be involved in doing research, visioning and discernment – who will help to answer the questions Where? What? Who will lead? How will we support it? To begin to seek sources of funding. To recruit leadership. And above all, to bathe this entire initiative in prayer.

I’d like to know who is prepared to commit some time and energy which, let’s face it, is always in short supply, to this task. It doesn’t need to be only Presbytery members. Maybe there is someone in your church who is longing for something new. Maybe there are folks who still belong to your church but have drifted to the margins because they’re looking for something more. We don’t need experts on church planting, because none of us is an expert. We need people who have a passion for the future of the church, and are willing to make a leap of faith.

So I would like to appeal to you to speak to me, email me, phone me, tell me you’re interested, or you know someone who might be. And let’s get started.

Making sense out of the Bible

"I don't know how to make sense out of the Bible when I try to read it." That, along with "I don't know how to pray" is probably the most expressed frustration I hear from people in the church.

Mike Breen has come up with a really simple, but profound, way to understand the entire Bible through the twin themes of "Covenant" and "Kingdom."

Here's a link to a 1 hour talk in which he clearly outlines how to read the Bible through this lens.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


One of the most interesting discoveries I have made in the last couple of years is how closely related the word "conversion" and the word "conversation" are. It's one of those things that, when you realize it, you wonder how you ever missed it. Of course, they're practically the same word.

But it was a big breakthrough for me because it hit me -- our conversations have the potential to convert us -- to change us. If you read the Gospel of John, what you see Jesus mostly doing is talking. Schmoozing. Chatting. Having conversations. They're extremely deep and holy conversations, but he spends way more time talking to people in John than he does healing them or preaching to them. Philip and Andrew. Nicodemus. The woman at the well. The man paralyzed for 38 years. His disciples. Talking. Conversing. Jesus is the Word made flesh, and John portrays him bringing salvation and transformation through this words.

Reggie McNeal writes a lot about the massive changes that churches are undergoing because of the changes in society. He says we need to "change the scorecard" -- the things we count that tell us how effective we are. For generations, churches have counted things like how big their building is, how many show up on Sunday, how much money they raise -- "buildings, butts, budgets." McNeal says we have to start counting different things -- like how many lives are changed.

I see a downward trend in those traditional scores of success. But that might mean we have to start counting different things. And one of the things I think we should start to count is the number of truly significant, God-led, life-impacting conversations we have, both inside and outside the church -- the number of interactions we have where God is clearly there.

The other day I spent some time with a family that is going through one of those gut-wrenching crises with one of their kids who is very ill. I was just so deeply moved by their courage, their vulnerability, their incredible love and support for one another. I don't know if I helped them, but they sure helped me.

Yesterday, I met with two young women who are preparing to be confirmed. They're older than the usual teen confirmation class, so we've been meeting on Wednesdays to talk about faith, God and the church. Yesterday we met over iced tea and coffee at Starbucks. And I am blown away by the maturity and depth of their questioning and their insight.

Last night, I met with two young couples who have started to come to church and have asked about baptism for their children -- and in the case of one of the Moms, baptism for herself. We talked about "kairos" moments in our lives, those times that are filled with significance and meaning, and that have the potential to change us. I thought we'd skim over the surface because we were meeting for the first time as a group. But the immediate level of trust was so high that they were able to share things about themselves at a level that just really amazed me. At the end of the evening, I was sure God had been among us.

I wonder if we create enough space in our churches for significant conversations? Everyone's so busy. How can we intentionally help people to enter into those conversations where God has a chance to show up?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Stuck on the escalator?

Sometimes we need people on the outside to point out the absurdity of what is happening to us. Here's a hilarious commercial for Becel margarine that I think describes the situation of the church, as well as a lot of other institutions.

When I watched this clip, I immediately flashed back to all the times when something we were used to suddenly stopped working, and we had no idea what to do. And so we, in effect, stood around hollering for someone to come and fix it, rather than just walking ahead.

Breaking out of it is not as easy as it seems. But alot of the bewilderment of the church these days reminds me of two people stuck on an escalator.

How about you?

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Heart of Christianity

People often ask me, "So what is Christianity really all about? How would you summarize it in a few words?"

Others are able to do that better than me. Here's a link to an interview with Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill church in Seattle, a congregation made up mostly of young professionals in their 20s.

Now, personally, Mark Driscoll is not one of my favorite preachers. He can be pretty abrasive and sarcastic with those who don't agree with him. I have to hand it to him, though, he is a hugely effective communicator. He does a great job here of giving a clear, concise summary of what the Christian message is all about.

Here's the link:

Thursday, March 1, 2012

So, What Do You Need (Part 2)

You need people to have a church. That's basic.

But there's more. I think the second thing you need if you're going to have a church is
a story.

Our lives make up a story -- a story of events, decisions, turning points, roadblocks, discoveries, joys, sorrows. And because the church is made of people, you can think of the church as a collection of stories. A church community brings together all the stories of the people who are part of the church. We need to pay a lot more attention to the stories that are present in our church.

But the story that makes the church is not first of all our life stories. It's the Big Story. The Great Story. It's God's Story.

Christians, unlike people of some other religious faiths, believe in a God who works through historical events. God called a man named Abraham to leave his home and set out on a pilgrimage of faith. He promised to make him the father of a great nation, which seemed out of the realm of possibility because Abraham and his wife Sarah were old, and barren. But God gave them a miracle child, Isaac. Isaac was the father of Jacob, later re-named Israel, and Jacob's twelve sons became the founders of a nation named after him, Israel.

The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, and God reached out to save them when they were powerless to save themselves. God showed himself to be on the side of the poor and the oppressed. God set them free and gave them a law to guide them, and a Promised Land to live in.

But they kept on messing up. Rather than following the path God laid down for them, they followed "the devices and desires of their own hearts." Weakened by their stupidity and waywardness, they were easy prey for enemies who conquered them and took them into exile. But God once again redeemed them and restored them. And the hope was born that God would one day send a saviour who would right all wrongs and lead them back to God.

That saviour eventually was born in a stable in Bethlehem. His name was Jesus. He came to proclaim that God's rule of righteousness and peace was near, and can actually be a reality in our lives here and now. Jesus offended the holy and religious people, as well as the politically powerful people, and he was tried in a kangeroo court, executed by the exquisitely cruel Roman method of crucifixion and laid in a tomb.

But early one Sunday morning, his disciples went to shed tears over his body, but were blown away when they found the tomb empty, and later saw him -- alive!

This is The Story, the story that turned a raggle-taggle bunch of fishermen into a powerful movement of faith that spread throughout the world.

In the beginning, they didn't have hardly any of the things we think we need for a church -- a building, a budget, a paid minister. What they did have was a Story -- and the experience of seeing Jesus risen and alive. When their stories came in contact with this Story it changed their lives -- and empowered them to change the world.

And it's still the same today. You can still have a church without a building or a paid minister. You can't have a church without people whose life stories have been transformed by God's Story -- and who are prepared to tell others about it.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

So, what do you need?

A couple of weeks ago, I put out the question, "What do you need to be a church?" That's going to become a more important question as time goes on. Because a lot of churches are going to find that they can no longer have what they once had -- a full time minister, lots of young families, the money to keep up their building, the respect of the community -- and they won't be able to carry on.

Churches that survive and thrive in a post-Christian world will be diverse in form, but will have this in common: they will be crystal clear about what matters, and what doesn't.

So what do we need?

I want to suggest that the first thing we need is people. That's not as trivial and obvious an answer as it might seem. Part of the problem with churches is that they act like they don't need people. They don't seem to care that people are dropping out and drifting away in droves, as long as they can keep other things that they think are more important. If you gave them the choice of either getting people back, or keeping the things they think are most important, people will lose every time. Try suggesting that the service time be changed to be more accomodating, and you'll see what I mean. Oh, it's nice if people come -- but come on our terms, and accept what we have to offer.

The truth is that you can't have a church without people. But that's only part of the answer. It's not exactly true that the church hasn't cared about people. But sometimes it has cared in the wrong way. We like to count people. Almost the first question people ask me when they find out I'm a minister is "How big is your church?" Meaning, how many people show up on Sunday. The second question is "Do you have many youth and young families?" Numbers matter.

But the church has never been about simply attracting numbers of people. It's who those people are -- or more, whose those people are -- that matters. The church of the 21st century will have to be in the business not only of attracting people, but of forming them so that they bear more and more of a family resemblance to Jesus who is Lord of the church.

So, if we want to get first things first, this is maybe the first of all. What the church really needs is people who know Jesus, who are willing to follow Jesus, and who are willing to point to Jesus by the way they live.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Pray also for me."

I was reading a book about Paul's Letter to the Ephesians. In chapter 6, Paul is telling the Ephesians to remember to pray; and in verse 19, he says "Pray also for me." The writer of this book commented on how Paul knew that he wasn't self-sufficient. He needed prayer as well.

As a pastor, I'm always praying for people, and telling people they should pray for others. It struck me that I don't always remember to ask people to be sure to pray for me. Maybe it's a kind of secret pride, that I'm always the one people turn to for prayer. But I suddenly realized how essential it is to know that people are praying for me.

Being a minister is a great job. Sometimes I think, "I can't believe they pay me to do this." But it's also hugely demanding in ways that few people really understand. It's not, as many people think, that you have "to be available 24/7." Nobody really calls me in the middle of the night or on my day off.

The demands of ministry are just the sheer number of different things that you're required to do in a week -- everything from writing a sermon to talking to a family about baptism to visiting the nursing home to helping people debrief from a contentious meeting to filling out paperwork for Presbytery -- it's a constant stream of different demands and requests that can drain you.

So, as much as anyone, I need prayer. And I need to remember to ask for it.

I went through a dark valley a few years ago. I was frustrated, discouraged, and even depressed. Nothing was working. I wondered if what I was doing made any difference. I wondered if I needed a change of scenery. I even wondered if this is what I was meant to do. I felt like a failure.

Happily, things have changed. I have a sense of joy and confidence in my work that keeps me going. I feel excited and encouraged. I'm in a very different place than I was even two or three years ago.

I've often wondered why. And then it suddenly occurred to me that maybe it's because of the prayers that have been offered up for me. I know a couple of people who tell me they are praying for me as their minister all the time; but I know that they aren't the only ones.

I'll never know if people's prayers are the reason for the renewal of my spirit -- or if people were praying just as hard when I felt down. You can't always draw a straight line between prayers and results.

But I know that pastors and ministers are "standing in the need of prayer" as much or even more than others -- and that I need to remember to ask people to pray for me.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

What do we need to be a church?

Most clergy have had a conversation that goes something like this.

"So, what do you do?"

"I'm a minister. Of a church."

"Oh, how interesting. Personally, I need a church to find God. I can worship God just as well on the golf course."

Most of us ministers are too polite to say anything in response to this kind of lame excuse.

But it does raise the question: Just what do you need to be a Christian? What do you need to have to be a church?

The problem with the golf course comment is that one thing Christians do need is other Christians. You can have a vague sense of spirituality on your own, but Christianity is a really communal kind of faith. We live out our Christian faith in the company of other Christians from whom we learn, and with whom we live and grow. That's why the New Testament compares the church to a body with many members. Christians need community.

But beyond that, and faith in Jesus, what do we need in order to be considered a church? If you are over a certain age and grew up in the church, you might say, "A building," "A minister," perhaps "A choir," or "A pulpit."

But in this "post-Christian" age, when the church is no longer at the centre of society, many -- maybe most -- of the things we once thought were essential, that you couldn't have a church if you didn't have them, are becoming less and less important.

When the Christian church started, and within a few years spread throughout the ancient world, it didn't have any of these things. There were no buildings, other than people's houses. There were no ministers, in the sense of specially educated professionals who led the church. There were no choirs, or hymn books or pulpits.

And just like they didn't need these things back then, people are discovering that we don't need them now. And all over Canada, the United States and Europe -- but especially in the areas of the world where Christianity is exploding in new growth, like China, Africa and Latin America -- communities of Christians are forming that have very few of the trappings that many of us grew up thinking you couldn't have a church without.

The fact is, it's getting harder and harder to maintain the infrastructure of the church that existed even fifty years ago. The cost of keeping a building and paying a full-time minister is getting to be prohibitive. For that reason, churches are beginning to close.

The deeper reason behind why it's getting harder, though, is that spiritually hungry people are no longer finding nourishment in many of the things that churches think they have to do if they're going to be a church -- putting on a Sunday worship service, paying somebody to visit you in the hospital, conducting weddings and funerals, or having space to hold all kinds of mid-week groups and activities.

Spiritually hungry people are searching for communities that will connect them with God and give meaning to their lives, and teach them how to make a difference in a hurting a broken world.

So, what do we need to have if we're going to do that? What's essential? And what can we get along without?

I'd appreciate comments on these questions. And I'll address them further in future posts.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Two Stories

We had Bible study last Wednesday. Most Wednesdays from September to June, for the last 15 1/2 years, I've led Bible study. Some weeks there are only a handful. Other weeks, like last week, a dozen or 14 turn up.

For 15 years, I've been working through whole books of the Bible with those who come to Bible study, reading verse by verse, asking questions, encouraging discussion.

At times I wonder if it's the best use of my time. But whenever I think it's time to do something different, something happens like what happened last Wednesday.

We were looking at one of the truly hard sayings in the Bible, in Mark chapter 8, where Jesus tells his disciples that he will suffer and die, and then says, "Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it."

"Have you ever had an experience," I asked, "where you tried to hold onto something and ended up losing it, and only got it when you were willing to let go of it?" Blank looks. Not because people weren't thinking, but because the paradox of this passage is truly baffling. Losing what you hold onto, and gaining what you give up -- who can make sense of that?

"Isn't it true, though," I said, "that when you jealously grasp the things you think are important, your life is diminished, whereas if you are willing to let go, you receive more than you expected?" And I had to admit that even I was struggling to grasp how to apply this to real life.

"Jesus, of course, offered himself as a model for what he was saying. Let's look at Philippians 5, an ancient Christian hymn, that says that Jesus did not count equality with God a possession to be held onto for his own sake, but emptied himself and became a servant. And because of that, God exalted him to the highest place. Jesus' self-emptying love is what it's all about."

Then I could see awareness forming and thoughts coming together. One woman talked about how her father lost everything in the war, but chose not to be embittered, but to begin life again.

One person talked about the change of outlook that comes with a cancer diagnosis -- how you learn to appreciate things more deeply when you have faced the real possibility of losing everything.

Someone else spoke about the sudden and tragic death of a family member, and the regret at things that were never said; but that she has resolved to say them to others rather than simply living with the guilt.

"You can't be a parent without knowing what this is all about," said another. "You realize that you have to let your children go, or you risk losing them."

Each of these comments was a condensed personal story. Behind the words was a lived narrative.

When we come to Christian faith, the story of our life is brought within the orbit of a greater story -- the story of a God who fashioned the world in which we live and who personally entered into this world in Jesus. It's the intersection of these two narratives -- God's and ours -- that shapes our lives as Christians.

And I was just really really humbled and moved to witness the Holy Spirit opening the eyes of this group of people, and creating awareness of God's ways. It was a beautiful and moving experience.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

8 Years!

I can't believe it's been 8 years since Grantham United Church and First United Church became one congregation. I've been reflecting on the losses and gains of that amalgamation, and how things have changed since 2004.

I've seen quite a few churches amalgamate over the years, and it's not always very successful. Often, the churches involved are in a highly stressed state, and they bring their anxiety over money and people and traditions into the amalgamated church, and the results aren't pretty.

First Grantham has been a really successful amalgamation, partly because of the courage and grace of the First United people, who went through a long and painful process of soul-searching, deciding they wanted to continue as a church family, but would have to leave their beautiful 150 year old building. I feel like they had already done most of the hard work before we got together.

On the plus side, everyone received an infusion of new energy. For the First folks, a handful of people didn't have to carry a whole load. For the Grantham folks, there were a bunch of new and energetic people.

Having two ministers meant that there was time to do some different things -- like launching a second worship service. Jeff Maissan and I were able to share the burdens of ministry, spell one another off, and give each other a needed break.

The income from the sale of the First United building, and two generous bequests from former First members, were huge. We couldn't have renovated our church building without those funds.

Eight years later, we are in much better financial shape than we were before the amalgamation.

Some things that aren't as good as we might have hoped ....

We hoped that amalgamating would lead to new growth -- and, while we've had lots of new people join the church in those 8 years, there are fewer people at church on Sunday morning than there were in the two congregations. Together, their attendance in 2003 was about 250-275. Now, it's just over 200.

We still spend most of our energy on keeping the church going -- on "maintenance" rather than "mission."

And, we aren't getting any younger. We might ask, "What will First Grantham look like in another 8 years -- in 2020 -- given the age of the congregation?" We're not really building the next generation as we'd hoped.

But, on the whole, I think God has really blessed us. I believe God's hand was in the coming-together of those two churches back in 2003-2004. That was a really big change for a lot of us, and, you know what? We found out we could do it, and the world didn't come to an end!

I'm excited about the possibilities for the future. After all, it's God's future, and we're supposed to just catch the wave!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Riding the Kairos

What a great expression -- "riding the kairos."

It's what Sister Helen Prejean, the Catholic nun whose life is featured in the film "Dead Man Walking," says.

Kairos the Greek word for "significant time," "fullness of time," or "decisive time." When God does something in your life, that's a "kairos moment." Kairos moments are times when we realize we have to make a decision, or we see something we never saw before, or we find ourselves caught up in a change.

Kairos moments are those points in our lives when we have an opportunity to learn something that will change us and the world around us.

Christians are supposed to be people who "ride the kairos."

This blog is going to be a place for sharing views, thoughts, opinions and experiences about how God is at work in us and around us. I'll try to post regularly, and I'd love to be able to address questions about God, faith, doubt, spirituality that are on your minds.

I hope this blog will be a meeting place where we can explore faith together.