Monthly Archives: May 2015

A new kind of attractional ministry (or: the church has done this to itself)

If You Build it They Will Come... Just Kidding...

A while back, I was listening to an episode of On Being with the amazing Joanna Macy. Macy is a buddhist and environmentalist, and if you don’t know who she is, go and read The Great Turning then come back. I’ll wait.

The host, Krista Tippet, asked Macy about her journey from Christianity to Buddhism. Macy was raised Christian, but her life changed when she went to volunteer with refugees from Tibet. As she tells it, she saw that these refugees who had nothing and were living in incredibly difficult circumstances had this light inside of them. They seemed to radiate joy and peace inspire of their circumstances. Macy says she thought to herself, “That. I want that.” From that point she began to study Buddhism and has become an amazing teacher and activist for peace and environmental justice.

As I listened to her story, something clicked. That. That is what we in the Christian church are missing. We have busied ourselves for years with changing our congregations so that we have the “right” programs, the “right” worship service, the “right” small groups. This is called attractional ministry, or the Field of Dreams way of doing ministry. If we build it, they will come.

But this hasn’t happened. We have built it and they are walking away. We have tried to alter our way of doing things in order to attract people to our ministry instead of altering our way of being so that we might attract people to Christ.

Many of my friends who don’t do church have this listed in their reasons for staying away. Church appears to be a group of people who gather each week as one would at a social club, nothing really challenging is said, no one really emerges as changed, they just sit for an hour listening to a bunch of words and then go home the same person they were when they woke up in the morning. What’s the point?

A colleague of mine recently told me of a conversation with an older colleague who explained that, in his day, it wasn’t thought of as the pastor’s call to change people; the purpose of church was to make people comfortable. And comfortable we are, but changed we are not.

Now, let me be clear, the change I am talking about isn’t people coming to church and instantly changing their outward behaviors to become more socially acceptable people (or, worse yet, changing who they are to fit into some narrow idea of what Christian looks like). It isn’t becoming less obviously sinful or bad or whatever, changing the outward behavior in hopes of becoming more holy or something (though one hopes that through regular encounters with God’s word, change will come). We will always mess up, we will always fall short of the goal, and changing acts means little without a change of heart. The change I am talking about is the re-orientation of life that comes from communion with the holy spirit, from hearing the radical love of Jesus Christ proclaimed from the pulpit every week, from deep involvement in a community rooted in Christ, and from a discipleship journey that includes regular engagement in spiritual practices. This kind of change comes from being both mentored and challenged in faith.

Too often leaders are afraid of challenging their people. Afraid of rocking the boat, afraid of having congregants get mad because they were made to feel uncomfortable. But, the thing is, faith is uncomfortable. The gospel is incredibly disruptive. It tells us that all of the messages society gives us about what matters in life (material possessions, worldly power, etc) are wrong. The gospel tells us that every single person is loved and worthy of love — this includes people we hate, people we don’t understand, people who have hurt us AND ourselves when we are at our worst. Jesus came to proclaim good news to the poor and to flip the narrative regarding whose side God was on. ┬áThis is incredibly challenging stuff. It will make people uncomfortable, but this is the message we are called to proclaim. Every week.

Repeatedly hearing of God’s radical love for all of creation, or God’s unapologetic inclusiveness and the Biblical call to serve the oppressed will change people. Giving people spiritual practices they can use to engage with will lead to transformation.

This will lead to communities in which “All are welcome” is more than a slogan, it is a way of life. It will lead to Christians doing work in the world towards justice for all people. It will lead to people who overflow with God’s love, pouring it out into the world, leading people to look at Christians and think, “I want that.”

This is not a simplistic faith. It is not a faith defined by doctrine and dogma, but a faith that is deeply connected to God and to the world. A faith that recognizes that bad things happen, but God is with us, and we are God’s people called to walk with others who are struggling. This is a faith that cultivates a deep resounding joy that is different from fleeting happiness, a joy that helps us get through difficult times because no matter how hard things get, we know the love of God. It is a faith that recognized the broken in the world and in ourselves and boldly proclaims that love is still alive, that love wins, defeating hate and violence and death.

When we are able to love others and ourselves despite our sinful nature, when we are able to love others and ourselves as we are, we are able to create radically honest communities that love loudly and boldly beyond all of the superficial smiles so many congregations seem to feel they are required to wear on Sunday mornings. When we create spaces into which people can enter when they are not okay, we create spaces into which anyone can enter at any time and know the love of God.

We often look to a growing church for guidance on how to fix our congregational problems. In the past few years, ELCA (and other) churches (as well as the institution) have been looking to House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver for the solution. What do they do there that has helped them grow? How to they attract so many young people? What is the magic pill and how do I get it?

I have been to HFASS, I have friends who have been involved in the community and I think I have an idea what it is. Here’s the magic: excellent, challenging preaching rooted in the gospel message of radical inclusion, bold proclamation of the fact that we are all both sinners and saints and we are all equally loved and valued by God, administration of the sacrament, and a radical inclusiveness that lets you feel welcome in┬áchurch when you feel like crap, when you have screwed up, when you feel totally unworthy of love, when you have a past you would rather forget about, or any of the million reasons people stay away from church on a bad day (or every day). That’s it (as far as I see it, anyway).

HFASS is not the only community doing this, but it is lifted up so often by the ELCA (and torn down by others), it is an easy example of the gospel as the solution to our current wailing about church decline. It is an excellent example of a new kind of attractional ministry.

We, as Christians, are called to allow ourselves to be changed by the gospel. We are called in baptism to a new life in Christ, a lifetime of discipleship and practicing being Christian. As pastors, we are called to create disciples. Are disciples people who can recite church dogma, people who can quote scripture, or people who hear, smell, taste and see the gospel and “Go and do likewise?”

What’s more attractional?

What will make people like Joanna Macy look at us and say to themselves, “That. I want that?”

Ministry in Grand Central


This past week, a colleague gave me an analogy for campus ministry as ministry at a bus stop. It’s a pretty good analogy — everyone is coming an going, no one will be there for long. As I thought about it, I thought a more apt description might be ministry in Grand Central. Some people are rushing towards their destination, others are wandering. Some know where they are trying to go, some think they do but change their minds, and others are just lost. People are hungry, tired and burnt out. For many, this is their first time away from home and the station is overwhelming and bewildering — they are seeking direction. Some have friends with whom they travel, others are traveling on their own. Given the amount of time most of them will be in the station, they will be seeking out fellow travelers to hang out with, eat with and form community, many looking for those who are traveling to a similar destination or who have similar travel styles. All of them will leave at some point, some sooner than others.

This is our situation. And it is up to us to figure out how to provide for these people while they are in the station — to talk to them, figure out what they need, and to try to meet these needs the best we can, all in the name of Jesus Christ.

When I talk to students around the University of Washington, one thing comes up again and again — students are seeking connection and community. Even the kids are me who are in fraternities, which, in theory, should be providing that. As a called an ordained minister of word and sacrament, it is often thought that it is my job to provide those things in this place, but, all too often, the way word and sacrament is practiced are too narrow. There are so many students here who desire to be fed, but preaching and eucharist don’t meet the students where they are, at least not at first. There are students who have baggage around “church,” students to whom our rites are foreign and strange, and students who are drawn to check out a community grounded in the teachings of Jesus Christ but aren’t ready to worship yet. if all we offer is a traditional worship service, how do we meet the needs of everyone else at the station? How do we minister to those who are wandering, lost, looking for company, yet for one reason or another aren’t ready for or interested in what we often call traditional, liturgical worship? If I am called as a minister to the entire community of the University of Washington through the Lutheran Church, is it not my call to minister to the needs of the community, even (is not especially) to those who do not feel called to worship God in the ways we have traditionally worshiped? What if, instead of practicing word and sacrament with my tiny community, we learn to embody word and sacrament, to embody grace, and to create spaces where that grace can be experienced by others not yet ready to practice word and sacrament themselves?

Many of my colleagues, particularly those of us on the left coast, are facing these issues. A colleague of mine had students coming for dinner but leaving before worship. Other colleagues have seen growth in gathering around meal with liturgical elements (often called dinner church), while others have been using gardens, conversation, and a dozen other things to help students gather in Christian community — even if not all of the students are ready to call it that or are even aware that Christ is moving within and through the community as it gathers.

I regularly encounter students who are hungry for community, for love, for grace, for hope — for the gospel, really — but are suspicious of religion and its trappings. They fear being sold to, they don’t want to come to dinner and worship (our current pattern) because they don’t want the bait and switch. They don’t want to be invited to share a meal and then be told they are getting Jesused, whether they like it or not.

What would it look like for communities to gather in ways that are rooted in the gospel without constantly talking about the gospel? If we found ways to be Christian community without hitting people over the head with it, then invited those who were enjoying the community to learn about Christ’s presence within the community? To provide a gathering space that is Christian under the hood and then to leave space and opportunity for the students who realized they were hungry for more to come to more?

One of the things I love about campus ministry is that those of us in this call are living out the struggles the church will be facing in the next 10-20 years (if they aren’t already). We are on the front lines of ministry in a changing world that often looks askance at people of faith and at the institution of the church. We are all, whether we know it or not, in the business of transit center ministry. Those of us who live in big cities and/or work with millennials know that our people are moving, moving, moving. They likely will not be in our congregation or our neighborhood for long — so how to we provide for them meaningful, deep, community rooted in the grace and love of Jesus Christ while they are around, and how do we do that in a way that is accessible to those at many points in their faith?

For some, entering into a church deeply rooted in tradition and liturgy will be a welcome trip home, even if they have never done so before. Some people just connect with the rites and rituals and are drawn in by the history, humanity and holiness of the creeds, the smells and bells, and the wonder and mystery of the eucharist. Others have deep wounds which these elements rip open. For many, these rites are unapproachable without a good deal of preparation and understanding — isn’t it kind of weird to demand people worship a God they are just getting to know?

We need many different types of churches and worship styles, but we also need places for people to gather that are rooted in Christian community but don’t shout it out loud, and ways for people to enter into the possibility of worshipping Christ and to explore what that means and what it looks like before they are ready for the full meal deal. We need to create opportunities for people to encounter the beauty of community rooted in Christ that *aren’t* worship, that aren’t liturgical, but allow exploration of those things along with exploration of the scriptures and experience of Word and Sacrament that are more akin to wading in than diving. If we are in the transit station, we are managing a host of different opportunities to experience the living God so that the people at the directions kiosk can direct people to the part of the station that is appropriate to the person. Some will want to stay at the precipice and not enter more deeply into the community or a relationship with Christ. And that is okay. Maybe at the next stop on their journey they will want more. Maybe they won’t. But they will have been fed and supported in the meanwhile, they will experience one form of God’s loving grace — community rooted in Christ’s love.

This may be a little all over the place, so — TL;DR — if we want to bring more people into Christian community, if we want more people to experience the beauty and mystery of liturgical worship and word and sacrament, it is up to us to provide entry points beyond worship services and one on ones, to experiment with what Christian community looks like, then to offer to walk with people on their journey through their stop at the transit station, however long it lasts.