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.