Category Archives: Blog Posts

Confessions of a Church-Hopping Pastor (Brannon Hancock)

My family’s transition to Marion, Indiana last summer afforded me an unprecedented opportunity. You see, I’m a Nazarene pastor’s kid who’s married to a Wesleyan pastor’s kid, and because God apparently has a sense of humor, my three kids are all pastor’s kids too. But all of this means that I’ve never been able to participate in one of American Christianity’s favorite pastimes: church-hopping.

I love the church. I am both a teacher and a student of the church and her worship. Every time I visit a new church I learn something. So I relish every opportunity to experience the inside of a new church building, participate in a new worship service, sit under the preaching of a new pastor, and hopefully make some new friends. I’ve visited lots of churches throughout my life, but only occasionally – a Sunday here and a Sunday there – and I always had a home church to return to. So it was strange and exciting to wake up each Sunday morning this fall and say to my wife, “well…where should we go to church today?”

Some might call it “church-shopping.” I’d rather think of it as “visiting,” since we decided early on to settle in at the local Nazarene church (a predictable choice, I’m told) after we made the rounds. Besides, that’s what we usually call folks who show up at our churches for the first time: visitors. (Although “guests” seems to be trending now.) But I knew that once we got involved at a local church, our chances to visit other churches in the area would be limited, so we decided to just “visit around” for awhile.

From August to December, we worshipped in more than a dozen different churches ranging in size from 50 to 1200, representing several denominations (Wesleyan, Methodist and Nazarene), most of which we only visited the one time. In the process, here’s what I discovered:

1. First Impressions matter – Unless we vigilantly guard against it, it is easy for churches to begin to operate as if regular attenders are their only focus. Evidence of a church’s internal or external focus appears in everything from greeters to information centers to signage to building maintenance. For a visitor, it’s easy to sense when a church is clearly not prepared to receive guests. This can make an already-anxious and uncomfortable person feel even more out-of-place.

We have three young children, so kids check-in procedures were a big part of our visitor experiences. It was obvious that some of these had not been designed with first-time visitors in mind. In some cases, the greeters at the front doors didn’t know where to direct us, or the signage was poor or misleading. In all but a few cases, the whole process took entirely too long – in one case, we arrived 10 minutes early, but by the time we were seated in the sanctuary, we were 12 minutes late. And some of the largest churches we visited had the most glaring issues! (Some smaller churches didn’t have a check-in or security process whatsoever, which is another problem – whatever your size, please create some type of security procedure for dropping off and picking up kids.)

Think through your “hospitality process” (that’s what it should be) from the perspective of a first-time guest. Train your greeters with a laser focus on visitors. Make your kids check-in process as streamlined as possible. Your need to get a family’s information is not more important than their need to have a smooth and easy journey between their car and the sanctuary. Everything they experience prior to the worship service sends a message (Andy Stanley calls it “the message before the message”), and sometimes those messages can make it harder or even impossible to hear the Good News they came to hear.

2. Congregations matter – this one has to do with the whole culture of the church, so it can’t be easily addressed in a committee meeting; but in all our church-hopping, it was undeniable that the “vibe” we got from the congregation made a huge difference in our experience. Some congregations were enthusiastic in worship, while others seemed disengaged and half-hearted. Some congregations were friendly and welcoming (without being weird or “pouncing” on us) while others seemed oblivious to our presence. Some you could just tell were really authentic and passionate about their faith (and their church), while others kind of left you to wonder why they bothered showing up. Which would you guess made us think, these are people I want to be around?

One other thing: for us, overly homogenous churches were a turn-off. Yes, it’s important to be able to connect with people at church who are at a similar place in life, or share common interests, but I don’t want to go to church with a bunch of people who are just like me (what a terrifying thought!). We were blessed to visit a few generationally and/or racially diverse churches, although they were the exception. I understand that having a specific focus or “target” audience can be part of an outreach or church growth strategy, but diverse churches better reflect what I believe Heaven will be like. It’s neat to get a glimpse of that in the here-and-now.

3. Pastors matter – this one hurts, but I have to say it: in a few cases our experience was absolutely made or broken by the pastor. And not just by the quality of the preaching, although that was certainly in the mix. At one church, the lead pastor was standing at the door alongside the greeter; he welcomed us, led us back to the children’s area to check our kids in, and then back to the sanctuary. At another church, an associate pastor did the same thing. This speaks volumes to a first time guest about the values and priorities of the church. On the other hand, at one church, the senior pastor noticed us in the lobby after the service, but just walked right past us without so much as a smile. I understand how drained pastors can be after preaching multiple services, but Sunday morning is game time until you drive off the property. You may not be up for a lengthy conversation, but a brief introduction and “thanks for coming today” may be more than enough to make someone feel welcome.

Granted, we’re pretty “churchy” folks. Try as I might, it’s unrealistic to think I can truly experience church through the eyes of an unchurched person, so take all of this with a grain of salt. Now that I’ve shared three things I think really matter, let me mention two elements that struck me as being far less significant than I might have expected.

1. Buildings – we visited some fantastic, slick, shiny new buildings, and some little, cruddy, poorly maintained buildings. But I don’t think there was a single one that we wouldn’t have gone back to because of anything to do with the building, nor one that we would have returned to solely because the building was so cool. Spaces do matter; maintain your buildings; be clean, safe, and intentional in your environments. But it turns out the cliché is true: the church really isn’t the building, it’s the people!

2. Music / “Style” – we experienced congregational worship that ran the gamut from ancient hymns to the latest modern worship songs, accompanied by everything from large, professional-quality worship teams, to churches that sang along to CD tracks. My wife and I are musicians and worship leaders, so you’d think this would be a big deal to us. But it just wasn’t. Much more important was the energy of the congregation as they engaged in worship. Show me a congregation doing what they can do with all the excellence they can muster – who is “owning” their worship with authenticity and passion – and THAT’S something attractive to anyone, churched or unchurched.

Those involved in full-time ministry – like many of our Wesley Seminary students – aren’t given many chances to be a first-time visitor. I hope you can learn vicariously through my church-hopping experience. While it was enriching, I’m glad it’s over. My family and I are ready for the community, the relationships, the support and the opportunities to serve that accompany commitment to the local church.

In closing, let me encourage not just pastors but all Christians to take every opportunity you might have to experience church as a visitor. Maybe it’s venturing out when you’re away on vacation, or just making an intentional decision once or twice a year (any more than that and your pastor might get mad at me!) to visit another church in your city. If more pastors in the pulpits and parishioners in the pews knew what it feels like to be a visitor, and would be mindful of those who may darken our doors for the first time, I believe it would radically transform and revitalize our churches.

More Than Toys, by Luigi Peñaranda

I love Christmas music. I realize a lot of the popular songs that fall under the category of “Christmas music” have nothing to do with the nativity of Jesus, but I still like them. I like listening to “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” “Santa Claus is coming to town,” “Feliz Navidad,” and “Mi burrito Sabanero.” I particularly enjoy listening to the Christmas albums by Michael Bublé, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Josh Groban. A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of joining Dr. Graciela Boruszko and her husband Samuel for a night of Villancicos (Latin-American Christmas Carols) at an event organized by the Division of Modern Languages at Indiana Wesleyan University. I must admit, I did not know most of the songs and, similar to what I mentioned about the genre of Christmas music, many of them were bad examples of what Christmas really means. But I had a good time surrounded by colleagues and Spanish students.

There is nothing wrong with caroling, gift exchanges, and Christmas parties and holiday music. Jesus loved parties, gave gifts, sang songs, and celebrated the holidays of his day. However, it is important as ministers and church people to be reminded and to remind others that the story of Christmas in the Gospels is about something else.

I love the way the Gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus’ birth and infancy. The story interweaves narrative and poetry to paint a beautiful and perplexing picture of the event. Through canticles, the characters of the story communicate the significance of Jesus’ life as the fulfillment of God’s promises to the people of Israel. One of these canticles is the song of Simeon, commonly known as Nunc Dimittis from the Latin translation of Luke 2:29.

The text tells us that the Holy Spirit orchestrated the meeting between Simeon, a righteous and devout man, and the parents of Jesus, who came to the temple to fulfill their covenantal obligations. Simeon awaited the “consolation of Israel,” perhaps referring to the deliverance of Israel from its oppressors. Upon holding the baby, Simeon erupts in praise:

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32).

The old man can now rest in peace. He has seen salvation. He has seen light. He has seen glory. It sounds like a joyful Christmas song. The only problem is that, suddenly, the story turns somber. It’s as if the song modulated to a minor tonality (let the musicians understand). The proclamation of salvation, light, and glory cannot be divorced from the fact that Jesus will face opposition and those who love him most will encounter suffering.

“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35).

Jesus is announced as a sign that will be opposed, a child who makes some fall and others rise, a man who exposes the hidden, and a son who breaks his mother’s heart. This Christmas carol is not the typical feel-good kind of song. This canticle is unsettling.

Jesus is not an innocent baby perpetually stuck in a manger. His mission is not to give us the spirit of Christmas. He is not a dove that flies amidst battlegrounds so that enemy armies can cease fire for a day to eat ham and rolls. Jesus doesn’t drive a Coca Cola Christmas truck. He does not hand out free toys. His blessings are not discounted during the holiday season. Jesus is a king and his agenda is to introduce a new world order…the kingdom of God.

We must celebrate, not only the birth of the king, but the fullness of his life and his work. He was at work before the manger and he is certainly at work today. It is interesting that two of the Gospel writers did not include stories about the birth of Christ. In a sense, they too remind us to fix our eyes on Jesus himself, and not just on the events surrounding his birth.

Advent Reflections, by Safiyah Fosua

These familiar words signal the beginning of the Advent season. What started as a season of fasting and prayer and preparation has degenerated into a combination of a buying season and block party!  Originally it was not so. Advent’s history begins somewhere between 460 and 490 AD. It was one of two penitential seasons of the Church and lasted six weeks. The original date for the beginning of Advent was November 11. Over time, members of the church became weary of two seasons of fasting that were so close together and the season was shortened from six weeks to four. During the Medieval period, those four Sundays were used to remind the faithful of the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. How would you like to have hell as the preaching theme the Sunday before Christmas? The four last things of the medieval period have been replaced with different themes in the cycle of readings from the Revised Common Lectionary.

An Advent Lectionary Journey

The first Sunday of Advent traditionally deals with a sobering reminder that Christ will come again.  If you followed the lectionary for the First Sunday of Advent 2014, you reminded your congregation of a day coming when the sun will be darkened and the moon will refuse to give light (Mark 13:24-37).  Last year was the disturbing passage where two are grinding and one is taken (Matthew 24:36-44).  Next year, it will be another apocalyptic text. The idea is to startle us out of our complacency to remember that what we are doing now is not God’s ultimate plan. Jesus is coming again in power and authority.

The Second Sundays of Advent are a bit more familiar. John the Baptist appears as one of the familiar biblical characters that we have come to associate with Advent. Though John’s ministry was colorful the texts draw our attention to the ties between John and Isaiah’s voice in the wilderness.

By the Third Sunday of Advent, the biblical narratives draw us into the speculations and longing of those times. Could Jesus be the Messiah? The text used this year comes from John’s prologue and reminds us of John’s testimony of the One greater than John.

It is not until the Fourth Sunday of Advent that the texts even begin to speak of the birth of Christ. In our haste to finally get to the comforting memories of shepherds in bathrobes and cardboard angel wings, we often overshadow the dilemma of Mary and Joseph. Mary, probably a teenager, and Joseph, an honorable man, both had their lives interrupted by an untimely pregnancy from on high.


A Youth Group Revolutionary

If Mary had been a member of your church (excuse me, synagogue), she would likely have been a member of the youth group. Many critics place her in her teen years. It would not have seemed odd to Mary or those around her for her to be given in marriage in her mid-teens, after all, life expectancies were much shorter then. When I read Mary’s story, with not-so-distant memories of my last youth group, I continue to marvel at her maturity. Most of the youth I remember would have been overwhelmed by the sight of an angel and unable to hear the rest of what God had to say. To be able to hear and respond was a sign of great maturity. But I am more taken by her song of praise:

(Luke 1:46-55) And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”  (NRSV)

Mary’s prophetic song of praise speaks of how God will

  • Scatter the proud (verse 51)
  • Bring down the powerful, while lifting up the lowly (verse 52) – a clear allusion to Romans and Jews
  • Not only fill the hungry with good things, but also send the rich away empty (verse 53)!


Her words preview and forecast the words of her son about the topsy-turvy nature of the Kingdom of God where the first are last and the last are first (Luke 13:30).

What a bold song for someone of Mary’s background and status. Mary was a youth, living in a country under Roman occupation. From all appearances, she was from a working-class or poor family. Added to this, Mary was born female in a time when women were not taken seriously or often offered an education.


O Come, O Come Emmanuel

All of us mourn in lonely exile here* waiting for the Second Coming of the Son of God. This Advent, I am called to cry myself to sleep singing Mary’s song in response to the evening news. I see far too many similarities with Mary’s sitz im leben (setting in life) to ignore her song as a theological source for the Integration Paper of my life. When I look at poor and marginalized peoples of our community, I see that this Advent, in reality, is a crying season, not a buying season. The specters of poverty, race, immigration, politics, and hatred loom larger than life over our all our heads. They are old, moss-backed demons who will not evaporate with a simplistic “try Jesus,” they are the hard things of which Jesus spoke that only respond to fasting and prayer. We see the spirit of Mary’s song embodied in the peaceful demonstrations of youth and young adults of every hue who are gathered in the streets to remind us that life matters and no life should be thoughtlessly taken away.

This Advent, more than ever, we are called to ready ourselves for the Second Coming of Christ, who has left us here to be a force for good while we are waiting. Mary sang her song, and then she rolled up her sleeves and yielded what God needed of her. She did not indulge in the luxury of empty, idealistic prattle, she suffered as a result of this yielding. She suffered, and her Son, whom we celebrate this season, also suffered. Had the Romans heard (and understood) Mary’s song, she and her family could have been jailed or executed, yet she sang a song in present tense that spoke of what God would do in the future. May God give each of us the grace to see things present through the eyes of the Second Coming as we work and sing together.


*Mourn in lonely exile here, is an echo of Thomas Helmore’s (1854) English translation of the 12th Century Latin hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

The Church – Hospice or Health? (Wayne Schmidt)

Over the past several months Wesley Seminary has been in the “pilot phase” of a new certificate in Church Revitalization.  Helping existing churches achieve greater health and missional vitality has been ranked as a high-priority means of “signature service” to the Church.

It’s been a privilege during this developmental phase to talk with pastors, lay leaders, district and denominational officials as well as researchers.  Most of these individuals recognize that permeating North America with the good news of Jesus Christ will involve both the multiplication of new churches and sites as well as the revitalization of existing churches.

Some denominations have initiated ways for churches to assess their vitality and create pathways of greater health.  One example is The Evangelical Covenant Church, which has a “Congregational Vitality” department devoted to this endeavor (  They recognize that churches come in all sizes, ethnicities, locations and styles, but have identified four types of established churches:

  • The Healthy Missional Church
  • The Stable Church
  • The Critical Moment Church
  • The At Risk Church

The level of vitality in a church deeply impacts what you see, feel and hear as you experience the life of that congregation.

In developing a four-course certificate, Wesley Seminary sought to connect key learning outcomes with necessary skills and resources.   Dr. Charles Arn has given a lifetime of energy to helping churches more fully serve and reach their communities, and has taken the lead in the certificate’s development.

  1. How might a church diagnose its level of health?
    The course “Diagnosis & Prescription for a Healthy Church” provides an overview of the research behind and varieties of health assessments available to local church leaders.
  1. How does a church resolve conflict?
    Unresolved conflicts and unhealthy power dynamics in a Church can create dysfunction and disease within it. The course “Power, Change & Conflict Management” helps church leaders understand the processes of change and harness them to create strength in the Church.
  1. How can a church more fully connect with its community?
    Unhealthy churches are often “closed systems” – they may perceive themselves as friendly, but have patterns of interaction that exclude rather than include new people, whether they are first-time guests or potential leaders.  The course “Newcomer Integration” explores barriers to openness and ways to increase connectivity.
  1. How might an “outside perspective” benefit a church?
    The course most recently developed in the certificate is designed as a “field study” – a student participates in a church consultation process that moves through steps which include assessment, prescription, commitment and coaching.  They learn as the consultation team interacts with local church ministry leaders to gain a sense of the congregation’s self-perception.

During the pilot phase our students were privileged to interact with multiple consultants – although all have similarities in terms of the steps of the process, their style can vary greatly in terms of directness, urgency and follow up.  Some styles are more similar to an “intervention” and that may be exactly what is needed if the denial is deep and the window of opportunity to act is closing.  Other styles are more “incremental” – where greater health and fuller self-awareness provide strengths that can be built upon over many months.

As 2015 begins we go from “pilot to public” with the Certificate in Church Revitalization.  We’re grateful that it is not only offered to Wesley Seminary students as a specialization within their degree program, but to those who are not students of Wesley Seminary seeking an accredited certificate to strengthen their capacity to invest in the future of the existing church.

The Integration Paper

Although improvements to our Seminary curriculum have inevitably resulted in some shuffling, Week 14 of each semester has often been the week where MDIV students take all the research they have done throughout the semester and written a position paper on a pastoral issue, bringing Bible, theology, and church history to bear on the topic.

The task of speaking to the issues of our contexts is both amazingly simple and immensely complex. For the prophet, it is amazingly simple. God gives you a word and you share it. Amos had no theological education. He was a businessman doing some business when he got the word from God. Oh that it was always that simple!

Many more of us are not prophets. We just think we are. We stand up in the pulpit or on Facebook and present our words from the Lord. But all we need to is bring in a sociologist or historian to show that many of us are just riding the waves of our subcultures. What we say can be almost predictable, like we were a lab rat in the experiment of history.

The skill of the Integration Paper is to develop the ability to listen to God even when it doesn’t fit with my preconceived notions about what the Bible means or about what common sense is. Here, the Bible does not always give us a straight line to the answers. Often the books of the Bible weren’t even asking the same questions to which we want answers. If the Holy Spirit does not zap us with a word, listening to the Bible often means that we are getting an indirect word, rather than a straightforward one.

Theology and Christian history are full of help, as Christians both smarter and more spiritual than me have already wrestled with similar problems to mine. When the questions are almost entirely new because of scientific developments–stem cell research, keeping alive individuals with a flat EEG, sex changes–we dare not simply ask these questions alone. The community of faith–the bigger the better–is the surest way to hear God in uncharted waters.

While the Wesleyan Quadrilateral does not come from Wesley, and while Wesley clearly gave Scripture the upper hand in all respects, God speaks to us through all of these avenues. Scripture is the starting point–how did God reveal himself to the people of God in its founding moments, especially through Christ, the pure Word of God, God become flesh? God has unfolded both the significance of Christ and the seminal revelations of the word throughout Christian history. We can learn much about how to apply Scripture through Christian tradition.

We all inevitably filter the Bible–and everything–through reason and experience. We have to think to interpret the Bible. We filter our reading through our experiences. We may as well own up to this fact. The experience that counts the most is the experience of the community of faith, experiences of the Holy Spirit. There are rules to reason, truths that God has implanted in the universe. The heavens declare the glory of God.

You don’t have to know how the car works to drive it. The rule of faith and the law of love give us stars to steer by. Is my choice loving? A pastor should be the local expert on how the car runs, but the Spirit is a good driver whether we have it all right or not. Most of all, we don’t want to be a back seat driver when the Spirit is doing just fine.

How to Improve Your Welcome (Charles Arn)

Some time ago my family and I moved to a new house and neighborhood, and in the process visited a number of churches in search of a new place to worship. The experience reminded me of how other newcomers must feel in visiting a church for the first time. New faces…new places …new spaces. The truth is, it’s not a particularly enjoyable experience!

Here are a few simple ways you can increase the warmth of your church’s welcome; and, as a result, increase the number of first-time visitors who return…and stay.

For Starters…

  • Don’t call them “visitors.” According to Webster, a visitor is “…a person who resides temporarily; one who goes or comes to inspect; one who makes a short stay at a place for a particular purpose.” May I suggest you instead use the word guest, defined as: “a person welcomed into one’s house; a person to whom hospitality is extended; a person held in honor who is due special courtesies.”
  • Stop using the word “greeter” defined as “one who meets or extends welcome in a specified manner; one who gives a formal salutation at a meeting.”  Start using the word host—“one who receives or entertains socially; one who opens his or her home for a special event; one who takes particular care and concern that guests are well accommodated.” And discuss with your “hosts” the new implications of their new title.

First Impressions…

  • Parking Lot Hosts. Deploy a team of your members to greet and welcome folks the moment they step out of their cars. Or, if it’s raining, parking lot hosts should have umbrellas ready before guests step out of their cars! These hosts can greet everyone coming to church, but should pay particular attention to the guest parking area or to newcomers. A warm welcome should be extended and an inquiry made as to special needs or questions guests may have. Parking lot hosts may accompany guests into the building and introduce them to the host at the welcome center. (You do have a welcome center, don’t you?)
  • Celebration Balloons. It’s common to see strings of helium-filled balloons attracting your attention to RV sales and used car lots around town. Does your church have something to celebrate? Why not get folks into the mood with columns of colorful balloons reaching heavenward? How about a great arch of balloons leading into the building? “…it is appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for this, your brother, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found.” (Lk 15:32) Sunday should be celebration time!
  • Piped-out Music. Install a number of strategically placed outdoor speakers welcoming people to God’s house with the music of heaven. If you have a recording of your own worship band or musical group, use it. Otherwise, there’s lots of great Christian music available.

Second Impressions…

  • Direction signs. You can’t have too many signs on the church property. If your campus has more than one building, the name of each should be clearly visible. Direction signs should be at every major “intersection,” in and outside the church. Identification signs should be on every inside door (including closets and storage). Children’s classrooms should be marked with age/grade level. Adult classrooms should note the topic, age group, and time of meeting. (BTW, class names exclude, class topics include.) Restrooms, nursery, chapel, fellowship hall, library, and worship center should all be identified with conforming and attractive signs.
  • Welcome Center Support Hosts. Many churches have a person or two working inside a welcome center kiosk or at a welcome table. That’s good. But move from a good welcome to a great welcome by also stationing hosts in front of the kiosk/table where guests will be standing. Those hosts answering questions at the Welcome Center may call on support hosts to escort guests to a particular location in the church (i.e. nursery, classroom, sanctuary, etc.), or simply make a “social hand off” of the newcomer for a more casual conversation with a church member. Such hosts engage the guests in friendly conversation and may introduce them to others in the fellowship area.
  • Guest Information Packet. Every church should have an attractive packet prepared specifically for newcomers. The basic questions your guests are asking should be answered in this kit. They are: “What kind of things are going on in this church?” [The more the better.] “Is there a place for my kids?” [If not, nothing else matters.] “How can I learn more about this church?” [See “Church Tour” below.] One of the best ways to answer all these questions is with a video brochure. This is a well-produced 8-10 minute introduction to the church with words from the pastor, staff, and some new members. Put the video on a DVD in the packet, and include it on your website.  A gift for guests is also a nice touch. I’ve seen coffee mugs, fresh baked bread, complimentary Bibles and CDs, donuts and cappuccino at the snack bar, even free $30 polo shirts with a Christian symbol on the front. All are nice touches.
  • Class Hosts. Every adult, youth, and children’s class should have at least one host. Their task is to look for newcomers, welcome them, introduce them to others, sit with them, and generally be sensitive to their comfort and needs. Hosts may be the same throughout the year or vary from week to week.

In the Service…

  • Worship Center Hosts. Don’t stop being a good host at the Welcome Center. If your sanctuary/worship center is a bustle of activity before the service begins, why not ask some of your members to host a pre-determined area of seats? When newcomers sit in their area, a good worship center host will go over and welcome them to the church, and engage them in conversation. If there will be any special activities in the service which might need explanation, it’s a good chance to give a “heads up.”  Hosts should introduce the guests to the person(s) next to them. Perhaps even sit with them.
  • Pastor’s Welcome. During the service I like to hear someone from the platform tell me they’re glad I’m here. Not personally, of course. No newcomer likes to be singled out in public. But when the pastor spends valuable time in the service telling me that I’m valued by the church, it makes a big difference. And it’s more than just, “If you’re visiting today, welcome.” It means explaining a little about the church, what a wonderful place it is, how great the people are, and why the benefit of getting involved is worth the price of my anticipated anxiety.
  • A Time of Greeting. Many churches include a moment during the service to shake hands and greet those around them. This is either a good idea or a bad idea…and it depends on what happens after the service. It’s good if folks continue their initial conversation with the guest. It’s bad if they pretend nothing ever happened a half-hour earlier and beat a hasty path to the exit. If your people are naturally congenial with newcomers, then a greeting time in the service is great. If not, try the following idea…

After the Service…

  • After-service Hosts. Our research reveals three insights about church visitors:
  1. “Friendliness of the people” is the most important thing newcomers are looking for in their visit.
  2. “Friendliness” is assessed on the simple basis of how many people talk to them.
  3. The most important time for such “friendly talk” is immediately following the service.

After-service hosts are responsible for making a beeline to newcomers after the service to welcome them, walk with them to the coffee table, introduce them to others, and invite them back. A variation of this strategy, in one church we visited, was when the pastor reminded the congregation of their “three minute rule”—no one could talk to anyone they knew during the first three minutes following the service! It worked for us. We met a wonderful woman named “Rose” who had been attending for the past year. Our conversation lasted over 15 minutes! As you might guess, we looked for Rose the following Sunday when we returned.

  • Church Tour. Newcomers are hesitant to wander around a new church uninvited, even though they’d like to. So, why not offer a short tour of the facilities after each service? Such a tour is a low-commitment, limited-time, high-information event for anyone interested in learning more about your church. The tour leader guides the guests through various halls and rooms, explaining what activities take place there. It’s natural for guests to ask questions about various ministries or upcoming events. And it’s a much easier “next step” for newcomers who are interested in learning more, but not ready to sign up for a membership class.
  • Follow-up Contact. It’s standard procedure for pastors to send a “Thank you for visiting” letter. We received nice ones from every church we visited. But following our second visit to several of those churches …nothing. In the typical (non-growing) church, 9% of all first time visitors join the following year. But among second-time visitors (those who visit twice within a six-week period), 17% join. And third-time guests unite at a rate of 36% in the ensuing year. In growing churches, the pattern is similar: 21% of first-timers stay…38% of second-timers …57% of third-timers join the church they visited. Whether your church is growing or not, the insight is clear: the more often people visit, the more likely they will stay. Have a unique follow-up strategy for second time guests and another for third-timers.


Your church probably can’t implement all of these ideas. Nor should you try. But circulate this list among your leaders and see if they resonate to any of them. Get a group together and brainstorm how some of the ideas might work in your church. Set a target date to have the plan in place. Then begin.

After you’ve successfully implemented one idea, find another and consider how it might work. While more than just an outside music speaker or an inside classroom host is needed to see newcomers become active members, such new ideas will raise the awareness level of your members to the importance of welcoming guests and making them feel comfortable in your church home. The newcomers who enter your front doors are the ones Christ wants you to welcome in the same way He would do so, Himself. After all, we are the caretakers of His house…at least until that day when He invites us to His eternal home.  And then we’ll find out what a good first-time welcome is really like!   :)

Cultural Brokers: Prerequisites for Cross Cultural Ministry (Dr. Kwasi Kena)

In 1995, my wife and I spent five months in missionary training prior to our departure to Ghana, West Africa, where we served as overseas missionaries four years. During our training, we took a missiology course at a local seminary, underwent group counseling to discover our strengths and weaknesses related to inter-cultural encounters, and participated in weekly lectures and discussions with educators and missionaries about ways to effectively engage people from other cultures. Of all the information presented, a single term remains embedded in my mind as most helpful—the cultural broker.

Various disciplines recognize the value of cultural brokers “anthropology and ethnohistory, health education…education, [and] business” (Michiel, 2003).  The term’s origin dates back to the mid-1900s in the field of anthropology (Michiel, 2003). The cultural broker functions as a go between or an intermediary. In his article, The role of culture brokers in intercultural science education: A research proposal, Michael Michiel quotes the much used definition of cultural brokering by Jezewski who describes it as “the act of bridging, linking, or mediating between groups or persons of different cultural backgrounds for the purpose of reducing conflict or producing change” (Michiel, 2003.) In short, the cultural broker helps interpret, advocate, and inter-cultural relationships.

Experience the Benefit of Cultural Brokers
While in missionary training, we served in an all Ghanaian congregation. The pastor and many of the parishioners functioned as cultural brokers to us. Through our conversations with them we learned customary greetings, which were essential first steps in forging relationships. The right hand was your “clean” hand, your left had was your “unclean” hand. Always greet from right to left in a room to honor the ancient tradition that reveals an empty hand (with no weapon or anything to bring harm) to the person being greeted. Always offer water and a seat to guests—after all we would be serving in the tropics where a glass of water is deeply appreciated. Elders, even a person one day older than you, deserves the utmost respect. On and on our conversations went; each one revealing new insights into the culture that prepared us for our initial interactions overseas.

Two Cultural Brokers Needed
From my initial missionary training, I long believed that finding the right cultural broker from the target culture was one the most important steps one could take in preparation for cross cultural ministry. After all, the cultural broker helps you preview the culture before your initial encounter. The information obtained becomes part of your “starter kit” to enable you, hopefully, to avoid committing a cultural faux pas from which it would be difficult if not impossible to recover. In retrospect, finding a cultural broker is only half of the process needed. You also must be willing to become a cultural broker.

As a missionary, I was thrust into the role of perpetual learner. I was the outsider. I needed to bear the burden of cultural adjustment. I was a visitor in a different culture.

In cross cultural ministry in which a church is trying to reach another ethnic or cultural group in a surrounding neighborhood, the host church must be willing to enter into the process of cultural adjustment. For example, if a primarily Anglo congregation desires to reach a specific Native American ethnic group, it must do more than find a Native American cultural broker. The Anglo congregation must be willing to do its homework and learn about the “specific” Native American ethnic group it is trying to reach. Read literature, view films authored by that ethnic group to gain perspective about the ways they see the world, what is valued, and what is important. Attend cultural gatherings and learn from them. Become an empathetic observer who comes to learn first.

Crossing cultures involves crossing borders. Borders are often erected by the dominant culture to protect and preserve its cultural norms and belief systems. For example, the ethos of some congregations is largely shaped by its identification with national culture. Such a church may celebrate a host of national holidays in worship such as Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and the Fourth of July. Without realizing it such a congregation may be equating nationalism with Christianity. In such an environment, what type of “brokering” might be necessary if that congregation were trying to interact with a Native American ethnic group that has a long history of abuse and mistreatment from national, governmental entities? What if the veneration of one set of ideals stirs thoughts of unresolved hurts and estrangement in another group? This is where the pastor and others from the congregation must be willing to assume the role of cultural broker and guide conversations and honest dialogue about the values that both the congregation and the target audience believe are the Christian values that they agree should be promoted in the church

Failure to engage in these types of conversations creates an environment in which persons outside the predominant culture in the church are expected to assimilate to the status quo. In such situations, the burden of cultural adjustment falls squarely on the outsider.

The Value of Curiosity
Cultural brokers are curious and open to learning about their own culture (including the ways it is perceived by others) and about the cultures of others. With this curiosity comes a genuine respect and belief that all cultures have intrinsic worth and value. Cultural brokers are often people who have spent significant time in multiple cultures to the extent that they have become “culturally bi-lingual” and are able to see issues from multiple perspectives. Last, cultural brokers understand the complexities of inter-cultural relations and are able to negotiate between two parties because of the cultural broker’s trustworthiness.

We find a biblical parallel to the contemporary cultural broker in the life of the apostle Paul. Because of Paul’s cosmopolitan pedigree, he was fit to become an apostle to the Gentiles. He refers to himself in Ephesians like this, “I, Paul, am a prisoner of Christ for you Gentiles” (Ephesians 3:1, CEB). Paul, was a “Pharisee among Pharisees” and a Roman citizen. He was steeped in Jewish culture, yet he knew Greek culture well enough to be able to converse with people on Mars hill about the tomb to an Unknown God (Acts 17:16-34). Paul began his conversation with the Greeks by dialoguing with them using examples and insights from Greek culture. Later in the epistle to Galatians, Paul chastised Peter for siding with Judaizers who promoted Jewish cultural practices as prerequisites for initiation into Christianity (Galatians 2:11-16).

Cross cultural ministry is messy, challenging, rewarding, and more than possible through the efforts of people willing to function as cultural brokers. The presence of cultural brokers signals a genuine willingness to create a church ethos large enough for different cultures to abide in.

Michiel, M. (2003). White paper presentation. The role of cultural brokers in intercultural science education: A research proposal.

Jezewski, M.A. (1995). Evolution of a grounded theory: Conflict resolution through culture brokering. Advances in Nursing Science, 17(3), 14-30.

Lessons From a Pile of Rocks

There was a huge rock across the street from my grandmother Wilson’s front yard. As kids the cousins would gather at the rock to play, dream, and conquer. Climbing on top of the rock was a challenge but finding new stories to make up about the rock was an even bigger challenge. That rock was our space ship, home base, bank, and haunted house. Whenever the cousins get together today we inevitably talk about “the rock” and laugh at how small the rock became over the years!

For kids rocks are great to climb and spur the imagination and stones are fun to collect and classify, but as adults we don’t typically have a whole lot of use for them other than decorative or to keep unwanted guests out.

Joshua 4 gives a great illustration to the value in a pile of rocks and provides a wonderful story of faithfulness, obedience, crossing, and celebration! Building memorials out of stones and the value to congregational spiritual formation.

When all the people had crossed the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, “Now choose twelve men, one from each tribe. Tell them, ‘Take twelve stones from the very place where the priests are standing in the middle of the Jordan. Carry them out and pile them up at the place where you will camp tonight.’”
So Joshua called together the twelve men he had chosen—one from each of the tribes of Israel. He told them, “Go into the middle of the Jordan, in front of the Ark of the Lord your God. Each of you must pick up one stone and carry it out on your shoulder—twelve stones in all, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. We will use these stones to build a memorial. In the future your children will ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ Then you can tell them, ‘They remind us that the Jordan River stopped flowing when the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant went across.’ These stones will stand as a memorial among the people of Israel forever.” (Joshua 4:1-7, NLT)

God was faithful – the Israelites successfully crossed the Jordan!
The Israelites were obedient – they walked into the water, they crossed the Jordan, and they found themselves some stones! And the pile of rocks they left behind stood as a powerful reminder and lesson to those who followed.

Where in your community of faith are your stones? Where have you erected literally and figuratively memorials to what the Lord has done for you?

There have been some wonderful conversations in the past few years about the impact of milestone ministry – especially in child, youth, and family ministry. As a church community we establish milestones to celebrate moments in the development of our children and teens and these milestones become memorials…stones erected in the middle of the Jordan that help children and teens and families to remember what the Lord has done for them! Spiritual milestones such as baby dedications, first communion, salvations, baptisms, and commissioning for service; and Personal milestones such as kindergarten graduation, junior high entrance, getting a driver’s license, high school graduation, etc. are valuable! They are important to the individual, to the family, and to the community of faith. They offer an opportunity to partner with families and to equip families to have spiritual conversations in the home.

BUT it is also important to establish memorials as a community of faith. What are the milestones as a church you have experienced? What are the victories you have received? What are the memories that are critical to pass on to your children so that they can know of the great things the Lord has done in the past and be assured of the great things He still does and will do?

The ancient Israelites were encouraged to build memorials of stones to serve as reminders of God’s faithfulness so that when people passed by they would ask: What do these stones mean?” A pile of stones to signify a story of praise. In past centuries churches were filled with stained glass windows depicting biblical stories of victory that were reminders of the narrative of God’s work across the ages. In the past century churches contained precious pieces of furniture in honor and memory of a life well lived and images and artwork that spoke of God’s goodness and greatness in the lives of the people who were a part of that community of faith. Some churches used to have walls of remembrance that gave a pictorial reminder of the church’s God-directed journey. Each of these offered an opportunity for a conversation- a trigger to share the story of God’s faithfulness. They were stones from the Jordan in the dessert.

What kinds of stone memorials does your community of faith have? What visual reminders of God’s faithfulness that can serve as triggers for conversations so that when the children ask, “what are these for” you can tell them?

Milestones in the life of children, youth, and families are wonderful opportunities to celebrate and make a memory impression; and we need to establish them, partner with families, and celebrate them together.

But what are the reasons you have to stack some stones? What are the things the Lord has done for your community of faith? How has He blessed your church? What stories from the past need to be celebrated and remembered and carried into the present and into the future?

Identify them – celebrate them – and stack some stones!

Dr. Colleen Derr is Associate Professor of Congregational Spiritual Formation and Christian Ministries at Wesley Seminary at IWU.

Monasticism for Ministers: You Can Learn a lot from a Monk

30 Wesley Seminary students joined me recently for a course I designed called Spiritual Retreat for the Leader. The location for the course was a monastery in Kentucky. Shortly after my return I tweeted, “If I didn’t love my family, job, and ESPN so much, I would join a monastery and become a monk.” I think I actually meant it.

The monastic life is appealing to me. I have taken several 3-4 day retreats at the monastery over the past 8 years. I miss my family so much it hurts every time I retreat. There is, though, a small part of me that wants to stay behind at the monastery forever. But God has not called me to be a monk. I am compelled, instead, to incorporate into my everyday “normal” life those monastic practices that most cultivate the soil of my soul for God, the gardener, to grow me.

Here are some ways for ministers to infuse our lives with monastic practices without leaving our lives to do so.

-Monastic Practice #1- Silence: We preach sermons, teach lessons, lead meetings, counsel couples, make small talk and return phone calls. At some point, most of us run out of words. Those who don’t, should. The practice of silence allows us to peek more intently into the holy of holies. When we shut up, we can hear God speak up. Then, and only then, will we have something life-giving to say. Perhaps you can designate one day weekly or monthly to shut off the noise that goes into your ears or comes out of your mouth. No music. No words. No noise. Only silence. When we shut up, we can hear God when he speaks up. That’s when we are most ready to receive a “word from the Lord.”

-Monastic Practice #2- Solitude: The 21st Century pastor is hardly ever alone. Solitude is hard for us. It brings us face to face with our true self, since there is no one around to distract us. There is no hiding from God or ourselves when we are alone. We remember our failures and frailty, as well as our potential, when we are alone. Being silent and still in solitude strips us down to our core where we find our true naked self. This is often a painful but peace-filled balm for the minister’s soul. In solitude there is no one to please or impress. It’s just you and God. Solitude is not a license for isolation. No, learning to be alone actually prepares one to maximize life together in community.

-Monastic Practice #3- Supplication: Monks gather together to pray nine times daily, including 3:15 am and 5:45 am. They gather to sing the Psalms as prayers to God. In the span of just two weeks, they will prayerfully sing all 150 Psalms! Most of us can’t imagine praying the Psalms nine times each day, but how about three times? I read a Psalm when I awake, at noon, and just before I sleep. I prayerfully intercede for myself and others based upon the content of each Psalm. The Psalms have a way of voicing for me what I feel deep in my soul but can’t find words to articulate. The prayers we find in the Psalms encompass a full range of emotions. There are angry prayers, sorry prayers, “help me” prayers, grateful prayers and more. It’s harder to find time to sin when you’re praying the Psalms frequently.

-Monastic Practice #4- Submission: We’ve all heard the phrase, and most of us have said, “It’s not about me.” Monks actually live it. They have to. Although monks have space for silence and solitude, they are forced to live in a 24/7 community with people they would not choose if they had the choice. The monks work, worship, and eat together every single day. There is no escape from people who frustrate them. Intense interconnectedness is much harder, but more sanctifying, than isolation. When a person joins the monastic community, he must submit to the monastic community. He must also submit his life to the Abbot, the head of the community. We have lost a healthy view of submission and authority in the 21st century American Church. Our country was built on rugged individualism and anti-authoritarianism. That was necessary in tyrannical times. But there is something soul-sanctifying about submitting ourselves to a community we have chosen and to the leaders within that community.

-Monastic Practice #5- Simplicity: Monks don’t worry about “keeping up with the Joneses.” The one with the most toys might be the winner in pop culture but is the loser in the monastery. The monk leaves every possession behind when he joins the monastic community. While there, nothing he possesses is his own. He owns nothing, so that God can own him. The monk doesn’t have to worry about stuff, preserving and protecting it. The good life is the simple one, and the monk knows it. Possessing and being possessed by God’s love liberates us from wanting anything else. Imagine what would happen if the Church and her ministers were free from bondage to opulence and content with the basic necessities of life! We could focus less time, money and energy on things that don’t last and more on things that do.

Worshipping God, or Ourselves?; or, Why Tradition Keeps Us Faithful (Brannon Hancock)

For 7 years prior to joining the faculty of Wesley Seminary, I gave oversight to music and technology in a church whose worship “style” is decisively “contemporary.” Congregational singing is accompanied by a guitar-driven “praise band” (drums, bass, guitars, piano/keyboard) and augmented by a choir and praise team (3-4 vocalists on individual mics; 25-30 in the choir). At the front of the sanctuary hang two large screens onto which are projected lyrics, scripture readings, videos (for announcements and illustrations), images and graphics intended to reinforce the sermon theme or other elements of the service. The majority of the congregational songs have been published within the past decade, and we add new songs regularly (about one per month).

Although many in the congregation may not realize it, our services also incorporated many aspects of traditional or historic Christian worship. As a staff, we identified some “essential elements” of worship that we felt were important enough that they should be included in every service: call to worship, welcome (including a few key announcements) and invocation, passing the peace (“take a minute to greet one another”), congregational singing (the so-called “worship set”), the sermon (including scripture reading) leading into a time of response that includes prayer a communion (every week), the benediction and dismissal. We would “mix up” the order from time to time, purportedly to keep things from feeling “stale” or becoming too rote and “ritualistic” (a big “no-no” in contemporary churches, of course), but the basic elements outlined in Acts 2 were always present: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer.

I love this church. As their worship pastor, I felt very fulfilled nearly all of the time in the ministry to which God had called me for that time and place. It was a joy to lead my congregation and work with the musicians, technicians and other creative folks that were entrusted to my leadership. And yet if I’m honest, I would confess that I was often left with a nagging feeling that something was not quite right.

It’s not that the service wasn’t good enough – we usually hit pretty close to the mark we set for ourselves. To the contrary, it’s almost like, by putting on such a great show, by “performing” so well, perhaps we implied that maybe, when we were really “on,” we did get it right. Like we may well have worshiped our great God with every bit of the quality and passion and fervor He deserves (why thank you very much). Like…you know…God’s pretty awesome, and, well, frankly, we’re pretty awesome at worshiping Him. Like maybe the focus was more on ourselves – our skill, ingenuity, creativity – than on our Creator…

The responsibility to plan worship every week can be overwhelming – to choose every word that a congregation will corporately say or sing in the service. Of course many churches don’t create or write their service each week – they have a fairly scripted service or “liturgy.” While there are variations in hymns and readings and prayers, these churches are not required to create their worship from scratch every week. Their worship has been handed down through generations; it is a gift, not something they are entirely in charge of but something of which they are “stewards.”

Perhaps by the very use of liturgical texts in worship, the Church acknowledges her inability or even incompetence to worship God rightly if left to her own devices. In his monumental book Symbol and Sacrament, Catholic theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet writes:

The fact that there is a [liturgical] text signifies that at the outset we are not competent to carry out such an action. In sum, it is not natural for us to render thanks to God in a Christian manner. To carry out the Eucharist requires that the Church first gain this competence. It is precisely the text that allows the ecclesial subject to gain this competence. This text thus makes the assembly follow an itinerary which, by means of certain “transformations,” has for its goal the assembly’s conversion: it is not God but we ourselves who are changed by the Eucharistic prayer. (Symbol and Sacrament, p. 269)

It might take reading that quote a few times before its truth begins to detonate. It leaves me wondering: is it possible that we think we don’t need a liturgy because we have so much confidence in ourselves? Do we fall into the trap of thinking we are capable of worshiping God rightly on our own?

Now, before you write me off for pronouncing that all evangelicals need a prescribed liturgy, let me clarify. I am well aware that scripted liturgies seem foreign to many Protestant evangelical traditions today (my own Church of the Nazarene included). But worship “by the book” is certainly a part of the Protestant heritage of Luther, Calvin and Wesley. Perhaps this is part of our birthright that could be reclaimed and repurposed for the renewal of worship today. In fact, take a look at most old hymnals (before we started singing “off the wall” with projectors and screens) and often you will find creeds, prayers and responsive readings in addition to hymns. With the shift in technologies, from book to screen, perhaps something that was once considered valuable has been lost.

Perhaps, without thwarting our freedom of expression in worship, we could glimpse, not a “better” “style” of worship, but the witness of a people who looked beyond themselves for a test of what it means to worship God faithfully. A people who believed that forms and rituals they didn’t come up with on their own, and words that had stood the test of time, had a value worth preserving. I’m suggesting that looking beyond ourselves and the fleeting winds and whims of our culture may be one way to ensure that our worship is worthy of the awesome, timeless God we worship. Perhaps a little “tradition” may keep us not only faithful, but humble as well.