transformation

Forced Adaptation

By Rev. Mindi

In 2009, the world changed as we knew it.

We went from analog to digital TV.

Remember the concerns, the worries and concerns for senior citizens that would no longer be able to watch TV, that people wouldn’t be able to find the digital converter boxes (even though you could sign up for one for free) and that people would have to buy new TV’s?

We survived. The world didn’t end. Chaos didn’t erupt in the streets. And now, six years later, we’ve almost forgotten about that transition. Few of us have the big box TV’s anymore. When I asked my congregation a couple of weeks ago (using this change from analog to digital as my sermon illustration about change), only a couple of people still had a box TV. Everyone else had a flat TV, including the senior members of the church. Six years ago, there were concerns that senior citizens wouldn’t be able to accept the change from analog to digital, and that was the main argument against the change.

Turns out, senior citizens adapt pretty well, as do most of us.

What happens when the church is resistant to change and uses the excuse that our senior members can’t make the shift and change? One, we are telling ourselves a lie about a group of people, and two, at some point the change is inevitable and we either adapt, or our message is no longer received. Because it is almost always the very people who are afraid of a generation or group not being able to adapt to change that are unable to make the change. It is almost always the ones worried about others that cannot make the shift themselves. The results after the 2009 switch from analog to digital show that the largest group not ready for the shift were ages 35-54.  Not senior citizens.

I went out to lunch today and at the table was a tablet with card reader. This is now the third restaurant chain that I have been to in the last month that is switching over to this practice, where you pay right at the table when you are finished. The menu is even loaded and you can order your food from your table, but for now, the wait staff still come to your table and take your order the old fashioned way, but who knows for how long? More and more chains are having options of ordering online through an app and you pick your food up ready to go.  How many churches are still only taking check or cash for pledges and donations? How many church websites still do not have a mobile option? How many congregations still do not use social media? And how many times will we make the excuse that it is senior citizens who are not ready? 

1440 was the year technology changed the church forever, the year the printing press was invented. In the next one hundred years, Bibles would be mass produced and printed in languages other than Latin. The church was eventually forced to change. The next big shift is already happening, in both the ways technology is used within the church, but also the church itself, in how we organize, gather, and do mission and ministry. We are shifting from creating community to finding God already at work in the community. We are shifting from doing mission to help others to partnering with others in their God-given work. But some of us are adapting faster than others. Some of us are handling this shift better. 

As those of us that have congregational budgets operating on a calendar year know, this is Stewardship season. This is the time when we mail out the pledge cards and stewardship letters and invite people to give. However, unless we being to embrace technology, we are going to be left behind, or out completely, if we are still expecting people to carry cash or check. And unless we embrace the shift of partnering with our community that already exists, to do the work God is already doing, we are going to be shutting the doors of many churches that still think their mission is to share the message of Christ’s love but have no idea how to do it in today’s world.

There are hundreds of books out there about this shift happening in our church and culture, with authors who can state this far better than me. However, if we cannot admit that it's not senior citizens that have a problem of adapting, but ourselves, those of us in leadership, we are fooling ourselves and shutting the doors on our face.

Inside Out

By Rev. Mindi

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

There stood a church by a major road that said they wanted to grow. They had a beautiful old building and everyone in the community knew exactly where the church was, but few knew there was a congregation that still met there. They tried making better signs, but still, people zoomed by in their cars. Sometimes, people would stop and visit, and now and then some would stay and join the church. This congregation was not too small, but not very big. They held a Bible study and a youth group and four Sunday school classes. Still, they said they wanted to grow.

And yet… the church did not grow very much. Some were puzzled by this. Others were concerned, worried about finances. Most didn’t know what to do, except to say that they needed to advertise more. The church often said they wanted to grow, and immediately afterwards would add, “But we don’t want to be a megachurch.”

The church had traditions it practiced for years—a yearly retreat, a Christmas party—but the folks who had been there a long time never talked about what they were. The folks who had been there for a long time lamented that the new folks never came on the retreat. The newer folks said they were never invited, and they didn’t know where it was or what happened on the retreat. The Christmas party was held year after year, and everyone knew what they were supposed to bring except the new folks, who felt out of place if they came at all.

But the kicker was the time the church leadership purchased new mugs with the church logo, but gave them only to members and told the pastor and the greeters not to give them to any new people that day, because they were a gift for the church.

The church claimed to want to grow, but what it really wanted was to stay the same and not die. It wanted to keep the people they already had, and while they were friendly they were slow to welcome newer people into leadership, and sometimes those newer people faded away after a few years.

Sound familiar?

Maybe that church isn’t so far, far away after all, but way too close to home. We have become an internal institution with insider speak, hell-bent (for lack of a better term) on sticking to what we know because we don’t know what else to do. We don’t want to die, but we don’t want to do what it takes to change, because it means we have to change, and it means that the whole understanding of church we grew up with has to be turned inside out.

The first place to start is to stop. Stop using insider language. Start from within and work on moving outward. Start making sure that traditions are explained and not assumed. Start by assuming that not everyone always knows what everyone is talking about. The worst place insider language is used is in the talk of church membership. We assume everyone knows what membership means and why it is important. Even in my current church setting, though I have invited people to become a member almost every Sunday, it was only recently that someone who has been part of the church for a long time asked me about what it means to be a member and wanted to know if they could join. Even our membership language is insider language that needs to be turned inside out.

Next, look at those traditions and see if they are only practiced by a few (usually the folks who have been there a long time) and if it is time to start something new. Then look to moving outward. Moving ministries from inside the building, inside the time constraints, inside the leadership that has always done things one way at one time in one place and move back into the community.

We have to turn the church inside out in order for the church to be what it was intended to be: the body of Christ, the community of faith.


“But what about the people who have been here for so long? What about the people who have been part of this church their whole lives?”

When I’m asked that question, I often ask the person who is questioning me if they have talked to the senior generations in the church. In all of the ministries I have served, the oldest generation in the church has never been afraid of change—because everything already has changed.

We need to speak the truth. We need to stop talking about growing if we really just want things to stay the same. If we are the ones afraid of changing, then we must turn that fear inside out into hope. And if there is just one thing to change, one thing to start that you can do, its stopping our insider language.

Losing to Gain

By Rev. Mindi

I was called to a small church two and a half years ago, a church that promised a two-year agreement but couldn’t go beyond that because they would surely run out of money. They were in do or die mode, and it was going to be an incredible challenge. It was a congregation that met for Sunday School, worship, coffee hour, and once a month, a potluck supper and a board meeting.

Here we are, two and a half years later, beyond that two-year mark. We’re not much better off financially, but now we have a thriving Young Adult’s group that meets twice a month for Pub Theology, a restarted women’s group that meets monthly for lunch and to support local and global missions, and now an after-school tutoring program for students in need and we are preparing to do a summer day camp for students with disabilities and their typically developing peers. Except for the women’s group, the other three ministries received grant funds. We have also started a community organic garden, an annual Easter Egg Hunt, and participated in many more local missions and community events.

The truth is we still are hanging on the edge of financial sustainability, but the congregation seems to be doing well. We are in this together. We are struggling together and working to give more and to do more in the community, rather than sitting on what we have to survive. It’s been exciting to see.

Sadly, far too often churches, missions and ministries are cut short, told it is because of a lack of funding, but often it is a lack of vision. The inability to perceive beyond what is in front of them, the building closes, the congregation’s members are told to move on, the mission is dissolved, the ministry ends. But what is shocking is that often these churches, missions, and ministries end with thousands—sometimes tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even a few stories I have heard with seven figures—left in the bank. 

 

Did we not learn our lesson from Jesus’s Parable of the Talents?

I was talking with a colleague of mine who has started many churches, and he let me in on a secret: sometimes it is better to go forward with vision and little to no money, than to have money and a lack of vision, which often equates to money with strings attached.  Those strings may be an old guard vision of what church is or a perceived intention of the original givers, rather than being open to the movement of the Spirit in the here and now and the potential for ministry right in front of us.

A wise professor once told me that Jesus does not like big bank accounts on churches. It means we are not using God’s resources as God intended—to fulfill the needs of our neighbors in this world and to continue to share the Good News of God’s Love. But all too often, money sits in bank accounts and churches, missions and ministries close.

I’m really proud of the little congregation I have been called to. They don’t have much, but they are doing a lot with the little they have. And somehow, grant funds have come through and we’ve been able to do more than we could imagine. Even when it comes to the resource of time and people-power—we ended up receiving a couple of volunteers from the community and parents of students willing to volunteer and work with us. The more we dream and act, the more we seem to be able to do—and the worries over finances, while still there, seem less and less every day. God isn’t through with us yet. While we don’t know what the future holds, and maybe we’ve just postponed the closing date—no one can say we sat around worried about losing what we have any longer.

Change and Control

By Rev. Mindi

Recently I was part of a conversation with someone about a local nonprofit advocacy organization. The local nonprofit has had ups and downs but is less than three years old. It’s doing amazingly well for a new program. And yet, they told me that one of the founding board members feels the organization should fold because “it’s fizzling out. No one wants to be involved.”

I and others look around and see the amazing work this organization is doing, how it is reaching new people all the time, and wonder how in the world a founding member could say that. Then we realized that this founding member is tired and doesn’t want to be involved any longer, but does not want to see the organization proceed without them, and does not like the direction it is going with the new folks that have become part of it.

Immediately a little bell rang in the back of my head. This is just like church.

A lot of churches have people who are on the governing board who have been part of the congregation for a long, long time. They remember how great the church used to be, and all the programs it once had, and all the things they used to do—and because the church is no longer doing them, the church is fizzling out. Dying. Even if new people are coming in.

Now, we all know churches that hold on so dearly in hopes of not dying that they don’t ever change and eventually do end up closing. But I have seen a few churches in which those in leadership clung so tightly and were ready to have the church close and die as long as the hymns didn’t change. As long as the pastor they loved could bury them. As long as they could still sit in the same pew. And the leadership board never changed because they never asked anyone new, or made assumptions that new people couldn’t fulfill the commitments.

I guard against jumping to the conclusion that this is all elderly people in the church. Some of the greatest supporters for change in every church I have ever served and in many churches I have known have been my 80+ folks. While they love the old hymns they haven’t been afraid of trying a new song, or a new way of worship, or a new way of community involvement, even if they cannot participate at the same level any longer. I have found it doesn’t matter what age the person is; what matters is control.

Are those in leadership willing to let go of having control and allowing room for the Spirit to guide change in the congregation? Are we willing to let go of having control and allow room for new people with new ideas, insights and energy to move an organization forward? Are we willing to let go of “my way” or “our way” or “the right way?” And perhaps the greater question, for both the nonprofit organization and for our churches is this: can we be part of something we don’t have control of?

I see churches closing, but I also see a number of churches managing a great shift, from inward focusing to outward focusing, to finding new ways of being part of the ever-changing communities we are in. While these congregations may dwindle in numbers on Sunday morning, the impact they are making on the community is increasing tremendously. Making this shift does not mean these churches won’t close; but it does mean they gave the opportunity for the Spirit to be at work.

Churches, community organizations, nonprofits and others can learn from this: when we try to control and put our vision in place as the right one, it may work for a while but eventually it will fail. Because the Spirit works in community (we see this all the time in the book of Acts). The Spirit works when we come together and build vision together. When we try to maintain control, we have lost sight of the work of the Spirit among us. When we only have the same people, the vision grows stale. Leadership must change and grow, just as the church or organization must change and grow, and just as the community already is changing and growing.

Trust the Spirit; trust the process; trust that new leadership in the church will not let it fail. Even if they don’t do all the things you once did. Even if they don’t continue all the programs you did. Even if they come up with something very different than what your vision of the church should be. Trust the Spirit, and trust that new leaders will be open to the movement of the Spirit of God just as you are.

Social Media and Social Justice

By Rev. Mindi

I’ve heard so many people comment about what has happened in Ferguson, Missouri, with the words “It’s like the 1960’s all over again,” or “The South never changes.” Never mind that Ferguson, outside of St. Louis, is technically a Midwest town, what is happening in Ferguson, happens all over the United States. And what happened in the 1960’s never stopped in much of the country—what stopped was white people’s awareness of it. This is the reality for black people in the United States: they are more likely to be accused and harassed by citizens and police, more likely to die from violence at the hands of the state.

What has changed since the 1960’s, however, is social media. While the news has covered Ferguson, though it was very slow to do so on national networks, individuals have been reporting via Twitter and Facebook, and livestreaming audio and video. We get not just one eyewitness account of what is happening, but multiple accounts from multiple viewpoints, giving us an overall narrative of what is happening in real time.

A similar thing happened when news of Robin William’s passing broke last week. The hashtag #FaithintheFog came through as a way for people of faith who have mental illness to talk about the stigma, the backlash in the church, and the ways the church has not always been helpful, but harmful.

Social media has offered people an opportunity to share within a global community network about what is going on, to engage in conversation and to build a greater narrative together. The church needs to follow suit. The church universal has the opportunity to engage in a greater narrative, to tell its stories and engage what is important.

Last week, I wrote about #NMOS14, the National Moment of Silence 2014 that took place across the country on Thursday. As was noted on Twitter by @FeministaJones, most of the vigils were organized by diverse people under the age of twenty-five (for more information about how this movement got started, click here).

When I came to my current church two years ago, it didn’t even have internet. We have had to build from scratch: website, Facebook and Twitter, and a weekly e-newsletter. But we don’t leave out those who do not use social media: we print the e-newsletter for those without email. We try to highlight something that happened on Facebook or Twitter in the newsletter so others can read it.

But we are not stuck behind. We are moving forward and working to join in the greater narrative. And the church universal needs to be sure to move with it. The old dismissals of “That’s not real connection or relationships” need to die. #NMOS14 happened because of social media. In Seattle, the momentum is still going and requests for further gatherings to talk about justice issues and follow up with action has all happened because of social media, and there is also accountability because once something is on the internet, it’s on the internet.

Sure, what we have now—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.—will fade away and something new will come. I hear that argument all the time. But if we just wait for the next thing, we will miss out now. Growing up in Alaska, we didn’t have a phone for years—we had a CB radio. My friends in the villages also had CB radios. But if they just kept waiting for land lines to come in, they would still be waiting. Entire villages in Alaska, Canada, South America and Africa—have gone from no phones to smart phones with 4G service. 

The world has changed fast and will continue to do so. But the cause of justice has not changed. Racism has not changed. The stigma around mental illness has not changed. And these things will not change, unless we join in the greater narrative and work for peace and justice with our brothers and sisters in this country and around the world.