Creedal, church plants & character…

Maybe y’all don’t have this problem in Canada. But indulge me as an American writer soon to move north of the 49th.
In the US we don’t have enough fast-growing church plants in mainline contexts. The Gathering UMC in St. Louis is a counter-example. It’s one of five United Methodist church plants to grow from nil to a thousand worshipers over the past ten years (the others are in Atlanta, Nashville, Kansas City, and improbably, Sioux Falls SD). We mainliners usually leave multi-site and mega to evangelicals. Yet if sociologist Mark Chaves is right, 1 in 10 worshipers in the US now worships at a multi-site church. Stew on that number for a moment. And then ask yourself whether mainline churches can leave that demographic to evangelicals alone.

Part of Rev. Matt Miofsky’s secret is that he has borrowed unashamedly from evangelicals. He and I both inhabit an overlapping space and claim both descriptions, mainline (open to women and gays, closed to fundamentalism, avowedly non-partisan) and evangelical (trying to preach the gospel to all people as creatively and winsomely as possible). Matt has noticed some things evangelicals do really well in planting that we in the mainline fail at. Conversely he’s seen some built-in advantages we have that his evangelical friends can only lust after.
One, evangelicals pay attention to character. To put it that baldly feels like it’s designed to shame mainliners. It’s not, but if it has that effect, so be it. Mainliners, Miofsky says, tend to get taken with charisma and then send someone out to plant. That person usually fails if charisma is all he or she has. And one key point of character is whether they’ll stay with the mainline even when the going gets tough. Many plant a church that grows that they then break off and make independent—their ego is more important than the church that grew them. Evangelicals, on the other hand, ask whether this person has the character of someone who can stand to fail regularly and often on the way to (perhaps unlikely) success. Further, evangelicals will examine the character of the planter’s spouse. Will she (usually she) be ok with regular repeated failure and likely job insecurity?

This absence of interest in character is surprising. Mainline ethicists have launched a revival over the last generation in character ethics in the academy led by Stanley Hauerwas and his students. When we ask what the moral good is we don’t so much arbitrate the question with open minds. We rather concentrate on becoming the sort of people who do the right thing without having to deliberate. For all this talk of character in the university very little of it has gravitated to those who train church planters. That should change.
Conversely we mainliners have something evangelicals do not: a built-in network. The UMC exists as a connection of churches that don’t try to go it alone but rather rely on one another. But we don’t leverage this gift for planting. So, many mainline churches bump along, struggling to stay open but never becoming viable. In Methodistland we never ask those churches to close. But Miofsky, counter to convention, has. He was having lunch with one pastor of such a church when she suggested he ask her board if they might consider closing and turning over their property to The Gathering. He accepted the invitation and they voted that very night to dissolve themselves and becoming part of The Gathering’s mission. The church sold the parsonage and made the building another worshiping site. At first Miofsky’s district freaked out. How dare they ask that! Shouldn’t the money be pooled and given equally to all churches in the district? Or maybe there could be an application process to see who is awarded the money? By then it was too late. These churches have struggled along for decades, no one has a fresh idea for them, until The Gathering—why should he give the money back? Now the problem is more churches want to close and hand over property to The Gathering than they can handle. “My evangelical friends wish they had our networks,” he said. “They just can’t believe we’re not leveraging them.” He also hired the pastor who made that first connection at The Gathering.

Miofsky has a few more secrets for what makes for a multi-site mini-megachurch (technically megachurches have over 2000 in worship). One, it helps that he launched this place in his hometown. He has deep networks of family and friends in St. Louis, “so when worship was really bad, at first, they stuck with us,” he says. Many mainline churches look longingly at evangelical megachurches and resent them: ‘If we had that kind of money our worship would be awesome too.’ But The Gathering’s worship wasn’t awesome at first, not for a while. The deep rootedness of being in a local place allowed Miofsky and The Gathering to make early mistakes, to learn, and eventually to grow sustainably. Two, we need to train pastors differently. Miofsky is no seminary hater. He loved his studies at Candler School of Theology and thinks some topics, like bible and church history, can’t easily be taught on the job. But most can. So The Gathering hires loads of interns. They get to audition someone for a summer and consider hiring them when they graduate. Miofsky’s not convinced someone needs to be an ordained elder or even a person considering ordination to be a church planter. They just have to love Jesus, to be resourceful, to be willing to reach out creatively to unchurched people. And finally it helps to have launched in a town without a lot of similar churches. St. Louis has plenty of Catholic parishes (Miofsky grew up in one). It has plenty of tired old fashioned mainline churches. But unlike, say, the bible belt or SoCal, it’s not had an abundance of creative non-denominational church plants. Miofsky has his eye on similar cities with a similar lack cities in Colorado and Wisconsin. It’s not clear how those will work given he won’t have the long roots in those towns. But as mobile as folks are these days, The Gathering already has a small group meeting in Chicago that listens to his sermons and gathers for fellowship. Who knows what can happen?

To only have 5 church plants in the whole UMC grow to four figures in ten years is sad and almost embarrassing. To fail at one of these is expensive—a salaried pastor costs more than $70K a year, and most grants for startups end up covering little more than her or his salary. To fail at even one, a conference is looking at more than a $200K loss in an era of cuts across the board to vital denominational ministries. Surely we can start cheaper than that, leaner, more creatively. And perhaps, given our networks and our deep roots in many places, more fruitfully than that.

Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee is the new Butler Chair of Homiletics and Biblical Interpretation at the Vancouver School of Theology.

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Joy Comes in the Morning

I have been working on my ThM thesis, “Joy Comes in the Morning: The Eschatological Imagination and Trauma Healing.” An unusual partnership, perhaps, but my heart leapt with joy when I first made the connection between theology and trauma healing. What a gift to join my love of learning about our Trinitarian God and the journey of trauma healing (something that also resides close to my heart). In engaging with the topic of trauma healing and the eschatological imagination, I had ample opportunity to see the gift of the one in the truth of the other.

This thesis is my attempt to imagine a present and future world that is sustained by God. It was my attempt to envision a trauma healing journey that is fully protected and companioned by God. I have viewed trauma healing through the lens of the eschatological imagination in order to show God’s presence in the ‘now’ of trauma and healing. The eschatological imagination also shows the ‘not yet’ of the healing that is still to come. I have written about trauma healing journey from the perspective of entering into the freedom and imagination of God. The past in-breaking, the present continuing, and the future fulfilment of the Kingdom of God was my road map, example, and guide.

The journey, though pictured with the eschatological hope and promise, is not wrought without pain. How could a story of trauma be anything but! Indeed, the very fact that the eschatological story of Jesus Christ began at that very depths of hell, feeling abandoned, forsaken, and in agony, suggests that the trauma journey will not be without agony either.

The movement from one stage to another may also be wrought with much. Time and space is needed to settle into that new place. There will be an emptiness that fills the space of where the trapped story, and its emotions, once lived. There will be an initial blank page to one’s story. The old story has been told but the new story has not been written yet. These times may feel worse, especially now that the survivor has access to her feelings. Indeed, the removal of one from a traumatic environment into a place of freedom can feel more traumatizing. Freedom does not, at first, feel good when one has never known freedom before. And yet,
“the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.”

This is an eschatological vision for the last days. And yet, how can they be lived and breathed in the here and now as we live in the already but not yet?
And so I ask you, the readers of this blog post, where did you go in your own imagination when you read these verses? Were you able to see the vision as it was read or did a few other images cloud this vision or did other images just get in the way?

Maybe there are times when we can’t imagine the flowing river, or can’t imagine being carried along on the river’s current. Maybe there are times when the river is more like a trickle, struggling desperately to keep moving in the right direction and not dry up. And so it is in those times that we need to hear that even if we can only stand on the bank of the river, we are not standing in an empty place. No, the tree of life is standing there too.

And what of any tree come springtime and the sense of newness and new beginnings that come from glimpsing the first buds of the season? These are just the leaves from your regular every day tree. How much more could it be, when we are in the presence of the tree of life?

The curse of guilt will be gone. The curse of death will be gone. The curse of sorrow will be gone as will the curse of pain. In its place will be blessing, life, joy, and comfort. What will that day be like? And how much better will it be to know we are serving One whom we love, and who loves us more than we could ask or imagine?
I wonder what it would be like for us to know that there will be no more waking up in the night with anxious thoughts in a room that is dark and lonely. What would it be like to know that there will no longer be dark places where danger lurks, evil reigns, shame grows, or secrets hide. To know there will be an end to the terrors of the night. The terrors in our minds and in our neighbor’s minds. The violence in our cities and in our neighbor’s countries. Thanks be to God, the dark has lost the upper the hand.

I wonder what it would be like when there will be no light that is so harsh that our eyes close in pain. No longer will there be the sun that shines at times so mercilessly that the world’s lands are scorched, barren, and dry. No longer will we need a lamp to read the news of the world from a distance. We will have God’s light to bring all of Creation into our hearts so that it can never be forgotten. No longer will there be those changing room lights that seem to expose more of our flaws than bring out our beauty. God will be our light and it will be enough.

The chains of oppression will be replaced by the freedom throne of God. And with just one look, God’s name will be anointed upon our foreheads. A forehead so often crinkled in worry, frustration, or anger. One look from God and there will be a relaxing of the furrowed brow. And when another looks at us, they too will know peace.
And so, dear readers, I leave you with these questions. Where is your imagination taking you these days? What image or vision is your heart fixed on? Is it a vision that is life-giving or a vision that is death-taking? Where do you still seek God’s healing? Where do you still hear the cries of the poor and the marginalized, the groaning of the earth, and the sighs of the silent?
And may you gaze upon the world with the eyes of love.

Margaret Trim is the Coordinator of Academic Records and Admissions at The Vancouver School of Theology. Margaret will receive her ThM degree at the May 2015 VST Convocation.

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From Crisis to New Discoveries: Five principles for churches considering transition

In times of change, churches, like many organizations, engage familiar paradigms and old ways of coping, much to the frustration of those involved. Here are some helpful principles as you consider moving from crisis to new life.

ONE: Practice judo, not karate: Both are martial arts. However, one is aggressive while the other uses the momentum of the attacker to cause disequilibrium and render the attacker vulnerable. Every crisis that the church faces has the potential to become an innovative and creative growth opportunity. A church building that burns, the death of the pastor, a noisy community centre next door, the decline of members and reduced financial giving are all opportunities. How we use these can make the difference between life and death, literally. The ways we respond can indicate how tuned in we are to God, ready to accept the excitement that awaits us around the corner. To learn, we need to change our posture: from talking to listening, from arrogance to humility, from resisting pain to engaging it and letting it drive change.

TWO: People first, not institutions, buildings, or programs: The greatest and most precious asset of the church is not property but people! Yet we seem to pay scarce attention to that asset. Lately the church has largely been a place where individuals gather to worship and where specialized people in specialized roles deliver an experience that is consumed by those who attend. That is not the church … it is a gathering of the church! The church is the body of Christ, called to live its faith in public, wherever God places us. Unfortunately many in that body don’t know how to do this or feel inadequate as God’s representatives in the world.

The most effective strategy for the church to flourish in this time of uncertainty and anxiety is to equip, empower and mobilize the laity. It has to be done with intentionality and urgency. We don’t build better buildings or more programs to bring outsiders into the church; rather we build insiders (the church) to go out and live among outsiders, as the church. Growing a missional church involves growing missional members!

THREE: Think Realm of God, not empire; whole not part: There is a reason that the metaphor of the “human body” is used to describe the church in the New Testament. Even though every part is of equal importance and value, and has a different function, it has one singular purpose: to ensure the health of the whole body! Understanding and living this is key to a healthy church and to the will of God for the whole Church. Quite contrarily, we seem to have taken the opposite route, in our desire to specialize, by separating and isolating the different functions of church life and expression. So we have mission committees, service teams, social justice advocacy groups, and so on, each of which fulfills their particular mandate. Sadly, they often work in isolation, unable to tie in to the overall purpose of the church in terms of God’s Realm. From local congregations that find it difficult to collaborate for the greater good to church agencies that operate in silos, we seem to have lost the ability to engage a holistic approach to mission. Fortunately there are signs of change as we are pushed into crises and tight corners.

FOUR: First a compass, then the clock: Churches get mired in the details of strategic planning. The usefulness of planning, however, is limited to environments that are relatively predictable and stable. Such is not the landscape today. Often the goals are unclear and the pathways are like shifting sands. Today, following the Spirit and using the Spirit’s compass that sets direction and priorities is the most effective way to approach the mission of the church. Setting our compass means that we develop sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit, find out where God is at work, and discern our path forward. Often however, in our haste to “do something,” churches get trapped in planning and implementation without a clear sense of purpose and direction. In a context of dwindling resources, this is disaster in the making!

FIVE: Marathon, not a sprint: We want change yesterday! We expect that the culture of church will be reshaped and reformed in a year, maybe two. Annual budgets are made with the hope of short turn-arounds; people are assigned impossible tasks; and worse still, committees get busy applying the usual technical fixes to challenges that require new learning.

Building communities of faith is a long-term project that may look (and feel) hugely different from church models of the past. New versions will emerge, but not at our “fast-food-take-out” pace. They will grow in unlikely places and in unconventional ways as outposts of God’s Reign and centres of new life, grace, and gospel for their communities. Partnering with the Holy Spirit in listening actively to the community, developing trusting relationships, and engaging in loving service all require patience. We need to see this as a long distance race, and prepare for it.

A final word: Knowing these ideas is a good start; applying them is what’s important. This takes leadership, sound strategies, and supportive structures, all of which will look different in each local context.

Chris Pullenayegem is Animator for New Ministry Development in The United Church of Canada, providing leadership in the development of new ministry, evangelism, and discipleship.

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Weird or Relevant? You pick.

At the Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis a few years back, I heard Bishop Will Willimon speaking in a revived (not resurrected) Methodist church about culture. He noted that Billy Graham and Jim Wallis usually begin sermons with cultural problems.

Willimon argues that most of the biggest theological mistakes the church has made have been made in the interest of evangelism. The second biggest theological mistakes have been made in the name of apologetics. “Attempting to make the Gospel credible doesn’t help,” he says. It’s one thing to make contact with the culture around us but ultimately we’re stuck with Easter.

And here’s where Willimon stopped me dead in my tracks, because I’m the type of person who always tries to apologize, explain, and adapt: “Church shouldn’t relate to culture but should smack the culture.”

Harsh language, I know.

But his point was this: we have limited our preaching to those on top of the culture, the people in power. When culture is more interesting than Jesus, we give away the story and limit our scope. “Our greatest challenge is to be relevant to the God who meets us in Jesus Christ.” It was a call to disconnect ourselves from the culture long enough to be in relationship.

I have a phobia about large gatherings of clergy. It’s usually in such groups I hear phrases like, “cutting-edge worship.” Whose cutting edge? Yours? Is it because you use candles? Good for you. I’m really happy that you’re happy.

But here’s my take on this ‘cutting edge’ business in church-speak: Stop trying to make church relevant. It isn’t. It can’t be. It shouldn’t be. It won’t be.

If you’re like me, your greatest competitor for Sunday morning isn’t sports or the mega church down the street; it’s Hallmark. Or, the theology of Hallmark to be more precise. The phenomenon of Niceianity.

I have a vivid memory of standing outside the funeral home at my mother’s wake when a well-meaning Christian walked up to me and said, “We both know that God did this for a reason. Everything happens for a reason.” I’m not sure, but I think I grew fangs and my eyes glowed at my displeasure by the comment.

A Baptist pastor friend of mine (who strongly disagrees with me on this) calls it a classic tool for evangelism: the bait and switch. Twerking for Jesus? Sure! (Twerk: True Worshipers Effectively Reaching the Kingdom.) U2charist? Why not. (I can’t actually say that word out loud.) Matrix-themed church service? Jesus knows Kung-Fu, too.

Our relationship with culture is part of the reason why we experience a certain anxiety when church people now expect Christmas to start the day after Remembrance Day, and when people are led to believe that (according to advertising) “Nobody knows Easter like Cadbury.”

I can hear the holy “Yeah, Buts” (and I agree with a lot of them) yet I really do think the argument can be summed up best with a bumper sticker from a car that almost ran me over in Nashville: “Keep Jesus Weird.”

Aaron Billard serves in ministry with St. John’s United Church in Moncton, NB and is digital abbot of Unvirtuous Abbey (

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Trudging Towards Resurrection!

“This year I’m trudging towards resurrection,” he said as he handed me the article in which he’d read the phrase.

My friend had finally signed the lease for a retirement residence. After a three-year search and 12 visits to different residences, he is ready to move into long-term care.

Perhaps ready is not quite the word. He is left with no other options.

I was helping him pack pots and pans, when he said, “Do you know how difficult it is for me to get rid of these things!” And when he heard himself say it, he was bold enough to say, “this is not about things, this confirms my loss of independence and what appears to be a loss of personhood. It’s my ever-increasing dependency on others to do the things that I took for granted. It’s my diminishing vision and my fragility; it is my grappling with all of this.”

We packed in silence. No words necessary. This was the transition from one stage of his life to another.

The fact that this is likely the final stage of his life is what he wrestles most with. “I’m trudging towards resurrection,” he declared. “My experience tells me it will be enough!”

That morning I left my friend and went to a hospital downtown to see a couple who had triplets. A few days after the triplets were born, I officiated at their wedding ceremony in the chapel at the hospital, a place where they had spent many hours over the past four months in reflection and prayer for safe delivery, and then praying for the development of their premature little ones. The hospital chapel had become a place of deep significance for them. This was a time of transition in their lives, and they were trudging cautiously, tentatively, hesitantly towards resurrection.

Walking out of the hospital, I met a colleague and we both said in synchronized harmony, “what are you doing here?” He told me that he and his partner had just lost a baby. “I’m too exhausted to even think now.” We did not need to say anything else.

During Lent, I kept wondering what this astounding journey of transitions, of transfigurations, of denials, of transformations, of letting go, of embracing, of giving up, of Good Fridays, of Holy Saturdays, might mean as we ‘trudge towards resurrection’ in our own lives!

Might it mean a transition from independence as an able bodied man, to one who is learning to open himself to interdependence, and likely in the near future, to a deep trust in others who care for and nurture you?

Could it look like a transition from a longing and yearning for a child, having lost two in recent years, to the joys, interwoven with fears and uncertainty, that accompany now having triplets?

Maybe it is a transition from joyful expectancy, to pinching grief and pining after that which had been, and is no more.

Perhaps as we “trudge towards resurrection” each day, we remind each other that we cannot avoid any of these transitions. Nor can we manage them like we attempt to manage so many things in our lives.

But we can learn to hold them close and allow them to hold and enfold us, knowing that we do not walk alone.

The God of Resurrection journeys with us!

Basil E. Coward serves in ministry with Victoria Square United Church in Markham, ON, and teaches at George Brown College in Toronto.

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The Resurrection Stone (based on John 20:11-18)

The tears of a woman weeping, wond’ring
Lost and Frightened
Grief is heightened
Because he’s gone

The eyes of a woman seeking succour
Searching inward
Searching cautious
Where has he gone?

Where has my Lord gone?

And the angels sit watch
Healing hearts, healing hands
one at the head and the other at the feet.
The cries of a woman, making demands
Alone and abandoned
Where has he gone?

Where has my Lord gone?

“They have taken away my Lord,
and I do not know where they have laid him.”
He has gone, and he is gone, and he will be gone

For everything there is a season?
Turning, turning around to go
Turning around forlorn
And torn
Time to walk, time to go

The tears of a woman, river run dry
The eyes of a woman, too tired to spy
The cries of a woman, the man mystified

“Woman, why are you weeping?
Whom are you looking for?”

And the woman begs and pleads
To the man of the earth
To the man of new birth
Downward glancing, she needs
To know where has my Lord gone?

“Tell me where you have laid him,
and I will take him away.”

The words of the man, consoling, kind
Strong and tender
Words defend her
Heart from breaking
He is not gone

The hands of the man, welcoming, warm
She wants to grasp
She needs to clasp
She must not touch him

“Do not hold on to me”
The feet of a woman, never fleeter
James and John and Peter
Run out to meet her and hear her
Words of greater wonder
They had never heard

“I have seen the Lord”
He has come, and he is coming, and he will come again
I have seen the Lord
He is risen!

Lorraine Hill is a doctoral student at Emmanuel College in Toronto and serves in ministry with Home United Church in Caledon, ON.

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Easter Day

Easter 2015 from Unvirt Abbey

Props to #unvirtuousabbey

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