On Blessing and Rejoicing!

“Envy is poison in the soul; rejoicing, on the other hand, is fuel for the soul.”

Those words came to mind earlier today after reading several Facebook posts of people complaining about what others have that they don’t have.

In ancient Hebrew to speak of the soul meant referring to the entirety of one’s life. Everything about the way life is experienced physically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and so forth has to do with soul. It’s who you are that is your soul.

Throughout life we will experience many different things, some good and some bad. It would be nice to experience more good than bad but that is not entirely in our control. What is in our control is the way we see the world and the story we will tell ourselves. If we tell ourselves that we are entitled and somehow achieve some great accomplishment, then we think we did it all on our own. If we tell ourselves that we are entitled but never quite succeed in obtaining what we think we deserve, then we loathe anyone who does have what we don’t. On the other hand, if we see the blessings we have in life then we become thankful for what we have and rejoice for the blessings that others receive even if that means that others may have more than us.

“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice!” said the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:4. And if you’ll read his entire letter to the Philippians then you’ll know that he wrote those words as a prisoner facing the possibility of execution for preaching about Jesus while there were others freely preaching for selfish gain. Yet Paul rejoiced because Paul understood that he was blessed.

I’ve told this story before but my Grandma Elsie Gibson was the second of seven children. Her mother died when she was still a teenager and her dad abandoned the children, leaving my Grandma and her older sister, Aunt Thelma, to care for their younger brothers. Eventually my Grandma married and had three children (my Mother being the youngest) but her oldest son died as an infant baby. Several years later, when my Mother was only twelve years old, my Grandpa died from leukemia. Now a widow, my Grandma had to finish raising two girls on her own with little financial resources. To make matters worse, a year after this her house suffered considerable damage due to a fire.

With all of her struggles and challenges, my Grandma’s favorite hymn to sing at church was Count Your Many Blessings! I never heard my Grandma complain about what cards she was dealt in life, so to speak. Did she have her moments of asking “why?” I’m sure she did… as a parent who also has lost a son, I know she did. Yet she also chose to see the blessings that she had… from the brothers and sister she had, the husband she loved, the children she had, the five grandchildren she had, the home she lived in, the times she was able to travel, etc…

How will we see the world today? Will we be thankful and rejoice? Our soul is at stake here, for how we see the world and the story we tell ourselves will either blacken our soul with envy or refresh our soul with life.

“Envy is poison in the soul; rejoicing, on the other hand, is fuel for the soul.”

Closing A Church: Remembering and Celebrating Life

Church ClosedWith this final post on closing a church, I want to talk about what to do once a church has made the decision that it is time to disband. In the three previous  posts on closing a church, we have looked at why this is a necessary conversation that some declining churches must deal with, what the actual question of discernment is for this conversation, and why the conversation is an open-ended process. Those posts will provide more rationale for how a church discerns that God is leading the believers to disband. The question now is what should a church do once it has arrived at this point?

Some Friendly Advise…

This is about closing with dignity and grace. Since many of the members will have a long history with the church, closing is losing something. Like the death of a friend or family member, there is a sense of grief and loss. The leaders should not dismiss this burden but show great pastoral care as members process what is happening.

Another local pastor who had helped a church through closure before gave me some advise that he learned the hard way. He told me, in speaking about the Columbia Church of Chris, that we should not close immediately once we have decided to disband but that we should take some time to celebrate what God has done among our church. In doing this, it will help everyone transition to another congregation in a healthy manner.

So with this wisdom in mind, there are two steps for closing a church in a healthy manner:

  1. Share your feelings with one another. Every member will have different feelings and different stories to share. Give some space and time to openly talk with each other so that as a body of Christ, there is some very cathartic mutual edification. It’s time to heal and one of the ways most people do that is in being allowed to express their feelings.
  2. Celebrate the life of your church. While closing is not something anyone wishes for and it seems like a loss… a death, there is still much to celebrate about what God has done among and through the church throughout its existence. Planning a final memorial/celebration gathering where the church worships and fellowships together, including sharing in communion one more time together, is a great way to celebrate. It’s a time to remember what God has done and remind everyone that this because of the resurrection, this is not the end but a transition into a new chapter of life that is lived with hope for the day when Jesus comes again.

Once the Columbia Church of Christ came to the conclusion that God was leading us to disband, we stopped having a traditional “adult Bible class” before our Sunday morning worship gatherings. Instead we used this time to for people to talk about closing and the transition, what new church they will look for, and any other concerns people had. Because we were also registered as a 501c3 Non-Profit Organization (as most churches are), there were some business decisions that the leaders had to deal with.

Our final Sunday worship gathering was held on Sunday, January 25, 2015. We announced this date ahead of time and invited former members who could make it, to join us at this last gathering to remember and celebrate what God had done throughout the history of our church… and believe me, God had accomplished some amazing things. I didn’t preach. After some singing, I got up and framed the day with the gospel and then invited people to share memories they had with the Columbia Church of Christ. After that, we share in the Lord’s Supper together, sang a few more songs and then shared in a fellowship meal together.

One Final Thought…

Disbanding as a church is has been bittersweet. As a minister it is certainly not something I ever thought I would be a part of and never want to be a part of again but… I want to close this post with a reminder of the gospel, the new life that God is creating through the death and resurrection of Jesus. While the Christians who made up our congregation no longer meet together as the Columbia Church of Christ, we are still Christians following Jesus with the promise of hope that one day Jesus is coming again. When he does, we will reunite with every other believer throughout history.

Our story is not one of closing in despair and hopelessness. What led to our decision was the question of how was God leading us to participate in his mission? Asking this question does not mean that your church will not necessarily lead to closing. Some congregations will discover new ways of participating in the mission of God together. But should your church discern that it is time to disband, I want you to know that it is not the end of life. Though it’s the end of one chapter, the story continues…

Jesus is coming again and until then, God is still present with his people through the Spirit leading them to live as faithful witnesses of this victorious life that has overcome sin and death. Go in peace, go on mission with God!

Closing A Church: An Open-Ended Process

Church ClosedIn the previous two posts on closing a church, we looked at why this is a necessary conversation that some declining churches must deal with and what the actual question of discernment is for this conversation. In short, we must realize that there are some churches in such decline that it may be time for them to consider closing and this has to do with participation in the mission of God rather than preserving a local church. The question then is how does a church determine if God is telling them that it is time to close as a local church so that the members can find other healthy churches to worship and serve with?

The simple answer is prayer and listening, as we hear God speaking through the conversations with each other. However, we need to unpack this or else we might misunderstand and in the worst case, never listen to anyone except our own voice.

To begin with, we must keep in mind that the question of discernment is an open-ended question. In asking how is God leading the church to participate in the mission of God, closing might be part of the answer but the church must also remain open to the idea that God may be calling then into a new chapter of participation together. I actually know of a church that was considering closure and in the process discovered that God was calling them to remain together, and now they are discovering once again how to participate in the mission of God together.

Where the question of discernment begins is with the realization that the church cannot continue as it has, that the church is declining and something must change. This alone is a hard reality for many church members to accept. In fact, I found in my experience with the Columbia Churches of Christ that accepting this reality was a grieving process that went through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). So coming to the realization that the church cannot continue business as usual is necessary for discerning the way forward. For that to happen, time and space along with pastoral leadership are absolutely necessary.

Coming to terms with reality and discerning the way forward can create a lot of anxiety, so the ministers and other leaders must have a non-anxious presence. This means serving in a pastoral role, having compassion as the church struggles in grief but speak candidly about the reality of the church. There are two other factors that I believe are very important:

  1. Give the church as much time as necessary for processing the grief. Any attempt to rush the process will only cause further problems. Yet in giving as much time as necessary, the minister and other leaders must hold the conversation about the state of the church before others. That requires sensitive pastoral wisdom and decisiveness that encourages people towards prayer, listening to others, and dealing with the painful emotions.
  2. The space for such a conversation is gathering around a table for a meal together. When a church gathers together for a meal a more relaxed atmosphere is created. In a conversation where there will be some disagreements, people are more likely to listen and respond in manner that allows for healthy and meaningful dialogue. With the Columbia Church of Christ, we positioned the tables so that everyone was facing each other.

I want to end by saying that in discerning where God is leading, churches must remember that they are loved by God. I’ll say more about this in the last installment of this series on closing a church but this needs emphasized here… God loves these churches as much as he loves the large and vibrant churches.

Closing A Church: A Question of Discernment

The first post in this series on the possibility of closing churches began by framing the issue as a necessary conversation that some churches must face. I now want to dig deeper into the particular question that small declining churches must wrestle with. It’s what we might call the question of discernment and it has to do with participating in the mission of God rather than preserving the existing church.

Church ClosedOften, though not always the case, declining churches have suffered through some difficult conflict and lacking a purpose rooted in the mission of God. This creates an anxious culture where churches become inward focused. I have seen some churches dig their heels into traditionalism, while turning to self-pity and loathing the surrounding culture that they believe are simply unreachable with the gospel due to a perceived spiritual apathy. But the problem is not with the culture, it’s with the church. Other churches realize that something about them needs to change but their anxiety results in becoming concerned only with self-preservation where they will desperately and quickly chase after any means that has the appearance of possibly revitalizing their church. The problem is that if this chase fails, which it does many times, it just creates more anxiety and the more anxiety, the more desperate and unhealthy the church becomes.

Neither traditionalism nor self-preservation are mission-focused and therefore do not lead to renewal of a church. What the declining church must ask is God leading each one of us to participate in his mission? While asking this question of discernment, the church must remain open to wherever that leads? As the church discerns, the church may discover a renewed calling to serve together based on the way that God has gifted the various members. If so, and the church is willing to pursue this calling by faith no matter what changes it requires then the church will likely find renewal and have a future together. Yet it may be that God is calling the church to scatter so that the different members can serve in new ways that are not possible without closing first. In other words, God may be pruning the tree by closing the church so that greater fruit will come forth. But either way, a declining church will only discover the will of God by discerning how God is leading everyone to participate in his mission.

The Columbia Church of Christ nearly a year discerning together this question of how God was leading each other to participate in his mission. Ultimately, through discernment it became evident that God was saying it was time to close. There were several factors behind this:

  1. The remaining twenty-five members that made up the Columbia Church of Christ lived in five different counties (all in Maryland) throughout the Baltimore/D.C. Metropolitan area. It is difficult to serve on mission with God through a particular church that meets in a different town than the many of the members live in.
  2. There were some differences in understanding of direction for the church and what that would involve should the church have continued. This is not to say that anyone was wrong but it is an issue that cannot be ignored because for everyone to continue, a unified vision is necessary.
  3. The Columbia Church of Christ leased the space we met in on Sundays but our lease was up and since we could not commit to another long term lease, that lease was given to another young church. We did look at a couple of other options but for several reasons, neither of these options panned out.

I share these three factors to say that as church’s discern together, there will be signs that suggest where God might be leading.

In the next post I will discuss the discernment process in more detail and how churches can engage that process in a healthy manner. What I want to emphasize with this post is that the issue for discernment is how God is leading everyone in the church to participate in his mission. Churches who double-down on traditionalism or self-preservation will never discern this question because they are attempting to decide for God how he should work among them. But if Churches will open themselves to the mission of God… it may not lead them where they initially would like to be led but it will lead them in the way of Jesus.

Baltimore and Community Reconciliation

IMG_0735Yesterday I joined Lawrence Rodgers, Winston Curry, and Jo El Berean along with several other people from the Westside Church of Christ and we went into Baltimore. There we stood among a group of peaceful protesters just to listen and observe. We wound up talking with a couple of people, just asking them questions… to listen, learn, and pray. Here are several thoughts that I would like to share…

  • I want to remind people that you will never truly understand an issue from afar or only by what you hear on news media outlets like CNN, FOX, and MSNBC. If you want to know and understand an issue, you must be willing to walk among the people on the ground level and listen in order to understand. The news media is only interested in the narrative which they want to frame the happenings within.
  • Violence will never resolve anything. Those who turn to rioting and looting businesses in response to injustice only create more injustice. As for the city of Baltimore and the State of Maryland, a strong show of police force dressed in full military gear with assault rifles and batons might neutralize those who violently riot and loot but such force will never resolve the deeper issues that have led to the unrest.
  • The only way towards community reconciliation begins with humility on the part of everyone. Then perhaps people can gather together in order to listen to one another, forgive each other and repent of wrong doing as necessary, and turn the page with a new commitment of extending charity to each other as neighbors rather than enemies.
  • The present issues facing Baltimore are issues that effect everyone, from Maine to California, from the big city to the small town, in one way or another. Repeating the same old sound-bites, platitudes, and generalized assumptions about people, whether those people happen to be Blacks, the police, etc…, only exasperates the issue and creates further polarization. This happens too often in various social-media outlets. We all have some repentance to do!
  • Lastly, I am unapologetically a Christian… a firm believer in Jesus and strive to follow him. That also means that I believe true reconciliation comes only from what God has accomplished in Jesus Christ. On the cross, Jesus shows us that we all are guilty in some way and yet it is from that cross that he offers us the promise of forgiveness and reconciliation. So as we receive that grace so must we extend that grace by loving others, even our enemies, because we know that even as we were enemies with God, we were loved by God who has reconciled us (cf. Romans 5:10). All that to say that if we want love and peace, maybe it is time that we stop trying to seek that on our own terms and instead receive as God offers it to us in Jesus so that we can share with our neighbors. Wouldn’t that make for a better society?

I originally shared the above on Facebook and share them now on the blog because I believe it is important for people know there is a way toward resolving difficult issues that goes beyond the typical tiresome politics. May it be so in Baltimore as well as every other city and countryside where poverty and injustice seem to prevail!

Closing A Church: A Necessary Conversation

Earlier this month I wrote an article titled Disband with Dignity regarding the closure of the Columbia Church of Christ, whom I served with as the minister. Now that the article is out, I want to blog some more about the subject of deciding to close a church. With the reality that Churches of Christ are declining, there will be other congregations facing this issue. In fact, I have already talked with six other ministers wondering if it is time for the congregation they serve to close.

Church ClosedI want to say upfront this is a discernment issue. No matter the circumstances, churches are called to discernment… discerning the where and how of God’s work among the church. That is, the leaders along with the rest of the church must discern where God is leading their church as participants in the mission of God and how the church is called to serve as participants in the mission of God. This is true, I believe, just as much for a church that is outgrowing its current facility as it is for a small church struggling in decline.

Here is what is important: The question of discernment is about participating in the mission of God, not preserving the church. Having declined to about 25 members, this was the question the Columbia Church of Christ was asking and had to ask… “how is God leading each of us to participate in his mission?” This is not a question that any church should fear, no matter the outcome. God is still God and our salvation in Christ remains, no matter how and where such discernment leads.

Seeking to participate in the mission of God may lead to renewal of the current church or maybe God is leading that church to disband so that through the pruning and scattering, greater fruit is produced. Remember, in Acts 8:1, it must have seemed like a bad dream come true as the Jerusalem church was scattered abroad due to local persecution. However, one chapter later in Acts 9:31, we see that the church was now growing throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. Likewise, God may want to “close” a church so that the members are scattered where they may further participate in the spreading of the gospel (how that happens must be entrusted to God).

I will not say that every small church should consider closure as an option. There are some small churches with very vibrant gospel ministries. Yet there are some churches that are shrinking in number, are unsure of their identity (purpose and calling), have suffered from unhealthy conflict, and are living with other circumstances that call into question their long-term viability. In another post I will spend some time on what it might take for declining church to find renewal in the mission of God. But at the same time, for the churches that I am broadly describing in this paragraph, the discerning question of closure should also be considered and in another post I will share why.

For this introductory post on closing a church out, let me share with two book recommendations. The first book is Legacy Churches, written by Stephen Gray and Franklin Dumond. This book written from the perspective of mainline denominations, tells some of the practical issues that churches have to deal with in closing a church and how they can still leave a legacy in doing so. The second book is Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups, written by Ruth Haley Barton. This book will help either the leadership  or even the church as a whole learn how practice discernment together as a spiritual discipline that seeks the will of God.

Let me close by saying that helping close the Columbia Church of Christ has been a bittersweet experience. It is never something I dreamed of doing when I was called into ministry and preparing for ministry as a seminary student. Further more, it has been a very stressful season of life for me. I know it was for the church as well. Yet at the same time, it was a season of amazing community in which the Holy Spirit was powerfully at work. The church faithfully extended grace toward each other in the midst of a difficult season and drank deeply from the promise of hope that God has blessed us with in Christ. My hope now is that by extending this journey into a series of blog posts, it might help other churches faithfully face difficult times with grace and hope.

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

In various ways we can build walls that divide us from numerous other people. The result is a culture of us verses them, where this wrong is justified. What we are left with is an is what Miroslav Volf describes as a “glaring incongruity” where “in a world so manifestly drenched with evil everybody is innocent in their own eyes” (Exclusion and Embrace, p. 79).

Then comes along Jesus who calls us to follow him and as we do, challenges us to break down these hostile divisions. Here is a challenging story about Jesus found in Matthew 9:9-13:

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth. “Follow me,” he said to him. And he got up and followed him. As Jesus was having a meal in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with Jesus and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this he said, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. Go and learn what this saying means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Most Christians are familiar with this story and Jesus’ saying, “I want mercy and not sacrifice.” But I wonder… Have we really taken time to do just what Jesus says and “Go and learn what this saying means”?

Breaking Boundaries

Last summer after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by officer Darren Wilson, protests erupted across America. Regardless of what happened on August 9, 2014, the incident and the ensuing demonstrations showed that there was still much racial tension between Blacks and Whites. This had to do with the perceived feeling on the part of the Black community that they are still treated unfairly by Police and the White power establishment. Whether you agree with that assessment or not, there normally is always a certain amount of truth to perception. Nevertheless, the situation created a politically hostile climate and threatened to create an “Us vs. Them” world. If you were on the side of the Darren Wilson and Law Enforcement then it seemed that you were against the Blacks. On the other hand, if you were on the side of the Blacks then it seemed as though you were against the Police and White people.

Here in Columbia, people joined in these protests. I was one of them and I took my daughter along with me. We joined with some from our community to say that “Black Lives Matter!” Believe it or not, I was told by one White person that I was being racist because I stood there peacefully demonstrating with other Black and White people. My daughter and I stayed at the demonstration for about two hours, where I engaged in several good conversations with some Black people about issues pertaining to racism and discrimination in America. At the demonstration, there were several Howard County Police officers present in order to make sure the demonstrations remained peaceful and lawful. So as my daughter and I were leaving, I walked up to the police officers and thanked them for doing a very difficult and underpaid job.

Why go and demonstrate with a community of Black people? Why stop and thank the police for doing their job? Here is why. Because I will let my Black Neighbors and my neighbors who serve as police officers become my enemy and become the “them.” It has nothing to do with my opinion of what happened in Ferguson, Missouri and what has happened in other police shootings of Black men. It has everything to do with following Jesus and refusing to allow the barriers that society would like to build up define who I will fellowship with.

Following… Jesus or the Pharisees?

It seems that if we really are following Jesus, then we cannot just religiously talk about reconciliation. We must actually attempt to practice reconciliation which involves getting up and following Jesus into the homes where he eats with those people, the “tax-collectors and sinners,” who were excluded behind a barrier that his society had built. Jesus did this without ever endorsing or approving of any sin and so can we.

Our society is full of divisions where an “Us vs. Them” reality exists at some level… Blacks and Whites, Christians and Muslims, Liberals and Conservatives, etc… Too often we align ourselves with a version of “Us” and hedge the boundary lines. That’s not the way of Jesus. So what can we do?

  • Option #1: As followers of Jesus we can actually follow Jesus among “Them” in order to show mercy rather than sacrifice. Remember, that Jesus’ practice of mercy is done among the sinners. The Kingdom of God was a space that had room for everyone, not just the righteous.
  • Option #2: We can follow the Pharisees, justifying our exclusion of “Them” in order to maintain our own purified socio-religious and political enclave. Remember, the Pharisees read their Bible’s too and they had their reasons which sounded very biblical too (perhaps they even came replete with biblical proof-texts). Yet they were wrong!

When Jesus said, “I want mercy and not sacrifice,” he really meant it and it is important that we honor his desire. But to do that, maybe instead of becoming quick to defend our religious freedom so that a pizza parlor doesn’t have to cater a gay wedding, we should instead pause and discern what it means to show mercy rather than sacrifice. Or maybe, instead of becoming quick to defend our rights by joining in an online bullying campaign because some small town restaurant owner doesn’t share our same moral-political view, maybe we should learn what it means to show mercy rather than sacrifice.

After all, Jesus did also say “Go and learn what this saying means…”