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I am not with you because I am visiting Guatemala with Mt. Sinai Congregational´s Ripple of Hope Project, and then in Israel-Palestine with UCC clergy from across the country.
Before I left, I spent six weeks of intensive (though part-time), on-site assistance with First Congregational/Riverhead´s transition after the retirement of the pastor. In 8+ years as RCM, I’ve never tried working with a church in this way. I clearly wouldn’t have been able to add this much more work to my already over-booked responsibilities if it hadn´t been in the weeks before Easter (one of the two times a year when local churches get too busy for anything that has to do with the RCM!)
The reasons I chose to help this congregation in such an unorthodox way are too complicated to relate (like the real story behind the twists and turns of every church). Suffice it to say that I believe it’s a very solid church that stumbled into a troubled situation. I hoped my involvement might help them more quickly plot a pro-active course towards a stronger future. Whether my effort will make a difference, I suppose, only time will tell, but I ask you to keep them in your prayers.
I enjoyed my time with them immensely. RCMs don’t often get to preach in a single pulpit for five straight Sundays. And the opportunity to relate to folks for a time as a pastor (more than a judicatory advisor one night at a meeting) reminded me of how much I miss about local church ministry.
My time with this congregation did, however, remind me of two pressing realities facing all of our churches:
1) Many, if not most, or even all, of our congregations these days seem just a bit of bad luck away from a turn of events that could be disastrous. I am reminded of the Alban Institute’s figure that any congregation with less than 75 people in church on Sunday is seriously at risk. Alban research has shown that with the limited resources that a congregation of that size or smaller has at its disposal, even a slight bump in the road can throw everything dangerously off kilter. But it is my sense that even congregations that are much larger can be upset too easily these days. I believe this about all the various difficulties that face us doing ministry these days in our contemporary society.
2) My short stint in a local church also impressed upon me how difficult it is for our congregations to speak meaningfully to neighbors around them. I will use the exteriors of our buildings as just a most basic and initial example.
Do you think that the architecture of our local churches effectively connotes what is happening inside? What I mean is that churches have a look that is distinctive in almost every community. But when folks drive by and see, for example, a ¨colonial meeting house”, what does it tell them about our faith community? For some, it simply carries no significance, they have so little sense of the Christian story of the church’s faith and practice. But for others, it gives the wrong impression--that we are historical, old fashioned, proper, out of touch, has-beens.
I wonder if we are aware of the impressions even our architecture makes on people? And do we do anything to help them, as early as from the outside, to better understand who we are, what faith could add to their lives, and how they might find their way into our midst? Yes, I am talking about signage. Is there some way for outsiders to know which entrance to use? Do you post any other invitation other than worship times? Are there any external signs or symbols (except the architecture) that hint at the identity of the community that inhabits that house of worship? (How ‘bout a bright banner that invites ¨Come join us for new life!”)
But it goes further than that. What do the yard and the landscaping say? Are you ever seen outside the building--worshiping or hosting a coffee hour? Do you ever host meetings extramurally, in a local coffee house or at someone’s home or place of business? Do you ever take programming to the people you want it to serve, rather than expecting them to come to you? Do you try and build bridges and relationships with people beyond your four walls? Have you looked at your schedule and calendar for opportunities for celebrations, invitation, people to find access and welcome?
In ¨Casting Your Nets on the Other Side,¨(CYN) New York Conference’s congregational revitalization program, we have found that once congregations develop a commitment to reaching new people, target some specific demographic that they feel God calling them to engage in ministry, congregations become really creative. And a bit of innovation can enliven a whole church. We have congregations across NY Conference who now talk about the new members that their CYN efforts have netted them.
I encourage you to begin asking what your congregation needs to do to speak to the inhabitants of the time and place God calls us to serve. Church is much less about how we have done things for the last 50 years (when often our impressions are not factually true), and more about what we need to do now to share God’s love further.
I believe our churches have so much more blessing to share, even more than they are aware of. But it is not a blessing to be held on to, as if it needs to be preserved. It is something to be translated so that it can be shared with those who need to hear...
We have much to do to serve faithfully these days. But I continue to be honored to work with you and among you.
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