A solid vision in a changing world

Each of us has hopes and dreams.

Congregations do, too.

It’s neat when a group of people come together with a common vision. There’s power when many people pursue a plan with one voice.

A rural church near Oberlin, Ohio, had dreamed and prayed for a new home for almost 20 years, since their decades-old site no longer served them well.

Eventually, their prayers were answered.

The 50-member Christian and Missionary Alliance Church congregation purchased a 5,000-square-foot empty former private home “in a serene place tucked away from the machinations of modern-day life,” according to the Chronicle-Telegram of Elyria, Ohio.

“It was the very church they’d dreamed of all those years.”

A new church, of sorts

In a similar way, the much larger, multi-campus church my wife and I attend has dreamed for many years of opening a campus in Lorain, Ohio. The Church of the Open Door operates campuses in Elyria, Avon Lake (where we attend) and Vermilion. The three sites surround Lorain. (If you’re checking my geography, Sheffield and Sheffield Lake stand between Lorain and Avon Lake to the east, and Lake Erie is the fourth boundary, to the north.)

It’s finally happening.

The church hired a Lorain campus pastor earlier this year. Prayer teams, small groups and community outreach have already begun, even before the Lorain building opens.

Unlike the Oberlin church’s dream, our Lorain campus vision is urban.

Our senior pastor offered this explanation for the Lorain vision:

 

Jesus said to the followers, “Let us go to the towns near here so I can preach there also. That is why I came.”

Mark 1:38

 

When the Lorain pastor shared his vision for a multi-ethnic, multi-racial congregation that serves the city, including the immediate community around the new building, I – and several dozen others – caught the vision.

In a way, I’ve been down this road before.

Reality re-shapes a vision

We raised our three sons in Saginaw, Michigan. We were active at Ames United Methodist Church, an inner-city church in the middle of a West Side neighborhood.

One day, when our children still were very young, the denomination did some census-type research for us, and we discovered the average church member was a 65-year-old woman. This was not unusual for a mainline church that had thrived in its community for more than a century.

We were faced with some crucial decisions. We could continue as is, which many churches choose to do. When that 65-year-old woman dies in the next couple of decades or so, the church would fade into history, as many churches have done.

Or, we could take some specific, intentional steps to not only survive, but thrive.

More research revealed that the vast majority of members – including my family – commuted to the inner-city church from the suburbs. When Ames was built in the 1870s, everyone walked. Over time, adjacent houses were torn down and a parking lot was built. The church grew and thrived, topping 1,000 attendees in the early 1960s. By the time my family arrived, attendance was more like 350 to 400 at two Sunday services.

The neighborhood changed; so must the church

And the congregation was aging.

  • Our first decision was the most crucial: Do we move the church to a suburb where many members lived, or do we continue in the city?

God could have used the church either place, but what did He want us to do?

The vote was more divisive than we anticipated: 55 percent to 45 percent. We voted to stay in the city, but not for the right reason. Many longtime members wanted to continue “church” as is. In a world of rapid change, the church was the one solid foundation that stayed the same.

But it couldn’t.

The church would eventually die.

That wasn’t an option.

Even though the vote was close, our pastor at the time took the decision as a mandate to re-connect with our neighborhood. We did a door-to-door survey to assess needs (my wife participated in that).

  • We hired a full-time youth director, even though we had very few active youths at the time.

Why hire a staff person when we didn’t have hardly any young people to attend?

That’s why, actually.

We hired a man to build a youth program from scratch, reaching “church” kids and “neighborhood” kids. In general, the “church” kids had a basic understanding of the Bible, while many “neighborhood” kids did not. That made for – and still makes for – a unique opportunity for ministry, with many successes and failures.

  • We changed the church leadership structure to emphasize ministry and evangelism, and not so much sitting around tables debating issues.
  • We did one more thing that proved to be the most controversial decision of all: We changed the traditional 11 a.m. worship service to a contemporary service. With drums and guitars.

A drum set on the altar is sacrilege to some folks. When you’ve used a hymnbook and organ your entire life, that’s what you’re comfortable with. We kept the 9 a.m. service traditional for them, but some older folks had trouble getting going that early in the morning.

We lost some members over that.

Changing the style, not the message

While the worship style changed, we made one thing clear: The message of the church would not change.

Jon M. Dennis, a pastor in Chicago who helped lead a conference on urban ministry I attended recently, puts it this way:

 

When urban churches are not flexible (usually ending up in decline or closing), it’s often because we’ve confused that which is permanent with that which is transient …

One thing that absolutely doesn’t change is the person and work of our Savior and Lord, for “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).

Christ + City, p. 178

 

Most of our elderly members bought the vision. They understood that if the church was to survive and even thrive, we had to change our style. We had to connect with a younger crowd. We had to reach out to the transient, lower-economic, multi-ethnic neighborhood that surrounded our building.

The contemporary service worked. The goal wasn’t to bring 1,000 people into the pews, but to do ministry that matters, to develop relationships and connect with people.

Committed to the vision

Some time later, a predominately African-American church in our denomination in Saginaw closed its doors – and merged with ours. Overnight, our congregation became multi-racial as well as multi-ethnic. We welcomed them, not only as members, but as leaders. Several African-Americans took leadership positions in the church. They brought their gospel choir with them, and the Sunday morning music program was greatly enriched as it rotated with the chancel choir and the bell choir (plus the children’s choir).

Sure, there were bumps. Our pastor was 100 percent committed to the merger, and many of us on all sides bought in.

Some didn’t. We couldn’t get discouraged. Those who stayed were committed.

These things happened a decade or two ago. Ames continues to evolve, seeking God’s will in the neighborhood. People have left (including us, due to a job move) and new folks continue to come in.

When our Lorain church opens its doors sometime this spring, we will have the backing of a multi-campus congregation. But Elyria and Avon Lake attendees won’t determine whether the Lorain campus thrives or not.

How committed are we to our neighborhood, to the city?

At least a dozen of us pray on Tuesday mornings for the new church and for people connected with it. That’s just one thing that we’re doing.

We’re off to a great start, even before the building opens.

Urban ministry gets messy, but it also can be extremely rewarding. We’ll see where God leads us.

The best Christmas gift

I tried to do a little yard work yesterday, but it rained all day. Squish squish. Not good for raking.

Later in the afternoon, the rain turned to snow. We woke up today to this, taken from our front doorstep.

It’s pretty. I like winter.

The 14 mph winds make it cold, however. I can handle the 29-degree temperatures, but the biting wind cuts through me.

Since winter weather was predicted, the city was ready for it. The main roads, including through our neighborhood, are fine. I had no trouble running a few errands this morning.

But those final leaves got buried. Will the snow clear in time to rake them to the curb, where the city will collect them? Yes, I imagine so, since the leaves already at the curb are buried too.

I was hoping to mow the yard one more time before winter.

Right.

I know a guy around here who mowed his yard last February – in between snow showers. I’m not kidding.

I still might mow, if the ground hardens enough after the snow melts. I’ve mowed the first week of December before (after a late-November snowfall, as well). I’ve also stopped mowing at Halloween and called it good.

We’ll see.

According to weather.com, we’ve received almost 6 inches of precipitation this month. The average for November is 3.38 inches.

https://weather.com/weather/monthly/l/44035:4:US

No wonder my yard is slushy under the snow cover.

georgetown3

The city repaved the street in front of our driveway this summer. Hopefully we won’t see the potholes this winter and next spring as the temps warm up and the road thaws.

Safe at home

I’ve met a few of the neighbors in the year and a half we’ve lived in this neighborhood, but not very many, really. I see them doing yard work in the summer, when I’m outside too. A good New Year’s resolution might be to meet a few more of them, to learn their stories.

But most of the time, we remain inside our well-insulated houses. It’s easy to not get involved.

Since no one trusts each other anymore, I wonder how successful efforts to talk with neighbors might even be.

I can’t forget a trip I took to Mexico City almost 30 years ago where I saw Third World poverty up close.  It wasn’t unusual to see three generations living in a one-room shack. In crowded Mexico City, neighbors lived very close to each other, with thin walls between them.

When one family had no food to eat, the neighbors shared what little they had, because the favor would get returned. Neighbors took care of each other, literally.

Those Mexicans were some of the happiest people I’ve ever met.

Rich materially, poor in spirit

Americans, in contrast, are lonely. Depression, stress, suicide, overeating, bullying … so many of us hide our true selves. It’s easy behind the walls of our mansions. All of us – and I mean all of us – live in mansions compared with most people in the world.

We don’t know how rich we are. And how poor in spirit.

The Christmas season emphasizes both extremes. We spend money we think we have on relatives who don’t need what we’re buying for them, while we miss the whole point of the holiday: Christ’s birth as a baby. God’s gift to us was a child who, when He grew up, showed us how to live in harmony with God and with each other.

Getting personal

Jesus didn’t give material possessions.

He and his father were carpenters. They could have built something tangible and offered that as a gift to their close relatives. Perhaps they did that.

But that’s not Jesus’ legacy. His gift to us? Himself.

A human’s heartbeat doesn’t wrap well under the tree. But I have nothing better to offer you than … me.

Perhaps this is why I struggle with Christmas every year. I’m horrible at figuring out what material gifts are meaningful to those closest to me. (I don’t buy much for myself either. I suppose I should buy new sneakers one of these days, since my everyday shoes have holes in them.)

I’m also not good at giving myself as a gift. It’s easy to stay inside my warm, comfortable house, like everyone else around here does.

When we moved into the neighborhood last year, my wife baked some cookies and took a tray to several of our immediate neighbors. We rang their doorbells and introduced ourselves. The neighbors all said thanks and chatted with us for a few minutes, but nothing has developed since with any of them.

We stay in our own shells, in our comfort zones.

We live in our own worlds, and don’t connect with others who may think differently than we do.

Where’s the common ground? What connects us?

If we don’t share our lives with others, we’ll never find that common ground.

As an introvert, I use that as an excuse to keep to myself. I wonder if many extroverts are hiding insecurities, so that’s their reason not to take the next step. We all have our reasons, don’t we?

Perhaps we need each other anyway.

There’s a Christmas gift worth sharing.

Re-thinking church in an inner city

I’ve never been involved in a church plant before. There’s plenty of hope and excitement, but we don’t even know all the challenges we will face.

Our multi-campus church is planning to open a new campus in Lorain, Ohio, a self-described “international city” of about 63,000 people on the shores of Lake Erie about 30 miles west of Cleveland. As of 2016, whites comprised 51.7 percent of the city’s population, Hispanics 29.1 percent, blacks 14.5 percent and “two or more races” 3.1 percent.

http://www.city-data.com/city/Lorain-Ohio.html

I’m interested in this because my wife and I raised our three sons at an inner-city church in Saginaw, Michigan, with similar demographics to Lorain. Now that they are grown and on their own, I have more time to devote to this.

To learn more about planting a multi-ethnic church, the Lorain campus pastor and I attended a three-day conference on the topic in Chicago. It was eye-opening.

As a former newspaper guy, I took lots of notes. Here is a summary from the plenary speakers and workshop leaders I heard:

Church and society

If we want to be a multi-ethnic church, then the dominant culture cannot be more than 80 percent of the church. Research shows that if visitors see at least 20 percent of people in their ethnic group attending, then they feel like “members” and not “visitors.”  We should be strategic about seeking 20 percent of an ethnic group if we truly want to be multi-ethnic.

For some people, society does not work – economically, medically, socially, religiously, etc. These people do not trust any institutions. Church plants will take a long time for these people to trust. They may reject institutionalism, even if they hunger for God. To reach them, we might need to change the way we do church – why 11 a.m. services? Why does communion happen weekly or monthly? Etc. These are not wrong, but they are not in the Bible. What’s Biblical, and what’s cultural?

The new national divide is achiever vs. non-achiever. Achievers value the individual; non-achievers value the society. Most non-whites (as well as whites) are achievers. Achievers are mainstream; non-achievers live in the sub-culture.

Doing church

One speaker said white pastors are excellent at “three-point sermons with seven sub-points.” That’s fine, but that’s not how black preachers preach. If we want to reach black people, this might become an issue. Another example: Hispanics will show up late, then they will stay late. That’s their culture. We might need to re-think the way we do church.

moody4

The traditional church model: Meet Jesus, attend church, connect/serve/give, go into the world. This isn’t working; it’s too shallow.

The new model: Meet Jesus, attend church, deep change, go into the world.

How to accomplish deep change? We need to meet emotional, social, intellectual, physical and spiritual needs – all of them.  Which means all of those needs in my life, as a leader, must be met as well, or I will not be an effective leader. The Mary-Martha struggle: When are we focused on our actions at the expense of spending time with Jesus?

This is not a quick fix. It’s hard. It takes time.

Most people in our cities aren’t thinking about repentance, but about where their next meal is coming from. We must disciple them to conversion. We must offer Bible nuggets that people can relate to. “There’s a guy in the Bible who understands what you are going through …” (This means we have to know the Bible well, of course.)

Value in all cultures

Whites frequently will not get involved in a church (or any other organization) unless they lead it. Several speakers made this point. Whites often don’t leave room for other ethnic groups to lead – or if they do, they must follow the examples of whites. We often do this unconsciously.

There is no assimilating into one true culture in heaven. All cultures are good. Faith brings out the best in all of them. Every culture has stories to tell.

How much of church planting is led by whiteness? Most of it. It’s a strange mix of benevolence and oppression. This has become the only story. How do we liberate from whiteness (or any dominant culture)? According to the Bible, we die to it. We are not to assimilate, but to create a new story.

Jesus’ blood is the new story, for all cultures. His death and resurrection is the great equalizer for all of us. Jesus didn’t ask us to become Him. Instead, He became one of us.

Those of us in the dominant culture often forget that we have a culture. Everybody speaks with an accent except me, for example.

Marginalization happens when people are minimized in different ways. Marginalization often leads to oppression, which is defined as sin plus power.

Jesus went to the margins. He was surrounded by sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes and women and children. All of us need to go there, too.

Jesus gave us a table, and all the chairs around it are on the same level. No high chairs and low chairs. Everybody drinks from the same cup, and we share germs. All ethnic groups are equal before God.

History is not over

Blacks’ history is slavery. No other immigrant group can say that. We heard first-person testimonies from several ethnic minorities who have experienced racism in their lifetimes. My wife has a co-worker whose boyfriend is black. He recently was talking with several friends in the parking lot of the apartment complex in Lorain where he lives. Another resident of the apartment complex called the cops on him. His crime? Being black and talking with his friends. It happens still today, even in Lorain.

As white people, we cannot deny that these things happened, and are still happening. If we want to reach this population for Christ, we need to meet them where they are.

Perceptions

lasalle street

Another cultural difference: Whites often see themselves as a collection of individuals. Blacks see themselves as a community. This is crucial to understanding how we communicate differently.

For example, a white police officer in Houston recently killed a black man in his own apartment. Blacks wanted the world to feel his suffering and pain. They wanted pastors to talk about that the following Sunday. Our reaction as whites? We want more facts. Give us the details of what happened before we react.

This is huge. We must understand this difference.

Critique the culture

Cities – with density and proximity – amplify the opposition to the gospel.

There is little social pressure anymore to attend church. There are four basic religious beliefs, but some Americans don’t even have these:

  1. There is a god.
  2. There is moral truth.
  3. There is sin.
  4. There is an afterlife.

How do we evangelize in this setting?

We must critique the culture. The standards our culture offers don’t work. If your career is your primary motivator in life, what happens when – not if, but when – you lose it? If it’s to be a good person, you’ll never be good enough (maybe you haven’t committed adultery, but have you lusted? This is Jesus’ standard.) If it’s freedom, you aren’t, and you know it. If you live for money, you’ll never have enough. If you seek beauty, you’ll never feel beautiful. And on and on.

But if you serve Jesus, you’ll get forgiveness when you fail.

There are no merit-based scholarships in heaven. Only grace.

Also, there is no defense against:

  1. Prayers of the saints.
  2. Love of the saints.
  3. Wise application of the word of God to your concerns.

Yes, taxes are necessary

What are the purposes of taxes? What should be your attitude toward paying them?

Those questions came up in a weekly Bible study I’m in. Our discussion leader skipped them, probably because the answers are – or should be – obvious.

We pay taxes for projects that you and I need but can’t afford to pay for on our own. Taxes pay to build and maintain roads, including plowing snow and fixing potholes. They pay for water and sewer projects (homeowners often have to pitch in for those). Our tax dollars pay for trash and recycling pickup every week. They pay for parks and recreation – we have awesome public parks where I live, and I don’t have to pay an entrance fee every time I visit one. They pay for libraries (remember those?). And public transportation.

Taxes pay for police and fire departments to protect us, court systems (including jails) to provide justice, and kindergarten-through-12th grade education to help our children prepare for adult life.

And that’s just local taxes (including countywide, in some cases). Here’s the 2016 fiscal year report for the city I live in, taken from the city’s web site. Page 18 includes a flow chart of what the city is all about.

http://www.cityofelyria.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/2016_City_of_Elyria_Ohio_CAFR.pdf

At the state level, taxes pay for other things, too. The biggest spending item – just over half the state’s budget – is “health and human services.” Second is “primary, secondary and other education,” followed by “higher education.”

https://obm.ohio.gov/Budget/operating/doc/fy-14-15/bluebook/budget/Section-C_14-15.pdf

At the national level, the three biggest federal programs are health care (including Medicare and Medicaid), pensions (including Social Security) and Defense.

Next come welfare, interest on the national debt, transportation, general government and protection.

https://www.usgovernmentspending.com/federal_budget_detail_fy19bs22018n

Communication crucial

What should our attitude be toward paying for such services? Hopefully, we pay willingly, since all of these services are needed.

At the local and state levels, those in charge of the budgets are required to balance income and spending. This often requires tough decisions because voters do not automatically approve taxes for every project – nor should we.

Sometimes voters get nitpicky or reactionary. Sometimes leaders ask for a Cadillac project when a Chevrolet version will do just fine. Our local school district in Michigan discovered this a number of years ago: Many school buildings were outdated and new schools in new locations were needed, and since voters had approved many previous school levies, leaders asked for a very expensive plan – which got shot down. They pared it back, asked voters for a smaller yet effective plan, and got that one approved.

Where we live now, voters recently approved a millage to build five new kindergarten-through-8th grade buildings around the city. We learned a couple of weeks ago that cost overruns led the planning consultants to recommend constructing only three buildings – on the north, east and west sides of town, leaving the south side without a neighborhood elementary/middle school.

As you might imagine, that plan isn’t going over so well. Meetings are being held, petitions are being circulated and pressure is mounting to keep the south side school in the plans.

This is the way democracy works. We expect leaders to follow through on promises. We expect budgets to be met. Creativity is required here.

This is why we pay taxes. Every local citizen has the right to express his or her viewpoint on this crucial issue. Our leaders will make the call, but they are accountable to us. And we will be heard.

The benefits of taxes

If we have a job, and if we own a home or even pay rent, we pay taxes. When our Founding Fathers set up our country more than 200 years ago, they set it up this way. We can tweak the system – are property taxes the best way to collect local funds? – but taxes will get collected in some form.

So often, we focus only on how much we pay. We need to be reminded of what we receive. We take trash collection for granted, for example (unless it’s not collected for some reason, in which case residents will howl very loudly). We want our street plowed in the winter, and complain when it’s one of the last to get cleared. (Hopefully traffic volume determines the priority for street plowing.) We recently learned that our city has only 10 employees that plow snow and fix potholes. For the entire city. No wonder they can’t clean every street the moment it snows.

We get what we pay for.

At the state level, they’re talking about combining the K-12 education budget with the higher education budget, creating one huge education department overseeing all of it. State leaders want to streamline everything; opponents say K-12 and higher education have different purposes, and should remain separate.

Not sure that plan will fly, but we’ll see.

No balanced budget, no decisions necessary

The federal government is not required to balance its budget, so Congress often avoids the tough discussions that local and state legislators must have. That skyrockets the federal debt. Is that sustainable?

I’m one of those who would like to see a mandated balanced budget, forcing legislators (and the president) to actually do their jobs. Not every constituent will be happy. Welcome to the real world. (Pork projects might actually get eliminated, since priorities would have to be set.)

We need a federally funded military to defend us across the world. I don’t think anyone would object to that. But how big should the military be? What weapons do we need, and which ones cost more than the benefits they provide?

I wish we could debate those things. At least, I wish our elected leaders would debate those things.

Are they spending our tax dollars wisely?

We have a right to ask that.

Taxes are a given. They pay for goods and services all of us need.

As we debate how our tax dollars are spent – locally, statewide and federally – let’s give thanks for the government structures that our Founding Fathers established.

The system is good. The devil is in the details.