Thursday, July 31, 2008

Maintainence vs. Mission

I stumbled upon this blog post and thought to share it. I see a lot of this happening in some churches I know. I will blog more about this later.

1. In measuring its effectiveness, the maintenance congregation asks, “How many visitors have we attracted?” The missional congregation asks, “How many members have we sent?”

2. When contemplating some form of change, the maintenance congregation says, “If this proves upsetting to any of our members, we won’t do it.” The missional congregation says, “If this will help us bless and touch someone outside of our faith community, we will take the risk and do it.”

3. When thinking about change, the majority of members in a maintenance congregation ask, “How will this affect me?” The majority of members in the missional congregation ask, “Will this help align our activities around the missio dei — the mission of God?”

4. When thinking of its vision for ministry, the maintenance congregation says, “We have to be faithful to our past.” The missional congregation says, “We have to be faithful to our future.”

5. The pastor in the maintenance congregation says to the newcomer, “I’d like to introduce you to some of our members.” In the missional congregation the members say, “We’d like to introduce you to our pastor.”

6. When confronted with a legitimate pastoral concern, the pastor in the maintenance congregation asks, “How can I meet this need?” The pastor in the missional congregation asks, “How can we meet this need?”

7. The maintenance congregation seeks to avoid conflict at any cost (but rarely succeeds). The missional congregation understands that conflict is the price of progress, and is willing to pay the price. It understands that it cannot take everyone with it. This causes some grief, but it does not keep it from doing what needs to be done.

8. The leadership style in the maintenance congregation is primarily managerial, where leaders try to keep everything in order and running smoothly. The leadership style in a missional congregation is primarily transformational, casting a vision of what can be, and marching off the map in order to bring the vision into reality.

9. The maintenance congregation is concerned with their congregation, its organizations and structure, its constitutions and committees. The missional congregation is concerned with the culture, with understanding how secular people think and what makes them tick. It tries to determine their needs and their points of accessibility to the Gospel.

10. When thinking about growth, the maintenance congregations asks, “How many Christians, who aren’t currently members, live within a twenty-minute drive of this church?” The missional congregation asks, “How many unreached people groups live within a twenty-minute drive of this church?”

11. The maintenance congregation looks at the community and asks, “How can we get these people to come to our church?” The missional congregation asks, “How can we go and be engaged with these people?”

12. The maintenance congregation thinks about how to save their congregation. The missional congregation thinks about how to plant new missional communities to extend the Kingdom of God.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Do Disciples Care About their Children?

Presbyterian blogger and pastor, Shawn Coons is on to something:

Like most other mainline denominations, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has been losing members since the 1960s. We are down to about half the size that we once were. And this decline logically comes from many (most likely a majority) of churches losing members on a near-yearly basis.

But the average Presbyterian church seems indifferent to this reality. Sure, there is nervousness and some small lament of the declining number of “nickels and noses,” but how many churches actually acknowledge this reality and really wish to do the hard work of trying to reverse the decline? Acknowledging churches: few. Really working to reverse it: even fewer.

So here comes my question. Let’s put aside the notion that members and numbers may not be the best indicator of a faithful or successful church (duh). Doesn’t the average Presbyterian with kids/grandkids want the church to be around for their grown kids/grandkids? The writing is on the wall but most people seem interested in preserving the church they are used to, rather than helping to create one that will be there in the future.

You could switch "Presbyterian" for "Disciple" and I think the same thing would hold true for those of us in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I think more often than not, when churches are talking about growth, they want growth without really changing. I think there are a lot of churches out there that want to live as if its 1958.

But the thing is, there can be no growth without some change. When babies grow, they outgrow their clothes. Parents don't try to keep putting on clothes that no longer fit. But churches seem at times to want to use the same methods and ways of thinking that no longer make sense in 2008.

Many of the Disciple churches that I have visited are graying, with few people under 40. Do most Disciples care about this? Maybe, I don't know.

What do others think?

Sunday Sermon- July 26 and 27, 2008

“To Go Before”
Romans 8:26-39,Matthew 13

July 27, 2008
Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer
Minneapolis, MN

I’m a car nut.

That should not be so surprising, since I grew up in Flint, Michigan, the birthplace of General Motors and both my parents are retired autoworkers. I subscribe to most of the automobile magazines like Motor Trend and Car and Driver. If you want to show me a good time, take me to a car dealership. I can remember recently visiting friends in Texas, and one of them had a new Dodge Charger. I was quite stoked that I got to ride this “muscle car.” I was a very happy little boy.

But I am also someone that takes care for the environment very seriously. I’ve been interested in alternative fuels and fuel efficient cars. Five years ago, I bought a 2002 Volkwagen Jetta Diesel. It was a wonderful car that got great mileage- upper 30s in the city and the low 40s on the highway. Recently, I decided to start looking for a new car in light of my partner Daniel getting a new car. He purchased the Smart Four Two, the little sub-subcompact from Europe that was made available in the US this year. I wanted to get a station wagon or bigger hatchback should we need to carry something big.

Of course, I wanted to get another fuel efficient car and I started looking around. There was one car that I was very wary of considering: the Toyota Prius, the grandaddy of hybrid cars.

It’s not that I didn’t like the car. I just didn’t like some the people who were buying the car. A few years ago, the New York Times reported that many people who bought the Prius bought to make a statement- to show to others that they were “green.” In reading the story, I sensed a certain amount of smugness in some of these Prius owners and I’m not into buying something to be showy. This eco-freindly car does have a reputation in the wider culture as one driven by pious and arrogant people. Indeed, the animated series South Park, poked fun at Prius owners. In that episode, the car was called...the Pious and the drivers did exhibit a certain air of superiority.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is talking about what the God’s Kingdom is like and he does it by rattling off a bunch of parables to describe it. It’s like a mustard’s like yeast in’s like a pearl of great price. Jesus just keeps piling on the similies and just as you are trying to digest one idea, he throws up another one.

What is interesting about Jesus’ description of God’s kingdom, is that he is drawing up an interested picture of a kingdom. Now, the people of that day, living as they were in the Roman Empire, knew all about kingdoms. It was all about kings, and armies and power. Even today, while we don’t live in an Empire ruled by a king or emperor, still think of governments and nations as big and mighty things. In the mid 90s I lived in Washington, DC and can’t remember a time living around so much marble and Romanesque architecture. I have to say, I was awed by the beauty of buildings like the Capitol, the Supreme Court and the Washington Monument.

But the kingdom Jesus is talking about is nothing like those places. In God’s Kingdom, there are no White Houses, or Buckingham Palaces. Instead, Jesus talks about weeds. Jesus talks about a mustard seed, being a small seed that grows into a big tree. He talks about a woman, I repeat, a woman making bread by adding yeast into it. That in itself was odd since was talking about women’s work and he was talking about adding yeast to bread, which would have deemed the bread unclean. Then there was the “treasure” that some person found in a field that he didn’t own. He then goes and buys the field, not telling the owner that there is a hidden treasure in the field.

These are all odd symbols of the God’s kingdom. What is Jesus trying to say here?

I think Jesus trying to say that the kingdom that God rules is one that is different than what we are used to. It is found in that that is considered small and insignificant.

When I was told that you are all focusing on creation care over the next few weeks, I was excited but worried. This an important issue for me, but I didn’t know how these lecitonary texts fit into the theme. What I can see in these texts is that as children of God, citizens of God’s kingdom, we are called to usher forth God’s kingdom in those small ways. When we look at issues like the environment, we tend to think we need to do BIG things. But what if all that it takes to deal with issues like global warming is doing small things? What if means biking to work or buying compact flourescent lightbulbs? Like the mustard seed, it seems like doing such things could hardly make a difference in how we care for God’s creation. But like the mustard seed, it is those little acts that make a difference and can change the world.

But there is that thing with attitude. Pride can really creep in there and make us feel superior. We tend to get “greener than thou” and lord it over others. But the parables remind us that we are to be humble in being harbingers of God’s kingdom. The seed, the yeast, the woman, were all humble things. We are called to follow the ways of the kingdom in humility, not arrogance which is the way of this world.

But living out your life according to God’s kingdom, doesn’t mean that living will be easy. Living a life of humilty will rattle those who live in the earthly kingdom.

One morning, as we were leaving a local breakfast joint another family was coming in. I had noticed the family was looking at the car and then walked towards the restaurant. I heard the mother mutter about how dangerous these small cars were and how “they” whoever “they” are, were more concerned about saving the earth than in saving the humans.

Did I tell you that their car was a Chevy Suburban?

Following Kingdom values means that others won’t get it and will make fun of you. But we know that our treasure is found in God.

Oh, about that new car. Want to know what I got? A Toyota Prius. After test driving it, I decided I liked the car after all. But I bought not to make a statement, but to live according to the ways that God has taught. To try to make a difference in the world, like a mustard seed, yeast or a pearl. May it be so with all of us. Amen.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Aspie Adults and Faith

A dear couple who know that I have Aspergers, gave me a wonderful resource called, Autism and Faith: A Journey Into Community. It looks at Autism from a faith perspective and how congregations can make these communities welcoming to those of us with some form of autism.

From a pastor's viewpoint, I think this is extremely helpful. I have to wonder how many families as well as adults with autism have not darkened the door of a church, synogogue or what have you because of the fear that they or their family will not be accepted. So, in that sense, it is important.

What was frustrating was that there were very few voices of those who have autism. They did include one young man and that was good. But I am left with this question: what happens when the person that is on the autistic spectrum isn't a child, but is the pastor? How in the hell do you deal with that?

I have to believe I am not the only pastor with Apsergers. But they are hard to find. If I do find a fellow Aspie clergy, my first question will be how they did it. And then I would want to find some way that we could connect and support each other.

I do wonder at times, how in the world I can be a pastor, such a social job, when you have autism. But then God seems to be in the habit of picking people to do stuff that they don't seem suited for. I'd love to see what God does with this.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

God and Country

Every so often, when I am around my friends and loved ones, I tend to quietly roll my eyes on a certain issue.

That issue is patriotism.

Being that I live in one of the more liberal areas of the country (Minneapolis) and I am part of mainline Protestantism and most of my friends are of the said liberal persuasion, it's not a big surprise that I tend to hear a lot of comments that see America in a different way than I might.

It's not that I am some right-wing nutcase that talks about the United States in the same league with Jesus, but the fact is, I do like the country that I happen to live in. Lord knows, it's not perfect, I am a black gay man after all, but it does have some good things that I think should be celebrated when Independence Day rolls around.

I am also not saying that the United States or its government should never been criticized. Of course, injustice needs to be brought to the attention of our nations leaders when it fails to do right.

What I am getting at is the almost constant negative comments I hear from fellow mainline pastors about the United States. The criticism is justified at times: I mean, we have to remember that this nation treated my ancestors as nothing more than property and was trying to get rid of another group of people. I don't have a problem with talking about some of the darker aspects of American history. What I have a problem with is when those on the Christian Left tend to speak in a way that all that gets talked about is the dark side. I think that was the problem I had personally with Jeremiah Wright; it wasn't that he criticized America, it was that he painted a nation that was basically evil with no capacity for redemption.

In doing some research on this topic of faith and patriotism, I stumbled accross this article from the evangelical magazine, Christianity Today. David Gushee sees love of country as a form of piety:

Philosopher Jeffrey Stout says that piety is the virtue associated with gratitude toward the sources of one's existence. Love of country can, in this sense, be seen as a form of piety. We wave the flag in gratitude for the nation in which we live and move and have our being, the geographic source and arena of our existence. Asking someone to avoid patriotism because it compromises Christian faith is like asking them to avoid demonstrating affection to their parents because that, too, can compromise their Christian faith.

Abandoning patriotism can be a rejection of our embodiment as particular human beings in a particular context. It can mark a dismissal of the kinds of natural ties that root us to family, place, and time. I am here, not there; from these parents, not those parents; living in this era, not another one. I am not a free-floating spirit but an embodied person, rooted somewhere rather than nowhere. Patriotism simply says "thank you" for, and to, the particular national community in which our bodies have been placed.

I think Gushee has a point here. Being patriotic can be a way of saying thanks. He does give a nod to those on the Left that see how patriotism can morph into something more dangerous- th e last century has had its share of brown shirts who wreaked havoc in our world. I would agree with the sentiment as well. In a sinful world, something like love a country can change into something pretty dreadful.

But I don't think that means we should not be patriotic, it means that we need to be on guard when an expression of thanks becomes something more sinister.

I have to say thanks that I do live in a country that inspite of what it did to my ancestors, what it did to my father who grew up in Jim Crow Louisiana, it was able to rise above its racist beginnings. I am thankful as a gay man that even though living in the United States isn't easy, I am able to live in relative safety, whereas in other countries people are still facing death for simply loving another person of the same sex.

I have to say thanks that in spite of that same racist past, we very well may see a black man assume the nation's highest office.

I am not trying to gloss over all the bad things that have happened in our nation or have been caused by our land. But I also know there is a lot of good as well, and for that, I am thankful and I want to work to better the lives of others in other parts of the world, so that they too can be thankful.

Gushee ends his essay by stating that for the Christian living in the United States in 2008, patriotism has to be expressed as a "yes, but:"

We need to be able to say "yes, but" to patriotism. Yes, we love our country, but we do not fully belong here or in any earthly land. Yes, we want our nation to flourish, but every human being and human community is equally precious in God's sight. Yes, we value our nation's ideals, but they are not the same thing as the message of the kingdom. Yes, God blesses America, but he blesses other nations, too.
Of course, we can't put God above nation or even equal to the nation, which I believe is the sin of the Christian Right. But we can still love our nation, as long as those of us who are followers of Christ know that we have a higher love than that of the the US of A.

So, I will be a patriot. I will love this country, imperfect as it is, because it has some good values. I will let it know when I think it has done wrong. But it's not my main love: that belongs to Jesus.

But I will still say the Pledge of Allegiance (even without the reference to God , which wasn't there in the first place), I will still take my hat off during the singing of the national anthem and all that stuff. I still like America, warts and all.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sunday Sermon- July 13, 2008

“Better Churches and Gardens”

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
July 13, 2008

Lake Harriet Christian Church

Minneapolis, MN

Last Thursday night, I decided to do something that I haven’t done in a long, long time.

Long before I could drive.

Long before I graduated from high school.

I played kickball.

Yes, I played that simple game where we tried to kick a plain, red ball and run around bases. It was fun, but I was reminded of something. I know that many of you are “more mature” than I am, but I can say that playing kickball at 38 is a lot different than playing it at 13. When I was 13, I could play kickball forever. These days, not so much. And my muscles feel it the next morning.

I was doing this all for a reason. I am part of a group young church folk, ordained and not ordained in the United Church of Christ and the Disciples that were looking for ways to get young adults in their 20s and 30s who were not really connected with a congregation involved in the life of the church. We’ve called the group Come Thirsty and to start things, we are meeting every Thursday in July at a local park in Minneapolis for a game of kickball and then going to the nearby Bryant Lake Bowl for fellowship and maybe a game of bowling.

There is very little that makes it seem like a church event, with the exception that we start things off with prayer. Other than that, it looks like a normal gathering of 20 and 30-somethings.

To some, it might not seem like much is going on to further God’s work in the world. What does kickball have to do with Jesus? Well, maybe everything.

In today’s gospel, Jesus decides to tell a story about the kingdom of God. Now, I love the parables and have since I was a child. But I have not really like the parable of the sower, the first parable. It reminds me of my time in college when the campus pastor would use this sermon to talk about our spiritual lives. The message is that we need to be really good and have open hearts to recieve God’s message. This story had been turned into a moralistic tale and it seemed to lose its mystery and power.

But these days, I have a different understanding of the parable. I’ve said this before, but parables are not really morality tales, but peeks into what the kingdom of God is like. That is what is going on here.

Jesus tells a tale of a sower who throws the seeds here, there and everywhere. Now, I don’t have a green thumb, but I know well enough that any farmer or backyard gardener, is very careful where the seeds go. They take care to plant then in the right place and in the right soil. Seeds are precious and have to used with great care.

But this sower is not that careful. In fact, he is not careful. This person just throws seeds anywhere, even though there is good reason that such a process isn’t going to be that fruitful. And it looks like such a prophecy is becoming true, because the seeds get eaten up birds, choked by thorns or simply die on the rocks. As if by luck, some of those seeds fall on good soil and they produce a bumper crop beyond anyone’s imaginations.

So, what is going on here? Well, let’s imagine that the sower is God or Christ. God decides to just spread God’s seed, or God’s word anywhere, not caring if it produces fruit or not. This is a wonderful example of grace. God’s love is extravagant, it is wasteful. God is hardly stingy when it comes to sharing love with creation. In some cases that love will be shared and not returned. In others, it will produce and abundant harvest that will seed another generation. God is willing to take the risk and flings seeds far and wide.

What you don’t see here is the message that we normally hear: that if we work hard and are dilligent, things will work out. I am not saying that we should ignore that message. What I am saying is that in God’s economy this rule doesn’t apply as much.

When Jesus was on the earth, he was always sharing his life with others. Some took that message and ran with it, becoming faithful disciples. Others refused to hear the message. Now matter what, Jesus still shared, like a sower sowing seeds every which way.

As Christ followers, we are called to do the same. Churches are called to share God’s love in word and deed. Now sometimes, that will be warmly recieved, and other times it will not. But like God, we just keep on doing what we are doing.

As this congregation readies itself for a new pastor, we are reminded in this parable that we are to go out and start planting seeds. We don’t have to wait for a pastor to do that. We are called to do that NOW. We are called to share God’s love in word and deed to the world outside the doors of this church. When we gather to pack food packets for the hungry, when we gather weekly for prayer, when we show concern with our sisters and brothers in our workplaces, we are planting seeds. The sower went out to plant seeds. So did Jesus. And so are we. The church is not a club, there to serve only the needs of each other, but a staging ground where we prepare to go out into the world.

We will encounter problems. Some of those seeds will fall on hard soil or deaf ears, some will fall on those who worry about everything, some will be taken by the birds or get concerned other things. But we still plant away because in the end, the harvest is going to be plentiful. Lives will be changed.

So back to that game of kickball. To some it might seem like a waste of time. But I have to believe we are planting seeds in the lives of young adults who might not have thought about church before. Our work is having an effect in that local congregations are starting their own groups, some after a long dormancy. I believe seeds are being sown, here and there, and some of it will not take root. But some of it will. But it really doesn’t matter; because we place our trust in God who will produce a bountiful harvest, far beyond our imaginations.


Friday, July 11, 2008

Wide Awake

Tonight, Daniel and I were invited over for dinner at my friends' Erik and Scott's for dinner. It was also the first time I got to meet an "imaginary friend," Ray. I've known him for a few years via LiveJournal, but this was the first time meeting him in person. As we chatted, Ray talked about his experience at Church of the Apostles in Seattle and then Erik and Scott started talking about their church, Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer. They truly love their church and having preached there a few times, I do enjoy it as well.

The night before, I took part in Come Thirsty, a group of mostly 20 and 30 somethings in the UCC and (hopefully in time) Disciples. We didn't do "churchy" stuff except prayer. What we did do is play kickball and had a damn fun time doing it. Afterwards, we went over to the famous Bryant Lake Bowl for bowling and drinks.

I have say that event left me feeling good. From the outside it might not look like ministry, but that was what was going on and it made me feel excited.

As I thought about tonight and last night, I've realized how spiritually listless I feel at times. When I look at my fellow Disciples here in the Cities, I don't see people fired up for mission, but people just existing, surviving. And it brings me down.

Don't get me wrong, I love these people. I care for them and want to be part of this crazy community called Disciples. But at times, I get tired of how defeatist and scared we are when it comes to living out our faith. I wish that our churches were more bold, more willing to take risks. I wish those that have left Disciple churches stop complaining and start doing something.

As I prepare for this Sunday's sermon, the word that keeps sticking in my mind is "listen." That's the word found in the parable of the Sower and I think God is trying to tell me something.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Positives of Being an Apsie Pastor

I've been wondering for a while what good is it to have Apergers when you are a pastor. I know I won't be the bubbly personality that churches long for, and I won't be able to handle situations where everything changes constantly.

But I do think there are some things a pastor who has Aspergers can do. I stumbled accross a list of positive traits of those with an autistic spectrum disorder. Here are some that I think are important in my situation:

2. People on the Autism Spectrum Live in the Moment

What I have found so interesting as a pastor, is how churches tend to be focused everywhere but right now. If someone has an idea, the first thing people want to do is study it. That isn't a bad thing, but sometimes it seems like a way to not do something. I think that Aspies tend to be focused on the now and aren't thinking far ahead about consequences.

One morning, I talked with Daniel about my lack of common sense. He noticed that I just tend to do something, not thinking about the consequences, while he is thinking about every possible reaction.

Churches seem to want to wait for something to happen. When the right pastor comes. When the new bishop arrives. When the new youth pastor is hired. Then something will happen. But the fact is NOW is the time. If churches and especially mainline churches are going to change and thrive, they have to stop waiting for When. They need to start living in the NOW.

4. Autistic People are Passionate

My biggest passions are trying to get the church out into cyberspace and good worship and preaching. My eagerness in those areas tend to bother others, probably because I'm so focused and passionate on those things. But really, don't you WANT to have a pastor that's excited rather than one that is friendly, but passionless? I've been around enough pastors that are basically coasting, and it ain't pretty. You might have an odd pastor if you call one that is an aspie, but they will be passionate about their call.

5. People with Autism Are Not Tied to Social Expectations

For some reason, pastors are some of the best people at trying to keep up appearances. They might be suffering from terrible depression, but will never reveal it to others or even get help because of pride.

An aspie pastor doesn't care about social expectations. They are who they are. I recently shared my diagnosis with a fellow pastor and he was glad I was being so honest about this since most pastors tend to not share their messy parts. I found that rather odd and still do. Why would one hide their problem? Why would one not seek help? Isn't that the logical and Christian thing to do? Aren't we supposed to live honest lives?

The fact is, my having Aspergers doesn't mean I need to give up my call. No, I won't be your typical pastor. But as the old saying goes, why be normal?

Monday, July 07, 2008

Movie Review: "WALL.E"

Daniel and I have been in Michigan over the last few days visiting my parents and celebrating their 40th anniversary. We decided to go the movies yesterday and decided to see "WALL.E" the lastest Pixar/Disney joint.

I liked the movie. A lot.

I've seen some of the other Pixar movies, and they are all good, but this one was better. It told a story without few words. It talked about an artificial being that had more humanity than what humanity had become. And it was a story of the redemption of said humanity by a being that wasn't even human.

I agree with fellow blogger Jim Bonewald said of this movie: "Incredible animation, an inventive, unique storyline, and compelling social commentary all work together to make WALL-E a great animated movie."

And let's face it: WALL.E is cute. Kind of a cross between ET and R2D2.