Category Archives: Blog Posts

Identifying the Obstacles to Church Growth (Charles Arn)

Healthy people grow. Healthy animals grow. Healthy trees grow. Healthy plants grow. Healthy churches grow. Growth is a characteristic that God supernaturally breathed into all living things. And the body of Christ—the local church—is a living thing.

So, when a church is not growing, it is helpful to ask: “Why?”  If we understand the reason for a church’s lack of growth, it is easier to accurately diagnose the cause and to prescribe the cure.  Here are the five most common “growth-restricting obstacles”…

Growth-restricting obstacle #1: The Pastor.

There are three different causes if the pastor is inhibiting the growth of a church:

1. The pastor does not have a PRIORITY. Churches grow when they have a priority for reaching the unchurched. When the pastor doesn’t, the church won’t. (See Luke 19:10)

2. The pastor does not have a VISION. Growing churches have pastors who believe God wants to reach people in their community and assimilate them into the Body. No vision for outreach is as much a barrier as no priority.  (See Acts 16:9)

3. The pastor does not have the KNOWLEDGE. Working harder is not the secret to effective outreach. The secret is working smarter. Unfortunately, little is taught in most seminaries or Bible schools about how to invest the limited resources of a church for the greatest return.  (See Mt. 25:14-30)

Growth-restricting obstacle #2: The church members.

There are often competent and skilled clergy in non-growing churches, because the problem is not in the pulpit, it’s in the pews. Church members can keep a church from growing when:

Members have no priority for reaching the lost. “Sure, our church should reach people,” some say. “But me? I’ve got three kids, a job, membership at the health club, and a lawn to mow. Someone else with more time should feel compelled.”  (see II Pe. 3:9)

Members have a self-serving attitude about church. When members believe the priority of the pastor and the church should be to “feed the sheep” who are already in the flock, the message that newcomers hear is: “We like our church just the way it is…which is without you!”  (see Mt. 9:37)

Members fear that new people will destroy their fellowship. When “community” is the number one priority in a church, active membership will not grow beyond 100 people.  Beyond that point, members won’t know everyone…and, in their minds, that price of growth becomes greater than the benefit.  (II Cor. 4:5)

Growth-restricting obstacle #3: Perceived irrelevance.

Growing churches start with the issues and concerns of the people in their community, and then relate the gospel to those points of need. Stagnant churches are seen by the unchurched as having an irrelevant message.  (see Acts 2:6)

Growth-restricting obstacle #4: Using the wrong methods.

Any farmer knows you can’t harvest ripe wheat with a corn-picker. Using inappropriate methods can be worse than no methods, since they create resistance to the gospel. A bullhorn on a downtown street corner, English tracts in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood, youth outreach in a senior adult community…none of these methods are wrong. But they are inappropriate for the harvest field.  (see Mt. 7:9)

Growth-restricting obstacle #5: No plan for assimilation.

Over 80 percent of those who drop out of church do so in the first year of their membership. A new member does not automatically become an active member without an intentional plan by the church on how to assimilate them into a caring, loving, Christian community.  (see Eph. 2:19)

There are many reasons why churches don’t grow. But there are no good reasons. Healthy churches grow. God wants your church to grow. He created it to grow. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding out what’s keeping it from growing, and removing those obstacles. What about your church?

NOTE: For more on how to identify and smash obstacles to your church’s growth, see the new book WHAT EVERY PASTOR SHOULD KNOW—101 Rules for Effective Leadership and Ministry for Your Church  (Baker Publishing.)  And, watch for the new “Church Revitalization Certificate” available through Wesley Seminary in early 2015!

Cultural Anthropology: It’s Time to Dig In (Kwasi Kena)

One of the joys of traveling is discovering the prevailing cultural idioms used by people. In the United States we often use the term “dig in”. Like many cultural idioms, context determines meaning. Dig in could mean “to start eating food with enthusiasm”, or “pressing hard into something else”. In combat, it could refer to soldiers “digging in, as in digging trenches awaiting attack”, or it could mean “preparing yourself for a difficult situation”.

In the cultural contexts of ministry class I teach, we learn to become Christian cultural anthropologists; trained observers who learn to discover important things about culture. Before we begin to look at others, however, we must look at ourselves. We liken the practice of cultural self-examination to going on an “anthropological dig”.

My Lens: One of Many

Cultural anthropologists learn to look for cues that provide insights into what a people group deems as a virtue or taboo. Cues may include cultural idioms. Such idioms reveal core values that manifest as behaviors, attitudes, and practices. If you listened to conversations in your church context, what cultural idioms would you discover? One recurring term I hear is “truth”, more specifically, the notion of “The Truth” mentioned with regard to preaching the word of God.

The old illustration of the four blind men and the elephant reminds us that while your truth may feel like a rope (the elephant’s tail), another person’s truth may feel like a tree trunk (the elephant’s leg). Our perspective, social location, experience, etc. become the lens through which we see and order the world. This lens colors the truth to which we subscribe.

In Christianity and Culture, Christian anthropologist, Charles Kraft (2005) speaks of “truth discernment” in terms of reality. There is a capitalized “R” and lowercase “r” symbolizing reality. The capital “R” represents reality (or Truth) that only God knows. The lowercase “r” represents our finite understanding of reality (or truth). The task of the Christian anthropologist is to first recognize that his or her notion of truth and reality is limited. The next task is recognizing that others may have ideas of truth and reality that are just as valid and believable as you believe yours is…you touched the elephant’s tail, they touched the elephants tusk.

Examine Your Internal Judge

Jesus reminds us to do a similar thing in the context of judging others. Matthew’s gospel records Jesus saying, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3 ESV). This verse reminds us that there is some “pre-work” we need to do before embarking on cross-cultural ministry.

Sue and Sue (1990) in their book Counseling the Culturally Different: Theory & Practice Second Edition, provide some tips for counselors that may be helpful for our consideration as Christian leaders faced with the challenges of how best to conduct multi-ethnic ministry in the twenty-first century.

Here are a few tips to help guide the pre-work necessary for the would-be leader of a multi-cultural ministry:

1. Move from being culturally unaware to being aware and sensitive to [your] own cultural heritage and to valuing and respecting differences.

2. [Be] aware of [your] own values and biases, and how they may affect [ethnically different persons].

3. [Be] comfortable with differences that exist between [yourself] and [others] in terms of race and beliefs.

4. [Be] sensitive to circumstances (personal biases, stage of ethnic identity, sociopolitical influences, etc.) that may dictate [when multi-ethnic ministry is beyond your skillset].

5. Acknowledge and [be] aware of [your] own racist attitudes, beliefs, and feelings. [Racism is commonly defined as "prejudice plus power". If a person of any race uses his or her position of power to deny or offer lesser resources or services to another person based on color prejudice; that is a racist act. This could also involve not giving someone the benefit of the doubt or the presumption of innocence due to a prejudiced mindset devoid of reference to specific facts.]

6. Possess specific knowledge and information about the particular group you are working with.

7. Have a good understanding of the sociopolitical system’s operation in the United States with respect to its treatment of [ethnic] minorities.

8. Have a clear and explicit knowledge and understanding of the generic characteristics of multi-ethnic and cross-cultural ministry.

9. [Be] aware of institutional barriers [church and societal] that prevent or discourage minorities from access to resources.

10. [Be] aware of your helping style, recognize the limitations you possess and anticipate the impact you have on the culturally different person (p 169-171).

This is the type of pre-work that prepares a person for cross cultural ministry. Is God calling you to cross cultural ministry? Then dig in…

Hybrid Class Experiment

This Fall, the faculty of Wesley Seminary are exploring ways in which we can enhance and publicize the advantages of coming onsite to do your MDiv. One experiment this semester is to have some of our online students join those in the onsite class real time. Thanks to those new students who were willing on a moment’s notice to try this experiment with us!  The first week, I thought, was a great success.

cyber-synchronous classAdobe Hybrid class (Missional)

Stay tuned for possible changes even as soon as January that might entice students in the area to come on campus instead of online or to entice any of you who might be just out of college who might consider moving to this area for the onsite program.

Projection or Presence: Weighing the Pros and Cons of Video Venue Preaching

Video venues are flying off the ecclesial griddle like hot cakes. Everyone seems to be doing it. Some with great success, if success is primarily determined by increased attendance at the multi-site video venue church. Many growing churches are getting behind this trend. Who knows if the trend is here to stay or merely a flash in the pan? Regardless, I am convinced that churches must carefully and prayerfully consider not only the short-term but long-term practical and theological implications of launching a site where the preacher is not present but projected. Here are some of the major pros and cons of video venue preaching. The question that must be asked and answered is, do the pros outweigh the cons or vice versa?

Pros of Projection

-The most effective preacher gets projected. Let’s face it, there are relatively few preachers who hit the sermonic ball out of the park on a regular basis. And, there are many who are mediocre at best. Why shouldn’t the church put her best foot forward in order to impact more lives through preaching? So much is at stake. Seekers who visit churches do not typically return a second time to hear irrelevant sermons that seem disconnected from real life. An effective projected preacher seems better than an ineffective present preacher.

-Video venue preaching is efficient. It doesn’t take too much time or money to launch a video venue. The main expense is renting a facility with seating capacity and projection capability. While most video venues have a campus pastor/host who is present, you don’t need a high quality and expensive communicator. That person is projected. So, if you can rent a facility with projection and recruit a campus host, you can launch a video venue site rather quickly. If you’re looking for efficiency, “getting the most bang for your buck,” the video venue is for you.

-Current culture is enamored with the screen. Many North Americans spend countless hours each week looking at a computer screen, TV screen, and big screen at the local movie theatre. People are used to the screen. A case could be made, however, that people are sick of looking at screens and find a live performance refreshing. But, apparently, many nominally churched and unchurched people feel as though a projected preacher is safer than a present preacher.

Cons of Projection

-A projected preacher proclaiming a God who became physically present feels like a contradiction. The incarnation of God in Christ is the central event of Christianity. God came onto our turf as one of us to save us because he loves us. He came to 1st century Jews as a 1st century Jew. He was physically neck deep in the culture he was trying to reach. He preached profoundly to people because he put himself in their sandals and walked where they walked. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14a). God didn’t show up as a projection but as real presence. How can a Christian preacher do anything less?

-A projected preacher cannot preach a truly contextual sermon. Every congregational context is different. The sermon developed for the mother church is not designed specifically for the multi-site video venue, especially if those contexts are radically different. The live “in the flesh” sermon I preach at a Caucasian church in an affluent suburb of Dallas will not contextually connect via video with an African American congregation in an impoverished urban area. Plus, the projected preacher on video cannot adjust “on the fly” to congregational cues during the preaching event. Can pastoral preaching really be done from a distance?

-Projecting one preacher prevents others preachers from being developed. If we are concerned about utilizing our best preacher, then video venue is the way to go. But, if we are focused on developing the next generation of preachers, the video venue should be avoided. The way to develop more and better preachers is to give them lots and lots of opportunities to preach. If the resident preaching pro is the only one preaching, the growth of potential preachers on the team will be stifled. In the short run, projecting the best communicator seems wise, but it is disastrous in the long run. When the elite projected preachers are gone who will replace them? Under-developed preachers?

More pros and cons of video venue preaching could be listed, so I welcome your response. Do you think the pros outweigh the cons or that the cons outweigh the pros? Is video venue preaching driven by pragmatism or theology? As I wrestle with these questions, I am genuinely interested in your perspective. In fact, I need it.

Lenny Luchetti

Getting To Know Brannon Hancock (by Brannon Hancock)

Nothing like asking the new guy to write a blog post when he hasn’t even figured out how to retrieve his voicemail yet!

If you would have told this dude (the lead singer is the cooler, thinner guy I used to be) that 15 years later he’d be a seminary professor, unbridled laughter may have been the response. At that point in 1999, I had dropped out of college deferred my undergraduate studies at Trevecca Nazarene University and was living the rock-and-roll dream. (Actually, to quote Matt Foley, it was more like “living in a van down by the river.”)

But let me back up. I am a PK (that’s “pastor’s kid,” to the uninitiated). My dad was a PK too! And his brothers are all pastors. (You think it might run in the family…?) Growing up, my dad pastored churches in Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee. It was at a Nazarene campmeeting in Dickson, Tennessee that I said an unqualified “yes” to God and felt a call into some kind of ministry. But I had have enough of a teenage rebellious streak that I hoped that calling didn’t require me to follow in my dad’s footsteps of pastoral ministry in the local church. I didn’t want to just go work for “the family business,” so to speak. (Maybe it wasn’t as “unqualified” a “yes” as I thought.)

So, since I had a little music thing going already, I thought, well, my Christian band is a way of fulfilling this call to ministry…Great! I don’t have to be a pastor! I wrote songs and made a couple albums and travelled the country, and it was fun. But at a certain point, the allure of the road lost out to the allure of “real jobs” and marriage for my bandmates and me, and our merry band disbanded. So, what next?

Back to school I went. The first time around it was for music, but since I’d “been there, done that” in a “career” that didn’t really care if I even had a degree, this time it was to study English literature. Some of my most significant influences were my Christian university professors, and so I thought, well, being a professor at a Christian college is a way of fulfilling this call to ministry…Great! I don’t have to be a pastor!

While at Trevecca, I met, fell in love with and married Gloria, who grew up mostly in the parsonages of Wesleyan churches. Gloria is an amazing singer, worship leader, mentor, mother, wife and friend, and I suspect the church we are now leaving to come to Wesley Seminary put up with me for nearly 7 years just because they liked Gloria so much. When we said “til death do us part,” we really had no idea what we were signing up for. But do we ever, really, when we say “yes” to our spouse, or to God?

After considering several seminaries and graduate programs, we decided that the Center for Literature, Theology and the Arts at the University of Glasgow in Scotland sounded like a good option and a fun place to live for a year. But a one-year master of theology led to a highly competitive Overseas Research Student scholarship to fund my proposed doctoral research on sacraments, postmodern theology and contemporary literature, so that one year became four!

Fast-forward to the summer of 2007: we moved back to the USA with a 3-month-old son (Andrew Scott, named for the patron saint of Scotland), a half-finished PhD thesis, and no job. I went through a round of academic job applications, but couldn’t deny the “pull” toward full time ministry. My graduate studies had brought clarity that my driving concerns were theological and ecclesiological, and not merely academic. So I said another “yes” to God: Fine. If you want me to be a pastor, I’ll be a pastor. In short order, I received and accepted a call to serve as worship pastor at the Church of the Nazarene in Xenia, Ohio – a congregation where I have deep roots on my mom’s side of the family.

It has been an immense privilege for these past 7 years to be part of the story God is writing through this congregation’s life and ministry. They supported me as I finished my PhD in 2010 and gave generously to send us to Scotland for graduation when we couldn’t afford it. They encouraged my pursuit of ordination and celebrated with us when that journey was brought to completion in 2011. They’ve cared for and loved our family as a second  (Joseph, b. 2009) and then a third (Cecilia, b. 2011) child entered our household.

They’ve taught us the value of ministry to the elderly and those with mental and physical challenges. They’ve shown us grace as we’ve tried and failed in ministry, and as we’ve tried and succeeded. They are a people who respond to Christ’s invitation to gather at His table every Sunday, and who take up the basin and towel to wash one another’s feet on Maundy Thursday, as Christ did. They have blessed us with their funerals and baptisms and weddings and baby dedications. They have been the perfect “school” not only to teach me to be a pastor, but also to prepare me (insofar as one is ever really “prepared”) to now serve a wider array of local congregations as a seminary professor, helping equip pastors for ministry.

When I came to interview for the job at Wesley Seminary, I was very ambivalent. We often misuse that word as a synonym for indifferent, but it really means to have simultaneously conflicting feelings. I got my PhD so I could become a professor someday, but I was also loving being a pastor and a worship leader. In fact, for several years, I’d been telling people I had my “dream job”: I get to play music and lead worship, be a pastor, teach classes, write, publish, go to conferences…what else could I ask for?

But the pivotal moment was when I expressed this to the faculty – how much I love my church and love being a pastor – and they told me, “See, this is why we like you. We want professors who are pastors first, and who love pastors and love the local church.” I was sold. I’ve met far too many pastors over the years who bemoan just how little seminary actually prepared them for parish ministry. Often, their professors were great scholars but lousy churchmen. I am committed to living within the tension between the academy and the local church. If that’s the kind of seminary Wesley at IWU intends to be, then it’s the kind of place I want to be.

I am grateful for the opportunity to join an amazing faculty (it’s like being asked to join The Avengers or something!) and to serve the students of Wesley Seminary. Thanks for reading and getting to know me a bit, and I look forward to getting to know you, face-to-face and online!

A New Year Begins

For those of you who were not able to be on campus yesterday for the opening convocation of the 2014-15 seminary year, it was a special launch to our sixth year as a seminary together. Dr. Wayne Schmidt cast a wonderful vision as we look forward to the next five years and Joanne Solis-Walker delivered a stirring sermon calling us to think of the service as a “holy convocation” where God calls his people at a specific time and a specific place and sets his people apart. She urged us to see our studies this year as a holy task to which God has called us.

This year we have so many English and Spanish classes going that, for the first time, we are not able to have all of them under the seminary roof. My Bible class, nevertheless, is fully willing to make the trek from Maxwell over to the seminary building for refreshments!

Most of you will know by this time that the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) granted us full seminary accreditation last month. This has been a long process that was completed in just about the shortest possible time. We have always been accredited with the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), the regional accreditor of the university at large. But this added layer is the most respected accreditation in the theological world.

We give God thanks for such a wonderful report. It has personally brought moments of reflection to ask, what are the key factors in bringing us this far. Certainly the seminary has been bathed in prayer and prayerful leadership. No one can doubt that the regular prayer that goes on in Dr. Schmidt’s office and all over the church for the seminary are an important part of the blessing we have experienced.

At the same time, there are many prayerful, spiritual groups that do not experience growth perhaps in part because they do not have some of the important organizational features that usually accompany growth. I would just like to mention five features of these last five years that I believe have contributed in a very mundane way to the seminary’s growth. These are features that, I believe, often transfer to the growth of a church or other organization as well.

1. Enthusiasm
It can be hard to generate momentum and you have to keep feeding it for it to keep going. But once there is momentum, it is contagious. The seminary started with enthusiasm and that enthusiasm has never left.

Do you have people in your church who generate enthusiasm? People want to go to places where they sense things are happening.

2. Meets a Need
The seminary is blessed to offer its degrees at fairly inexpensive cost and it does so in a format that you can take all over the world. Meanwhile, its content focuses on what will most help you do the work of the ministry. There are vast numbers of ministers in the world who want added tools for ministry in a faith-friendly context. However, in my opinion, the majority of seminaries have catered to a kind of intellectual crowd while having little appeal to the vast majority of ministers in America.

Would someone outside your church find anything about it that they at least perceive themselves to want or need? True, sometimes people don’t know what they really need. But you can’t help them if they’re not there either.

3. Servant Attitude
Sometimes organizations make it hard to connect with them–or to stay with them. Some suicidal businesses make their customers work hard to get their products. Academic institutions can especially have a tendency to treat students like they are privileged to be able to give them their money. “If you are worthy,” is the feel, “we will let you come here.”

Such a demeanor may work for a Harvard, but it scarcely is working for the vast majority of seminaries right now. “The customer is always right” isn’t true, but a successful business had better make it as easy as possible for its customers to get its product if they want it.

These statements may sound crass and unspiritual, but I believe this is just the way it is. Does your church make it easy for people to come and stay? Do you make those who come within your church’s sphere of influence feel served?

4. Invested People
Some people do only the bare minimum and what is required. They may want to be rewarded for every last thing they do. Obviously an organization isn’t going to have many good people around for long if it takes advantage of its people. But, on the other side, a thriving organization will have the kind of people who are so enthused about what is going on that they have a spirit of volunteerism. A thriving organization has people who love what they are doing so much that they would almost do it even if you didn’t pay them.

Does your church have some people who are wired to do volunteer and pitch in? A good leader can model this in a way that it becomes contagious.

5. Spirit of Outreach
A crucial part of the seminary’s growth is its connection-making leader, Dr. Wayne Schmidt. He doesn’t wait for people to show up at the seminary’s door. He is constantly networking with churches to see if Wesley Seminary can meet their needs. Similarly, our admissions team embodies all the qualities I mentioned above–enthusiasm and an over-and-above servant spirit.

In the same way, a growing church is going to be a church that is making connections with people in its community. Who in your community needs something that your church can offer?

6. A Great Team
A friend once told me that an organization without a functioning infrastructure is like a statue whose feet are crumbling–no matter how solid the top part is, it is going to come crashing down. From another standpoint, you can only survive by the heroic efforts of a few for so long. Eventually they burn out.

One of the dynamics of the first five years of the seminary has been a gradual but steady increase in the kind of team that is necessary for things to function smoothly. We have come an incredibly long way in strengthening our infrastructure this last year especially–again, largely thanks to the leadership of Dr. Schmidt.

Years ago, this insight was applied to the growth of churches. A pastor who feels compelled to do everything (or who cannot find anyone willing to do anything) will never see his or her church grow much beyond the 100s. As the church grows–and in order for the church to grow–there has to be a corresponding growth in the support staff and the team.

We are again so thankful to the Lord for his blessing these first five years. We are thankful for our sacrificial faculty and team, for the support of the broader university, and for the support of the denomination. We do not take the future for granted. I hope that every student knows how privileged we feel to serve you!

What do those stones mean to you? — An Exploration in Multigenerational Leadership (Luigi Peñaranda)

Not too long ago, I taught an undergraduate Bible course that provided a general overview of the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible). After conducting some preliminary assessments, it was clear that, though the majority of students were brought up in Christian homes. They were for the most part Bible illiterate. There were some, of course, who knew a few Bible stories, but they failed to recognize their meaning and their relation to the rest of the Bible. My initial attempt at providing students with good information was unsuccessful. Gaining factual knowledge did not have a transformative effect on the class.

Then, I assumed the challenge of exploring as many avenues as needed in order to engage this new generation of students in a way that was meaningful and transformative. A story found in Joshua chapters 3 and 4 contains a fascinating lesson on multigenerational leadership. In this passage, a new generation of Israelites (the second generation) was finally ready to cross over the Jordan River in order to enter the Promised Land. The first generation, those who experienced God’s awesome deliverance from slavery in Egypt, died during the journey through the wilderness. This second generation had the responsibility to take possession of the land. While the text is not explicit about the thoughts that went through the minds of the people, based on Joshua 3:7 it can be inferred that they were wrestling with one thought: Was God with Joshua (the current leader) like he was with Moses (the previous one)?

These two questions are crucial and often come up at every level of ecclesial leadership. Is God in it? And, do we have the right leadership? It is important to remember that, although God was with the first generation of Israelites and they certainly had the right leader, the people quarreled with Moses and disobeyed the Lord when things got difficult. This shows us that, just because people can say “yes” to both of those questions, it does not necessarily mean that things will go well. We must avoid the trap of thinking that “having the right leader” plus “having God’s blessing” means that there won’t be any bumps in the road. That view undermines the key role that followership plays in any collaborative endeavor.

In the case of the second generation of Israelites, they too were about to have the questions answered with a resounding “yes.” Just like God parted the sea and used Moses, He was also going to part the Jordan River and be with Joshua. But, the passage puts a spotlight on a symbolic act that some representatives of the community were to perform in an effort to engage the upcoming generation (the third generation). As the priests entered the Jordan River carrying the Ark of the Covenant, the waters were cut off. Just like the Lord had done in a previous generation, He turned the water into dry land. This crossing point became a landmark; the unexpected pathway to receive God’s promise and, also, the place where the second generation could say: “The story of our parents is now our story — the God of our parents is also our God.”

The priests stood in the middle of the dried riverbed, holding the ark until all the people crossed over to the other side. Joshua, under God’s direction, commanded a delegation of Israelites to pick up 12 stones. The text reads: Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe. Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites, so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.” (Joshua 4:4–7).

It becomes apparent that in God’s view, signs or symbols are helpful in order to engage multiple generations. Signs can outlive people and, if vested with the appropriate meaning, they point to deeper realities that help people make sense of their own lives in relationship to God and others. The power of a sign is not in its object but in its meaning (confusing these two gives place to idolatry). In this story, the stones serve as a sign not because there is something intrinsically meaningful about river stones, but because they would cause the following generation to ask questions about meaning. To answer those questions, one would have to retell the stories of how God opens pathways where people see obstacles.

Doing multigenerational work is difficult regardless of whether it happens in ministry contexts, in academic settings, in workplaces, or even at home. Today, we are experiencing rapid social changes at a global level, which shape the different generations in very distinctive ways, enlarging the generational gaps. It has become a common practice to refer to different generations in terms of profiles or collective personalities (e.g., Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials), which, in a sense, can convey the idea that the generations cannot relate to each other. How can we engage in the kind of multigenerational work that would teach the next generations to set their hope in God? Truthfully, this reflection cannot serve as a full answer to that question. However, I do think that this passage is helpful in providing us with a way to make steps forward.

In my own exploration, I discovered that teaching an Old Testament course that centers on biblical symbols caused my students to ask questions about meaning. Today, we can stop at the crossing points of our lives where we are seeing God at work. We can identify some elements (unimpressive as they may be) that can be used as signs or memorials that would encourage the next generation to ask questions and would allow us to share our stories. In our own way, we should make an effort to carry “stones” from the places God has taken us through, and use them as signs that would cause the next generation to ask the question: what do those stones mean to you?

Remembering (Safiyah Fosua)

Recently I was privileged with the task of transforming a worship module that had been written for clergy worship planners into one that was lay-person friendly.  The task proved to be more difficult that I had thought it would be.  We who plan and lead worship are so immersed in what we are doing that I wonder if we have a difficult time understanding how our programming and performances are actually received by the ordinary God-fearing churchgoer that attends weekly worship hoping for a word from the Lord?  I continue to wonder if our tendency to overvalue off the chart worship may have inadvertently produced a clan of spectator-worshippers who come expecting to be overwhelmed each week (by us). If our worship has too much focus on us – what we do, how we do it, how well we do it – and not nearly enough focus on the God who calls us to worship.

Don Saliers, in Worship and Spirituality (1996), reminds us that God’s call to worship is a call to remember.  When it is time for a sabbatical, I would love to take more time to explore the symbiotic relationship between faith and memory.  Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people were called to remember the mighty works of God in their lives.  They were called out people through Abraham and Sarah.  They were saved from starvation and relocated to Egypt.  When things there took a turn for the worse, they were delivered from Egypt and sent on a journey with God that led to a land of promise.  Every succeeding generation of God-followers was commanded to learn and carry the story forward.  Remembering this story out loud – repeatedly – was an important part of Old Testament worship.

In the New Testament, the human family made still more memories with God.   From the Incarnation to the Atonement and all points between, we have much more to remember, much more to add to the story of humankind’s interactions with God.  And, somewhere in the mix is your own personal story as well as the story of your worshipping community.  When we are called to worship we are called to revisit and rehearse any or all of these interlaced memories:  how we came to be called God’s people, how you or I came to be called God’s child, what has happened over the years to God’s children who worship in this field or on this corner….

Remembering is so much more, however, than a feel-good walk down memory lane.  Faith memory is a reliable foothold for climbers.  Remembering out loud enables us individually and collectively to find a place on the journey that is closer to God.  Oft-rehearsed memories are more likely to traverse the huge chasm between head and heart.  They remind us of our faith in times of trouble and provide comforting reasons to continue to trust in the God who has always been trustworthy and All-Wise.

In the midst of this remembering, we are called to worship at some midpoint between memory and the kind of faith that is the substance of things hoped for (Hebrews 11:1), while avoiding the pitfalls of nostalgia.  This midpoint is an uncomfortable, tense place because it is much easier to dwell in nostalgic memories of the way things used to be than to adjust to the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Would you be shocked to discover that harsh economic times, political shenanigans, oppression and decaying public values were frequently a part of our world during the supposed golden ages of worship of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries?  The same could be said of the worship of first—third century Christians.  Yet, how many 21st-century Christians are known more for their pessimism about the future than for their hope?  Could it be that some of us have stopped remembering?

Remembering is an act of faith that brings us courage to believe that the pundits of this world do not have the last word.  We are citizens of the Reign of God where partly cloudy and threatening to rain might easily become a cloudless day to suit God’s ultimate plan.  How do we know?  We have memories and testimonies (both written and oral) as proof!

So now, pastors and worship planners, what will worshippers who take part in your next worship gathering be invited to remember?

Every Five Years… (Wayne Schmidt)

“We tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in one year and underestimate what we can accomplish in five years.”

This statement has often been attributed to Peter Drucker and I’ve certainly found it to be true in my own life and ministry (of course, Drucker is the “Apostle Peter” of the management field, and I wonder if he could have possibly written or said all that is attributed to him, even with his long life).

Wesley Seminary at IWU will pass the five-year milestone next month (the first cohort launched in August of 2009).  It has been a fast-paced, innovation-infused five years!  It’s hard to believe over 400 students, men and women of different ethnicities and generations and ministry contexts who serve in nearly forty different denominations, are now enrolled.  We have an amazing new facility on the Marion campus, but students gather in variety of settings nationally and internationally.   New degrees and certifications serve the needs of our students and the Church.  MDIV instruction occurs in both English and Spanish.  The Association of Theological Schools, the most widely recognized accreditation organization for seminaries, has wonderfully affirmed our mission, curriculum and personnel.  A gifted full-time faculty (and adjunct faculty) has been joined by staff in enthusiastically going above-and-beyond the call of duty to build strength and depth into the learning journey.

The five-year window can be a good way to assess and summarize the history of a church or organization…and perhaps even one’s personal growth and ministry development.  It can also be a helpful way to envision the future.  While many strategists prefer a shorter time frame (such as 2-3 years) due to the rapidly changing world in which we live, five years has a way of getting us past the “urgent” to the horizon of the “important” – what we are becoming over time.

These may be helpful questions for pastors and leaders to consider:

  1. If we looked at the history of our church or organization in five-year blocks, what are the significant positive or negative events in each block that have shaped who we are today?

I was privileged to serve as a pastor at Kentwood Community Church for three decades – I found that reflection at each five year anniversary (5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30…) was a great way to identify areas to celebrate as well as issues to address.

If we looked at just the most recent five years, what has aligned with our stated vision?  In what ways have we lived out, or failed to live out, our values?

Should the next five years be marked by continuity with the past five years, or discontinuity?

The Bible talks about seasons of planting and seasons of harvesting.  The spiritual life is characterized by times of fullness and times of dryness.  There are moments when huge steps of faith are required and eras where many small steps of faithfulness are what is most needed,  In churches, there are times of “reaching out” (focusing on unchurched people to be reached) and there are times of “raising up” (focusing on disciples being more deeply developed).  Ecclesiastes 3 enumerates a variety of “times” in life.

Our Seminary’s first five years has been characterized as a “start-up” phase, and it’s been suggested the next five focus additionally on “sustainability.”  So we’re wrestling with what should be changed and what should be continued.

What do we want to be true of the next five years?

This could be considered by age groups (children, youth, adults, etc.), by ministry areas (outreach, discipleship, worship, etc.), by resources (finances, facilities, paid and volunteer staffing, etc.) – or the combination of them all.  What do we “see” happening in the next five years if we live out the mission God has entrusted to us?  I love it when churches approach this not only strategically but spiritually – what if the congregation as a whole were to make each of one of these areas a weekly focus during their congregational/pastoral prayer time, small groups would prayerfully consider an area each time they meet, and personal prayer guides were developed so the congregation might collectively sense God’s leading?

Five years is a measure of time the Bible describes as “chronos” or chronological time.  It may provide the “frame” for the pictures of our history or future.  It can mark chapters closing and new ones opening.  It can raise questions that need to be asked.  But it can never be a substitute for “kairos” time – making the most of opportunities that God creates that no calendar can fully capture.

VBS…David Was Wrong! (Joanne Solis-Walker)

It is summer time and all across the U.S. churches host Vacation Bible Schools (VBS). My daughter has two particular VBS’s she attends and everything else on our summer schedule must revolve around those particular dates. It’s funny and very interesting how persistent she is about not missing VBS. It’s made me think about my love, as a child, for VBS. Not only did it contribute to my spiritual formation. The Mennonite church not far from my neighborhood in Vineland, NJ was a loving and welcoming place. Even though Spanish was my primary language, they took the time to share about God’s love in ways I could understand. (Just in case you are wondering, Spanglish has most recently become my primary language!)

One of the main things I remember from my VBS days are the songs. I remember singing Psalm 51:10-11. “Create in me a clean heart, oh Lord. And renew a right spirit within me… Cast me not away from thy presence oh Lord. Take not thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation. And renew a right spirit within me.” It is almost impossible for me to recite that verse without singing. I’ve always loved the words of that psalm. It’s one of those sections of Scripture that expresses my heart and tells bits and pieces of my story, as a child and into adulthood. It wasn’t until much later in my spiritual journey where the words of that song would take on a new meaning.

So I tend to be a ‘stickler’ about lyrics. I’ve ‘grown up’ (sort-of) to be a person who wonders about the story behind the words in a song. You can imagine my amazement when I turn to the Bible to make sense of the Psalm 51 song, and it points me to 2 Samuel 11&12. Unlike the song, I did not classify this bible story as VBS material. Quite the novela! (That is ‘soap opera’ in Spanish.) While still a sticky topic to address even amongst adults there are so many lessons to learn from both of these portions of the Bible. One day I shall work on a sermon series based on these passages. (If you’ve already done it please share!) For today I seek to share one point, I believe is vital from an ecclesial leadership stance.

I don’t know how easy it is for you to admit you were wrong! I find that acknowledging fault is one of the most challenging and yet important elements of the faith walk. No one wants to be wrong. At least I don’t. However, which of us could say I am right 100% of the time? I admire David’s response to Nathan: I have sinned against the Lord (2 Samuel 12:13) and in Psalm 51:3, David tells God he recognizes his transgressions. The New Century Version says, “I know about my wrongs…” In summary, David was wrong! It wasn’t just a given. When he recognizes his fault, David admits he was wrong.

Within the diverse Hispanic cultures, you learn at an early age that if you admit a mistake it is a sign of weakness and failure and it will come back against you. I have come to learn this is not unique to my culture. There seems to be this notion that leaders (Christians or non-Christian) should never admit they are wrong.

Forum shares its finding (pp. 6-8) on a global leadership survey they conducted in 2013 (http://www.forum.com/_assets/download/c2a5e850-a50b-48ed-ad3e-dc732d27fb6a.pdf). When leaders were asked about admitting their mistakes and apologizing, 87% of the respondents in a leadership position indicate they apologize often or almost always. However, only 19% of the employee state the leader apologizes when making a mistake. That’s quite a large gap; astonishing.

As a leader in a position of power, I work hard on recognizing when I am wrong. When I am not able to admit I made a wrong decision, I tend to shift to what I call ‘justification by reason.’ I place the blame on others or find ways to ‘save face’ and even though it doesn’t necessarily feel great to say I was wrong, it feels worse to pretend I wasn’t. I’ve also come to learn that the people I get the privilege of working with do not expect me to be 100% right. (AMEN?) It takes vulnerability and transparency to admit you are wrong, which are elements of authentic leadership, transformational leadership…spiritual leadership.

I like Paul, do not profess to have achieved it (Philippians 3:13) and the Forum study serves to remind me I must continue to press on towards the goal to a place of deeper awareness and self-evaluation. I don’t want to act like I’ve reached a place where I can admit I was wrong, only to find I was never really there and it had little impact upon others and inherently negatively impacted the work God entrusted to me.

So during this time of the year where VBS is at its max, I take advantage to tell you my VBS experiences at the Mennonite church remain a part of my spiritual formation. Support those involved in your local church VBS and others in your community. It also serves to remind me to examine my heart and actions to see if I really am able to admit when I am wrong. As I go through this process should you see a shortcoming, would you be a Nathan in my life and lovingly speak truth?  Thanks!

How about you? As an ecclesial leader in a position of authority, are you able to admit when you are wrong? Are you sure? I’m praying we all stay faithful to His call and humbled at His feet.