evangelism

Sharing Soup of Faith and Love

By J.C. Mitchell

I have been drawn to cooking for years prior to being an artisan baker in New England and a pastry chef on Manhattan Island.  It started in earnest when I was at Hampshire College, where we had a farm on campus and great vegetables to prepare for the six or so housemates.  Most of us were vegetarians for various reasons, from environmental to peer pressure, and our greatest source for inspiration did not come from the Internet, for that was just an idea to us in those early nineties.  It actually came from books, from actual restaurants: Bloodroot and Moosewood were the two that stand out in memory (and continue to serve vegetarian meals).  I owned Sundays at Moosewood, but in our college kitchen someone had the purple Moosewood Cookbook, where I discovered a recipe for Brazilian Black Bean Soup. 

I am sure I referred to that recipe the first few times I made it, but soon that soup was second nature, and often called upon as a cheap way to feed a bunch of people.  I have been cooking this soup now for 25 years without referencing the book.  I know it wasn’t exactly the same every time, but every time it was used to serve a larger group of people. Inevitably there was someone who said, “I don’t like beans” or something else negative, but by the end of the meal, their bowls were empty.

This soup has for me been a sign of my hospitality, which is an important part of my faith.  I have to admit that often food has made its way into my ministry, from cookies to pot-luck casseroles, from pretzel making with children on Good Friday, and hot crossed buns with the moms during Lent, over thanksgiving meals with homeless families, to the great meals with those gathered at Open Gathering.  I even once got up before dawn as an associate minister and set-up over half-dozen bread machines so that the sanctuary would smell like baking bread for World Communion Sunday.  And of course, I have become a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), where we base our worship around the Holy Communion Meal.  For me, food communicates as much as hugs and words, and the latter are often the least clear.

In what I would argue was one of my hardest meals of my culinary career, I was called to make this soup.  I was living in Belfast, where I arrived with all my items in my backpack, and had found a flat with a woman from Newcastle and a man from Portugal, and I must say there was no priority to stock our kitchen, let alone toilet paper.  Getting used to syrup being Gold’s and not from a tree, and the lack of rinsing the dishes was easy, but finding something I could make that tasted good for a dozen plus people was a challenge.  Of course the black bean soup was the answer, finding orange juice was the only challenge. The soup was ready and beer was chilled.

Our guests arrive, and one of the older students was a Cockney from East London, who said something that sticks with me to this day.  People were eating the soup with beer and bread and it was a cacophony of conversation and spoons in soup.  It was clear that many of these vegetarians had not often eaten vegetables that were not fried or covered in cheese.  So my Cockney friend sitting on the settee filled with others leaned forward and said to me after eating some, “This is great” loud enough to hear over the music.  I smiled.  I probably said thanks, but he started to sit back on the settee, and turn to his cushion neighbour and spoke as shoveling the soup past his bearded lips, not aware I could still hear him clearly. “What the f@#k is this?”  He didn’t care to hear the answer; he simply kept eating with the music, the music of fellowship.

This is my faith-sharing goal.  I want people to experience me through my following of the forgiving victim I call the Christ.  They don’t have to thank me, but they certainly don’t need to know what it is, they simply need to experience the hospitality and love. 

Our Faith Recipe may had started with a book, for many of us we realize we cannot be anchored to it as if it is an idol itself; we must live it daily in the real world.  When I received the original Moosewood Cookbook for my birthday, and opened to this recipe I had not seen in print in 25 years, I realized how much more important it is to live my faith then keeping my faith in a book, and also I realized I have been calling the soup Cuban for the past quarter century, while it was actually titled Brazilian Who gives a F@#K what it is called? Just keep sharing. 

I Might Be The World's Worst Evangelist (and Why I'm Okay with It)

By Rev. Aaron Todd

The other day I'm cruising down the highway  listening to the "Frozen" soundtrack (don't judge, my three year old was in the car with me) when I run over something hard and metallic, which, of course, blew out one of my front tires.  This was not the first time this has happened since moving to Oklahoma, so my level of frustration was higher than it probably should have been as I maneuvered my poor car off the highway and over to the shoulder. 

I had just begun the process of unpacking all the needed items to change out the tire when an old, beat-up minivan pulls up behind me.  "Great," I thought, "This is how most horror movies begin."  I needn't have been concerned, however, because out of that van stepped an older gentleman who simply needed to know if I needed any help with the car.  After thanking him and telling him that I thought I could handle it, we got to talking for a few minutes. Seeing as how I was rather preoccupied with the tire, this man did most of the questioning.   "Are you from around here?" (Yes)  While pointing to my son in the back seat, "Is this your only child?" (No) And then this question came, "Are you a Christian?"  After telling him yes and that my wife and I were in fact, both pastors.  He smiled and replied, "Well, I'm glad I stopped."  He then got back into his van and drove away.  It was an awkward end to an otherwise (given the circumstances) pleasant exchange. 

In the few days since that event, I have been thinking more about that conversation and his desire to know if I proclaimed myself as a follower of Jesus.  What would his response been had I answered otherwise?  Would the same offer to help had been extended if I had professed allegiance to another faith (or no faith at all)? Was there an intention present all along to evangelize a young(ish) broken down traveler? The truth of the matter is, I have no idea and will never have a way of knowing. All I know is that I am grateful for his willingness to stop and help, and now as I continue to think back on that exchange there on the side of the highway, I realize why the ending of  that conversation seems so perplexing to me; I never would have thought to inquire about the religious beliefs of a person I had just met. 

As I came to that understanding, I also realized that I cannot remember the last time (if ever) I have actually inquired about anyone's religious affiliation, regardless of the circumstances.  In my ten-plus years in ministry, I do not think the words, "Are you a Christian" have ever passed through my lips. Once this light dawned on me, I thought to myself, "I might be the world's worst evangelist." 

To be fair, I come by my evangelistic inadequacies honestly.  As a life-long member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) I am part of a tradition that tends to shy away from that sort of on-the-spot questioning. As a tried and true introvert, I tend to prefer to be left to my own devices and assume that most others do as well.  Who are you to question me? Who am I to question you? Finally, and this perhaps is the biggest influence concerning my lack of desire in being considered an "evangelist," I have rarely seen evangelism, at least in it's traditional, culturally accepted form, done well.  I have memories of being in seminary and having people hand out tracts in downtown Ft. Worth and telling me that my seminary education made me less of a Christian, I can remember people walking around with giant crosses slung over their shoulders, yelling at me to "repent" (again in Ft. Worth), and here in Oklahoma City there is a giant billboard on the side of one of our highways asking us the question, "If you die tonight: Heaven or Hell?" A week or two ago I found a Bible tract strategically placed on the toilet paper dispenser at Starbucks (really?).  Even on a more personal level, there have been plenty of times when, in the midst of the conversations with other Christians, the topic of religious beliefs came up, the message I have gotten over and over is that if I don't adhere to their particular flavor of Christianity, then I AM in fact, less of a Christian. 

So as I think about how I may in fact hold the title for World's Worst Evangelist, I realize that if I am being compared to some of the methods I just described, than I am perfectly okay with that title.  Because, you know what?  None of the above methods even come close to describing the path that I followed to get to a place in my life where I proclaim myself as a follower of Jesus. Never after hearing someone yell at me to "repent" have I been moved to go a different direction.  Never after seeing a billboard or hearing a talking head on television talk to me about buying into their brand of "fire insurance" have I felt myself drawn closer to Jesus.  And there isn't a pamphlet or tract that has ever (or ever will be) printed that will cause my spirit to connect with the Spirit of the Divine.  

As a matter of fact, as I think about my own faith journey, I do not have the slightest clue who it was who first told me about Jesus.  Honestly, I have no idea who it was who "evangelized" me.  It might have been a minister, it might have been my parents or grandparents, I don't know.  What I do know is that I have a very clear memory of all those throughout my life who have walked with me and shown me what it means to live like Jesus. 

To me, this is what evangelism is anyway.  Evangelism cannot be and thankfully is not "peddling" Jesus like we would vacuum cleaners or carpet cleaning services.  It is seeking to embody the life Jesus calls us to live.  It's doing our best to live in the manner he did and inspiring those around us to attempt to do likewise. Jesus never asked the question, "Are you a Jew?" or told those of a different belief system to change their understanding before he would join them on the journey. It did not matter if the one whom Jesus encountered was a Jew, a Samaritan, or even a Roman, He loved and served unconditionally, with grace, humility, compassion, and perhaps most importantly, respect.

The way of Jesus does not translate well to a billboard or a tract, but that's okay, it was never meant to. It won't sell many books or promote too many political campaigns (but imagine if it did).  The way of Jesus is meant to be embodied in and among all God's beautiful creation.  I am thankful to all those who have come into my life who have shown me The Way, not through words, but through a listening ear, a hug, a shoulder to cry on, and the demonstrated desire to walk with me on this journey. 

This is the kind of evangelism in which I desire to engage.  And come to think of it, I'm not all that great at this kind, either.  But walking with, loving, respecting, and listening to my fellow human beings sounds like something I'd much prefer to continue to improve.

Growth . . .

By Rev. Shane Isner

In the course of my workaday, church pastor life, I have occasional opportunity to chat with consultants.  Rarely is this by choice.  I’ll be at the office when a call comes in, “Can I speak with the pastor?”  “This is he,” I say.  The pitch begins.  “I’m Ms. Johnson, and I want your church to grow.”  

Well, how very nice of you, I’m known to think; services are at 10, and all are welcome.  But that’s not the growth Ms. Johnson has in mind (names changed, of course, for propriety’s sake).  She’s not offering to join the church.  Instead, she has a program to sell, a great opportunity: Five proven principles for making your church get bigger.

Typically, the call ends quickly, and not only because our church can’t afford it.  Frankly, I’m skeptical of most church consulting programs I’ve encountered.  First, it often sounds too simple, too easy.  Five basic principles, three stress-free program changes, just clearly articulate the church’s vision and values.  And then, so the narrative seems to suggest, all will be well and all will be lovely.  Again, I’m unconvinced, though I realize my response is slightly unfair.  No consultant I’ve spoken with actually promises quick fixes.  They’re typically honest about how challenging it is for churches to discern and define their identities.  They understand, usually, that modern religion isn’t paint-by-numbers.  Nevertheless, if there truly is some secret to explosive growth, I haven’t heard it.  Perhaps that explains why each consultant markets different products and plans.

That gets to my second reason for skepticism, derived from several plans our church previously crafted under outside guidance.  Invest in youth ministry, paper the neighborhood with invitations, within two years hire a family minister, within five years build a bigger sanctuary because, obviously, you’ll be bursting at the seams.  Some of those ideas proved useful, I’ve heard (these were tried before my arrival).  But they weren’t sustainable, and community life became challenging (as it always will!), and these old plans now read to me like records of failure.  At least, that’s how some experienced it.  So another plan was crafted, with different ideas, but those didn’t pan out as dictated either.  The deflating sense of “we can’t do this right,” however, returned in force.  And it hurt.

Thus my disinterest in the church growth guru industry.  I’m cognizant, though, of what my wife would say (she, the statistics master and early career church consultant), “Your experiences with consultants don’t define all consulting.”  Truth!  That got me wondering recently about what kind of planning or consulting would stir my soul rather than stoke my suspicions.  An idea emerged, that I’m sure wise consultants have sold before, but it’s new to me.  

You see, I realized that I get annoyed when churches talk about getting bigger, and call that growth, as if the two are obviously the same.  But are they?  My wife says, rightly, that focusing on numbers matters, but also that counting the right numbers matters even more.  The church-growth-as-getting-bigger project has the benefit of simplicity; only one number matters- How many people attend your church.  This provides clarity for decision makers.  Do what adds more people, avoid what keeps them away.

But suppose you’re convinced- like me—that a church can get bigger, but not truly grow.  Or it can stay the same size, and grow wildly!  Then, measuring “growth” would include different numbers than simply how many attend weekly, right?  Obviously, attendance numbers matter.  A lot.  It’s hard to grow in discipleship, spiritual depth, faithfulness when people aren’t coming, with their energy for worship waning.  Still, isn’t a church growing when its attendance is stable but its frequency of Bible Study increases?  When it uses more funds for feeding hungry neighbors?  When its sermons more consistently address issues broader than solely church concerns?  When members talk more about authentic family struggles than budget or building troubles?

I’m unsure how I’d transform that insight into a consulting process; I’ll leave that to my brilliant wife!  But I find the question interesting.  And I’m anxious to hear others’ answers.  What’s the difference between church growth and simply getting bigger?  How would you measure that?


Rev. Shane Isner is the pastor of a small Disciples of Christ church in the northwestern suburbs of Minneapolis.  He serves on several community non-profit boards, is the chair of his region's Commission on Ministry, loves his wife and his dog, and Jesus.  And the church!

I Don't Think Jesus is the Same Thing as a Big Mac

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

Being a Disciple pastor for the past twenty-five years means that I have been a pastor during the time of the “mainline decline.”  A time when our congregations have been dwindling in numbers of people and amount of resources.  Smaller congregations have led to struggles in denominational structures as well.  There are no longer funds to support the structures that were erected over the years.  Back in 1991, when I first returned to Indiana, we had five full time ministers in our regional office.  We are now down to two full-time and one 2/3 time; effectively half of what our ministerial staff was twenty-three years ago.  Most people reading this article are familiar with this “mainline decline.”  There is no need to review the multiple opinions/causes for what has happened.  I simply want to tell you about a decision I came to as pastor who has spent his career in the midst of this decline.

In the beginning of my life as a pastor, I spent a lot of time attending Church Growth seminars designed to help congregations turn the decline around.  These events were most often designed to help congregations understand how to become “seeker friendly.”  The appearance of the building and proper signage were often topics of discussion.  Workshops about marketing strategy involving how to advertise the congregation were usually on the agenda.  I once attended such a workshop where we spent a good portion of time talking about how McDonalds continually develops new commercials to entice people through the golden arches.  I suppose the point was it didn’t matter if the product was a Big Mac or Jesus, what mattered was how fresh was the advertising.  Of course, how to introduce contemporary worship and use the latest technologies were subjects taught to packed rooms of pastors all hoping to turn around their declining congregations.  Saddleback and Rick Warren, Willow Creek and Bill Hybels, Southeast Christian and Bob Russell were the mega-churches and celebrity pastors who were cited as success stories.  Somewhere along the way, however, it occurred to me that most of what I was encountering in these seminars was about how to numerically grow an organization and not how to be the church, the living body of Christ in the world.  The diagnosed problem was the declining number of people in the pews and the declining funds in the offering plates.  So everything was developed to turn around that situation.  Success was measured with increasing numbers. 

Well, over time, the decision I made was that I didn’t want to spend any more energy trying to become a church marketing expert.  There is something that is quite unsavory to me when Jesus and a Big Mac are lumped together. I decided that as a pastor the most important thing I can do is help the church to live as the church.  That is, to focus on being the living body of Christ in this world; spending our energy on living as a community of grace and love.  Seeking to be the kind of community that others would want to join – not because of our slick advertising campaign, or because we have the best praise band, or because we have theater seats or a family-life center (gym), but because we care for each other and seek to care for all others.  Because we try to practice radical hospitality where everyone is truly welcome – which, in my experience, is quite different than being seeker friendly. 

The congregation I presently serve has experienced the effect of the decline.  Thirty years ago, back in the early 80’s, the church averaged close to 350 in attendance for Sunday morning worship.  That would fill the pews for two services.  Now we hover right around 200 people on Sunday morning which means there are a lot of empty seats in both services.  We have spent some time recently talking about what that means for the future, especially as we have reaffirmed our commitment to stay downtown in our small community.  I try to be honest with the folks.  I could tell them that if we tried “this program or this marketing strategy or this new worship idea” then we would see things turn around.  But the truth is, most of the congregations I know who tried all the “church growth strategies” continued to decline.  So I try to be honest and tell folks that I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that our focus should simply and only be on living our faith as completely as possible.  Our energy needs to be spent on ministries of compassion and justice, of caring for the weak, feeding the hungry,  providing shelter for those in need, welcoming the stranger and the one who is different.  Our focus in worship shouldn’t be on musical performance or technological wizardry, but the common human need to realize we are part of Something bigger than ourselves. 

A blessing in all this for me has been that I think the folks in this congregation also believe that this is the way we should proceed.  The decline is real and it means decisions, sometimes difficult ones have to be made, but there seems to be a focus in the church on living our faith as authentically as possible for as long as possible.  Recently, a young leader in our congregation said, “If we die staying faithful to who we understand God has called us to be, isn’t that what following Jesus to the cross is all about.”  I thought that was a pretty good observation.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I love to see new faces in the pews.  When they come they even get a visitor letter, a welcome packet, and a doorstep visit with chocolate chip cookies. (The Church Growth seminars weren't all bad.)  We work hard at making those new folks aware of the many ways that are available for them to get involved, the various learning and service opportunities.  But I try not to be anxious about it all anymore, that anxiousness takes away from the energy that is needed to live as the body of Christ in this world.  That’s where I want all my time, energy and resources directed.  For the truth is, that is where I have found life.  Honestly, that’s where I think the church will find it too.       

Wrong is Right

By: J.C. Mitchell

 

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.  1 Corinthians 1:25

 

It is cold and dark, and my December schedule is very full.  So I have been daydreaming of riding my motorcycle.  There has not been time for a relaxing therapeutic ride this month.  So I do the next best thing: meditate on the lessons I have learned on such rides.

The one I want to share was a late afternoon ride that I was taking on dirt roads outside of town.  I was about 30 miles out of town when I decided to turn back and take the state highway home.  I got up to speed, and I noticed a lack of power.  I was certain there was something wrong with the engine, to keep the speed at 75 (or so) with the throttle all the way open.  There must be something wrong with the engine the way I was losing power in a consistent and steady way.  I decided I should just limp to town on less power.


I then saw a small country gas station and had a desire for a cola, so I lifted off the throttle and rolled onto the dirt.  I dismounted and saw my back tire was going flat from large puncture.  I was wrong.  I was so wrong, that if I went on my assumption further the tire would have started shredding.  I was very glad I was wrong.


Many churches (or individuals) are very certain they know what is wrong.  For example, I was having coffee last week and overheard a group from a church talking about what they needed to do to attract younger people.  I had heard every suggestion that I have heard before at the various churches I or friends have served.  Most of the ideas were not new, but they were certain that they would work if they could implement them correctly.  I do have to admit I could hear the tire shredding when one said, “We could attract young people if we change the time of the Board meeting, we should ask them what time.”  Oh yes, I start following Jesus, but it is because of the Board meeting’s time that keeps me from a particular church.  I see the ditch coming quickly.


I was certain my lack of horsepower was due to the engine, but because I listened to my gut, I stopped (and I was thirsty).  I did not really know until I stopped.  I avoided the ditch, and I was very happy to be wrong.


As I took off my helmet, I had no idea how I would get home.  I went into the country gas station and bought the cola.  The clerk at the counter looked for a plug and came out to see if we could plug the tire.  He only had one and it was certainly for a smaller hole.  However, with a little work with the reamer, a lighter, and the last plug he had, we got the hole filled.  Once pumped up the tire hissed slightly, and I pulled out onto the highway.  


I must admit I was nervous as I got up to speed.  I made sure I observed and checked that I was making progress.  Sure enough I got to the motorcycle shop in town.  They came up to the bike and before they saw the makeshift patch they could hear hissing tire.  


Often churches add programs to what they had been doing for years, as if these programs will draw people in not just for that new program but to fulfill what they know as church.  My motorcycle lesson suggests we need to stop, and see where we are wrong, before we end up in the ditch. If we figure out what we do not know and where we are wrong, we can perhaps with the help of a consultant or other observer, we will continue on the journey.   We may not be confident it is safe, nor should we be, but our success is found in our ability to share vulnerability. 


Most churches end up attempting to jump the shark, with all their baggage weighing them down, rather than doing the hard work down on your knees in the dirt with a lighter and a plug, new friends and a lot of faith and vulnerability, to bring the Gospel to town.


I am pretty sure Jonah and Paul were not motorcyclists, but both had been shown by God that they were wrong.  It would be wonderful if we could have such certainty, but honestly I believe it is because we cannot not see or hear over our own certainty of being correct.  However, will we respond as Jonah, or as Paul?  Will we whine about losing our own construction of God, or will we enjoy being wrong for God.  

 

JC on the bike.jpg

A Spiritual Routine

By Rev. Mindi

This post originally appeared on Edge Pieces, the blog for Open Gathering, a new Disciples of Christ Church plant on July 9th, 2013. It has been adapted slightly for [D]mergent for a wider audience.

One of the concerns I have as a pastor, and a parent of a child with special needs, is bringing spirituality into AJ’s daily life. As for many parents, church can be hard work. Sometimes people at church do not understand and can make church an unwelcoming place for those with special needs, who cannot sit still or stay silent. Sometimes sensory issues make it difficult to attend worship, and sometimes the older buildings are not fully accessible to those who have mobility needs. Traditional church, because it is only once a week and not every day like school or other activities, and it is not primarily focused on a specific person like once-a-week therapy sessions are, can be difficult to add into one’s weekly routine. We know many families for whom going to church is such a struggle, they do not even bother.

While I am at Open Gathering now, I also serve a small church in Burien, WA.  AJ goes to church most Sunday mornings with me to Burien Community Church. When I was not serving as a pastor when we lived in Oklahoma, I was able to sit with him and try to help him understand the order of service—now we stand, now we sing, now we sit quietly and pray, etc. Routine for many children with special needs is important, and in many of our church worship services, we can establish a routine more easily as the service usually follows the same format every Sunday.  I no longer am able to sit with AJ every Sunday morning as I am pastoring a church now, but I still try to help him understand the routine.  Because I cannot sit with him, sometimes he only understands the greeting time, and I let him use his iPad to stay quiet in the pew until the Children’s Message.  But he understands the routine: he puts the iPad down and comes to sit next to me on the chancel steps.  Then after the prayer, he can run down the aisle to the back and go downstairs for Children’s Church at my church in Burien.

But at home, spirituality is just as important. We try to model that God is in our lives everywhere, not just at church. Church is often just one day a week, and while we may be at the building during the week at other times, we do not have the same routine there.  So at home, we at least say prayers every night, something I have been doing with AJ since he moved from a crib to a bed. We read a book, and I try to read a child’s prayer book or baby Bible as the last story, then I say a simple prayer but fold his hands as well, and I close my eyes. Then I tuck him in.

During Advent, we began a routine of lighting the Advent Candles at home every night and doing a short reading and prayer. We did this at the dinner table so AJ was already sitting. We made sure the TV was off and no other distractions were on. It was a nice ritual of quiet time and reflection for our family during the Advent Season, but it also introduced something new for AJ. While I’m sure he didn’t understand the complete significance of it, he seemed to enjoy us sitting together and lighting candles.

Routine is important for many children with special needs. Establishing a spiritual routine, just like establishing a hygiene routine or any other practice takes practice.  Some families say grace before meals, and that is another wonderful (and traditional) way to introduce spiritual practice in the home.

At Open Gathering, what makes us unique is that we have made worship even more accessible for those used to routine because, while doing emergent-style worship, we have kept the same routine every time we gather: Music, Wondering, Table.  During Music we sing five or six songs from our songbook, songs that become familiar (we usually do two or three that we did the week before).  At Wondering, all are invited to come sit near the table for the Story—in which the Bible Lesson is shared in a Montessori-style storytelling. As part of the Wondering, we also do Work, in which we respond to the story. One can do Work by sharing one’s perspectives on the Bible lesson in a dialogue-sermon (often many of the adults do this in a corner of our shared space), or by staying put at the table and responding with art, crafts, and play. Then we all return to the Table for prayer, offering, and communion. We end by singing our benediction song together “Peace Before Us.”

Because our routine is simple and not a long list in a printed bulletin, Open Gathering is more readily accessible to those with special needs because it becomes familiar more quickly. We also have fewer “rules.” People are invited to dance and move as needed or desired during the Music time. During the Wondering time, we are invited to sit closer for the story, then during work we can sit or stand or move about as necessary.  We gather at the Table again for the end. We are invited to pray together, sometimes to sit together, but we are also invited to be ourselves.

***** 

Church leaders, there are many different ways to do worship. Perhaps you can inspire others to begin a spiritual routine at home, establishing a semblance of spiritual life that works for them and their family’s unique needs.  Perhaps there are families who simply are not able to attend worship due to unique needs or work schedules, but maybe there is still a way to reach out and include others by inviting them to begin a spiritual routine at home.