Archives For Mainline Decline

Caveat Lector: This is pretty insider-church stuff. If you’re a part of the 2/3 of Americans who do not regularly participate in the life of a congregation then you’re not likely to be interested in the following. We’ve already failed to interest you. 

I remember going to my first Annual Conference, the yearly gathering of all United Methodist clergy in Virginia. Not having grown up in the church and being a far cry from a church nerd and just generally being a non-conformist, I’d never attended a denominational gathering before.

I’d just graduated from Princeton Seminary.

I sat up in the cheap seats of the Roanoke Coliseum and gazed the thousands of clergy and lay delegates on the floor below me.

And I was shocked by what I saw:

A sea of white hair.

Seriously, the Hollywood premieres of Cocoon and Driving Miss Daisy totaled a lower % geriatrics. cocoon

I said I was shocked, and I was, truly so. Sitting up there in the nosebleeds, having spent 3 years and thousands of dollars in seminary, I realized that this was a harbinger of things to come.

The Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church is entertaining a measure that would strongly encourage individuals over 45 not to seek ordained ministry.

The Texas Annual Conference is one of the denomination’s largest, and- it should be said- it’s one of the few conferences with churches still demonstrating the ability to make new Christians.

The reasons for not admitting 45 and overs into the ordination process?

It pivots, as all things do, on an investment and return strategy (some clergy will take issue with such a bald, capitalist analogy but, whatever, not all wisdom belongs to the Church).

The larger Church invests a large amount of funds into ordinands and eventual clergy. This investment comes in the form of financial support for seminary education and, later, pension and health benefits- and even with such investment most graduating seminarians are sinfully saddled with a student loan debt their paltry pastor’s salary will not be able to remit. Such investment is premised on the return the Church will receive from the clergy’s service, growing churches and making new disciples.

The UMC’s ordination process is long and laborious, excessively so but that’s another post.

I was admitted into the ordination process in 2003 the year I graduated from seminary.

Without a hitch, I successfully jumped through all the hoops (you’re not supposed to refer to them as ‘hoops’ but that’s what they are) and I still wasn’t ordained an Elder (full clergyman) until 2006 or 2007- crap, I can’t remember now. So someone entering the ordination process at 45 might not be ordained until they’re nearing their golden anniversary, giving them, on average, a quarter’s worth of time to return to the larger Church.

In addition, if it’s conceivable, given our bureaucratic blight, for ‘institutional knowledge’ to be a good thing then it should be noted that older ordinands will have less time to acquire it.

the-girl-next-door-20090902023804594When it comes to older ordinands, in all but exceptional cases, the juice- as the pimp says in the Girl Next Door– isn’t worth the squeeze.

As I said, the measure is premised on an investment and return strategy. The measure reflects a strategic decision to name reality (always a leader’s first calling) and posture the Church to best survive the immediate incoming trends and position it to meet the missional need of the future.

In case you haven’t been to church since JFK was alive, the UMC is old.

In fact, most of our constituents are older than our denomination, which only dates to 1964.

The death rate among UMC members was 35% higher in 2009 than it was in the 1968.

Meaning: the percentage of older members (65 and older) has steadily been on the rise. What’s more, 53% of all UMC clergy are 55 or older.

The UMC has been serving a constituency older than the general population since before I was born (1977).

Think about that stat for a while: we’ve been serving congregants who are older than their peers in the general population LONGER THAN I’VE BEEN ALIVE. 

According to Lovett Weems, a leading denominational consultant, the next 3 decades will see a ‘Death Tsunami’ visited upon the UMC, with 50% more deaths in 2050 than in 2010.

Any systems analyst will tell you, an organization gets the results- good or bad- that it’s designed to get.

In other words, it’s not that we’re bad at reaching younger people and turning them into Christians; it’s that we’re REALLY GOOD at taking care of ourselves.

Whether by intention or institutional inertia, for half a century the UMC has been at servicing the needs of its older members.

Even with all my congregation’s children’s and youth ministries the great bulk of my time is spent by ministering to a demographic who won’t be here in 20 years. It’s not that that’s not a valuable ministry; it’s just that provision for the future needs to be taken too.

The Texas Conference’s measure reflects how the UMC in a bad way needs to reach out to younger and more diverse people.

And just as you wouldn’t send a missionary into a country where they didn’t speak the language, the best way for the larger Church to reach younger and more diverse people is by investing in younger and more diverse clergy candidates.

Charles Handy said: “It is one of the paradoxes of success that the things and ways which got you there are seldom those things that will keep you there” and that’s exactly the crossroads the UMC stand upon today.

Except, the UMC hasn’t really been successful since before Let It Bleed came out, which is why, as I like to point out to congregants from time to time, ‘doing it like we’ve always done it’ is a stupid strategy.

It’s not about discriminating against older clergy candidates. The measure doesn’t say it won’t admit any candidates over 45 into the process. It is instead a matter of discerning where and in whom to invest the Church’s increasingly limited resources for the benefit of the larger Church. Of course, there are exceptional exceptions.

Many have reacted against the measure, pointing out that God calls whom God chooses to call regardless of policy. After all, goes the ad naseum biblical citation, God called elderly old Abram and Sarai. To my mind, this isn’t a very compelling argument for two reasons:

God’s call is never a solitary endeavor. The call must always be affirmed by representatives of the larger Church. Not every one who thinks they’re called actually is. The Church with a big C already vets and discerns people’s calls.

God didn’t call Abram and Sarai to serve him in the form of the professional guild that is ordained ministry.

#2 for me is where it’s at. As experts like Phyllis Tickle point out the time is quickly coming when bivocational ministry (not full-time) will be a necessity for churches and denominations.

The changing missional context of our culture requires that we rediscover that God’s call doesn’t need to equal ordained ministry.

In fact, what the Texas measure doesn’t even begin to address is the fact the greater need in the UMC is a rediscovery of the ‘priesthood of all believers.’

There are many ways- equally valid, authoritative and effective ways- for people to respond to God’s call that doesn’t require the larger Church’s investment of finite funds.

Now, I’m sure I’ll be accused of discriminating against older people, but I recently turned 35 so I no longer even count in the ‘younger clergy’ category.

raymondburr2Not to mention, I work alongside Dennis Wayne Perry.

I can tell you firsthand, Dennis Perry doesn’t let his worn-out body, rapidly fading mind, and prehistoric job skills stop him from showing up to work at least a couple of hours a week to take credit for my work.

So I don’t think it’s about the abundant gifts older clergy can offer, it’s about the limited gifts the larger Church can afford to give. MV5BMTI1MjcxMzI1M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTA5MDAwMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR2,0,214,317_




romeroYesterday a friend shared the news that Pope Francis has moved to ‘unblock’ the beautification of Oscar Romero.

Romero, in case you don’t know, was a Catholic priest in El Salvador who was shot to death in 1980 while saying Mass. What made Romero a hero to many made him an enemy to others: his solidarity with Latin America’s poor and his opposition to human rights abuses. Up until now, Romero’s beautification had stalled over concerns with his ‘liberation theology.’

Liberation theology, is a discipline within theology that is controversial only to those (Glenn Beck) who don’t know anything about theology- but that’s a post for another day.

When I heard the news about Romero, my initial gut reaction was to say:

‘Pope Francis has totally given me a bad case of Catholic-envy.’ 

It’s true; he has.

And judging by the amount of praise in Protestant journals, such as Christianity Today, I’m not alone.

From the news that Francis refuses to live in the papal mansion to his shunning elaborate vestments to breaking ‘tradition’ when it comes to Holy Thursday foot-washing, the new bishop of Rome seems to possess the one thing that’s almost extinct in our media-saturated world: authenticity.

And that makes me envious. 4577728-3x2-700x467

Where Catholics get a real-deal, legit Jesus-follower as the global face of their tradition, Protestants get what…? Who…?

Joel Osteen? Blegh. Franklin Graham? Lord, I hope not.

The frenzied excitement that each Pope Francis story generates in the press and among the public bears out at least 3 lessons from which Protestants, it seems to me, can learn.

#1: It’s About Jesus

While the ‘Nones’ may be on the rise and while the ranks of the ‘religiously unaffiliated’ swell, people are still- stubbornly so- captivated by Jesus. There’s still plenty of people in the world interested in how a crucified Jewish messiah could so haunt the world still that he produces someone like Francis. Someone whose whole life seems conformed to replicating as closely as possible the life of Christ- just like the Francis of the pope’s namesake.

The curiosity piqued by Francis demonstrates, I think, that though the ‘Nones’ are opting out of institutional Christianity (Institutionanity), they’re not necessarily writing Jesus off.

Mainsideline Protestantism, like United Methodism, is in decline, and with such decline the temptation towards institutional preservation increases in inverse proportion. Too often in the guise of ‘saving souls’ we’re really just trying to save our little corner of organized religion.

I think the appeal of Francis shows the dangers in such temptation. People aren’t interested in institutions, but they are- still- interested in Jesus. Part of the appeal of Francis is that he clearly cares more about Jesus than he does with the institution called Church.

#2: It’s About the Poor

Even non-Christians know in their bones that ours is a faith that was intended to be of the poor, by the poor, for the poor.

That’s the wisdom of liberation theology: our scripture is best understood read from the perspective of the poor.

Somewhere along the way many of us have lost the clarity of Jesus’ message. The Vatican has its opulence, sure, but we Protestants are no better. We have our prosperity preachers on TV who fly around in their personal jets (which Jesus blessed them with) and we have others who are content to do charity (Operation Christmas Child) without ever, in Jesus’ name, addressing the systemic causes of poverty. And then there are the rest of us (me: guilty) who think of ‘serving the poor’ as one church activity among other, equally urgent, ministries.

To the extent that we forget that Jesus’ Gospel was intended to be ‘good news for the poor’ ours will always be a Gospel with a hole in it.

I think so many have praised Francis’ declaration that the Church should be a Church in solidarity with the poor because they know, if just intuitively, that that’s exactly who we should be.

Because that’s who Jesus was.

#3: It’s About Integrity

Pope Francis is a walking, talking 21st century illustration of Marshall McLuhan’s maxim:

‘the medium is the message.’

Our mode has to match our message.

In other words: We’ve got to walk the walk if we’re going to talk the talk.

Far be it from me to criticize Joel Osteen but most people know there’s a dissonance between an affluent peddler of the Gospel and the one who initially proclaimed that Gospel. That Francis seems so refreshing a Christian leader is but an indication of how hungry the world is for people whose character corresponds and compliments their confession of faith.

As Paul says in Corinthians, we are ourselves like letters sent by Christ to a watching world. And none of the letters that made their way into the New Testament can undo the damage done by you or me, in our daily lives, when we make the love of Christ illegible or unintelligible.

Screen Shot 2013-04-09 at 2.37.42 PMI was recently asked by a colleague to write up some advice about Why Blogging is Important for Ministry and Things Pastors Should Keep in Mind When Blogging. You can read my thoughts on the former here.

Below are my thoughts about the latter question:

#1: Content, Content, Content

Tony Jones once told me that if you want put out quality, substantive content then people will come.

It’s true and, like most true things, has a corollary: if you put out junk then people will not come.

People in and out of the church want to do theology and think about how their faith impacts their lives. Content is what they’re after.

If you just post cute, cliched things people probably saw in email forwards in the early aughts then they’re going to check out.

Insider church humor is even worse. Please don’t. It’s NEVER funny and is only further evidence of (a subject on which I’ve written before) how Christians writ large are not funny.

#2: Voice

The whole point of social media is that people have access to you. Who you really are.

Not the you you pretend to be on Sunday morning.

You. The you your husband/wife knows you to be.
You. No pretenses. No masks. No church/corporate veneer of authenticity.

Blogging has to be about you and how you interact with whatever topics that interest you.

If you’re just writing predictable things about predictable topics that any generic minister could write, it’s not really you.

If it sounds like it was written by the Flanders on The Simpsons, it’s not the authentic you- unless (God help us) you really are like Flanders on The Simpsons, in which case you shouldn’t be writing anything at all. You’re just more bad PR for why Christianity is irrelevant.

Thanks to our constant media culture, people- especially young people- can smell BS a mile away. Because blogging is about you and your honesty, don’t use it as a promotional tool for your ministry. People can smell that a mile away too.

#3: Be Okay with Upsetting People

This is really a subset of ‘Voice.’

Most United Methodists abide by this equation:

If ‘Gospel’ = ‘Niceness’


‘Ministry’ = ‘Keeping the Members Happy’


‘Pastors Must Never Upset People’

In the United Methodist Church that’s as binding an equation as saying Pi = 3.14….

So my advice here will be a bridge too far for many:

Being true and open about who you are and what you’re thinking is going to upset some people.

You can’t avoid it.

So don’t bother trying.

Of course, you still have to exercise discernment, prudence and restraint.

Learn from my experience/mistake:

Before click ‘Publish’ ask yourself:

Is this post really worth the headache of having the bishop call you? Is it worth having certain a church member (HE WHO MUST NOT BE NAMED) start a silent petition to get rid of you?

Even if it is funny and cogent and theologically sound?

If the answer is ‘no’ or ‘not sure’ don’t click ‘Publish.’

However, said post while netting me said call and said petition also netted my church several worship visitors whose curiosity I’d piqued.

So don’t let my cautionary tale keep you from abiding by my initial suggestion:

Be ready to upset people.

joel_osteen_by_bdbros-d4cnmxiIf you think, for example, that Joel Osteen is the gospel-equivalent of that Set It and Forget It guy on the Shopping Channel, then be open about it and don’t worry about how many people love ‘Become a Better You.’

#4: Lists

What’s worked for Dave for years works for blogs too. Top Ten, Top Five, Three Things I Wished/Learned/Hoped…whatever. People like lists.

#5: Titles and Twitter

The analytics don’t lie. You should post titles that are caustic, controversial or questioning. Attention-getting.

Likewise for the summary statement you feed to Twitter (which you should do) in 140 characters or less.

#6: It’s Social Media

You’re not the New York Times or Bono. 

People aren’t going to visit your blog because you have a blog and deserve a readership.

It’s called social media for a reason; quid pro quo is the hinge of blogging.

If you want people to read your blog, you’ve got to read others’ and comment and contribute. ‘Like’ their posts on Facebook. Invite others to post on your blog and ask if you can contribute to their blog.

#8: Be Responsive

This is the hardest thing for me with my pastor’s schedule, but the social aspect of social media means you need to respond to people’s comments, questions and feedback.


#9: Comment Policy

This is the second hardest thing for me. Philosophically, I believe in the internet as an ‘open-source’ community. I believe all comments and contributions should be allowed, zero censorship.

My role as pastor qualifies that a bit for me.

The Comments section of most any blog or website could be used as Exhibit A of the Calvinist Doctrine of Total Depravity.

People can be freaking mean, ugly, offensive and insensitive. 

I don’t want church members whom I care about reading some of the stuff that comes my way.

My rule of thumb:

I have to ‘approve’ every comment.
I’m inclined to approve every comment.
I approve anything that’s ugly or critical of me so that it’s not me editing for my self- image sake.
I do not approve anything that’s blatantly derogatory.

#10: Community

I commend this based on my reflection above.
It’s a big mistake to think of blogging as simply an extension of/service to your congregational constituency. It’s a big mistake to think of blogging as a way of communicating with your congregation or getting people through the doors of your congregation.

You should think of the blog as its own congregation. It’s own community.

(Shamelessly stealing from Doug Pagitt):  You should think of your blog readers as your congregation’s diaspora.

People who are engaged through your ministry (blogging) who will never step foot in your sanctuary. I recently raised cash from this ‘diaspora’ for our mission in Guatemala so don’t think their engagement is limited to reading and commenting.

Given how badly most mainline churches engage the ‘Nones’ this is not an idle point.

0Last week as part of our leadership development we had a group of 45 people engage in a ‘Ways to Kill the Church’ brainstorm, inspired by the book, Kill the Company. They imagined they were a rival church plant, moving in across the street from us. It was shocking how many ideas they came up with to put our church out of business.

The exercise got me thinking. Here are my baker’s dozen, in no particular order, of tried and true ways to kill a church.

In fact, there’s no shortages of churches practicing any number of these:


  • Take It for Granted: Don’t bother with evangelism, or at least assume it’s the pastor’s job. Instead assume there will always be plenty of people in your community who are interested in going to church, who think (feel duty-bound) that church going is important. Assume young people will return to church when they marry and have kids. FYI: All those traditional trends are rapidly declining.


  • Refuse to Adapt: Stop asking the questions that got asked when the church first began and grew, ie, ‘What does our community need that we can offer? What questions is our community asking to which the Gospel might have an answer? How can we best incarnate the Gospel for the people in our community?’ Instead of adapting how you do church to fit your community, insist on doing ministry and worship ‘the way we’ve always done it.’


  • Major in the Minors: Spend the majority of your time, money, communication, energy and volunteer resources promoting activities that either have nothing to do with your mission (spreading the Gospel and making disciples of it) or actively and inadvertently frustrate your mission. Before you know it, you’ll have a huge chunk of your congregation who can’t even speak a single sentence about God without blushing or saying ‘that’s private.’ Congregational death is just around the corner.


  • Don’t Partner with Your Pastors and Staff: See them as ‘labor’ and the membership as ‘management.’ Think it’s their job to do the ministry of Christ while your role is to attend, participate and evaluate how well your Jesus-Flavored-Country Club is run. When the church does’t grow and thrive- because it can’t if the members are not engaged in ministry- you can blame the staff. It’s a wonderfully self-fulfilling posture.


  • Subconsciously Insist on Homogeneity: Say ‘we welcome everyone’ when you actually mean: ‘We welcome everyone so long as they dress like us, act like us, speak like us, vote like us, worship like us and want to do church just like us.’


  • Assume Faith: Take it for granted that people who’ve been sitting in the pews for 50 years, who helped start your church and who’ve served in leadership have ever been converted to the Gospel, know Jesus Christ personally and can engage in genuine religious conversation. Odds are many of them haven’t and can’t.


  • Neglect the Young: Fail to make them a priority of the church’s ministry. Worry instead about what the church is doing for you and your peers. Fail to disciple them and catechize them rigorously. Give them a Jesus-lite Christianity because that’s what you prefer. They’re looking for an adventure and something to give their lives to.


  • Make Mission All About $: Don’t engage hands-on in work with the poor in your community or the world. Don’t take risks or get out of your comfort zone. Don’t go to places in the world to see with your own eyes how the Church and the Gospel can change lives and communities. That can be too transformative. Instead if you want to kill your church, make mission primarily about raising money for and giving money to (good) charitable causes that will impact people you will never meet. If you’re a denomination, insist that the local church give their money to denominationally approved mission ministries staffed by professional missionaries. That way the local church has neither the time nor the resources to develop organically its own hands-on mission ministries.


  • Bureaucracy: Don’t ask or expect people, especially leaders, to learn how to pray or read the bible or articulate why Jesus is important in their lives. Instead set up committees- lots of them- and ask people to vote on things that could just as easily be decided by consensus-building. Who needs to lose the shirt off their back when all you need to do is raise your hand yay or nay to follow Jesus. If you’re a denomination, you can speed the killing by replicating it on a much larger scale, saddling pastors and congregations with forms, reports, procedures etc that sap a church’s clarity of focus, a staff’s time and energy and a pastor’s willingness to be creative.


  • Value Communications Over Character: Believe that a particular strategy, ministry program or communication method will overcome a lack of vital faith and hospitality in the congregation. In other words, believe that the commercial you put out about the congregation can distract from the lack of a converted character in the congregation.


  • Make Your Mission Making Your Members Happy: Incidentally, if you want to kill your church then keep on using the term ‘member.’ It’s a terrifically helpful word, much better than, say, ‘servant,’ that conjures all sorts of assumptions about special privileges and status. It creates an unspoken insider/outsider dynamic. It invites people to boast about how many years they’ve been a member, which invites sharing about how much they’ve given and served too. Implication: you’ve not been here as long, given as much, served as much so be quiet. If you want to kill your church, for the love of God don’t say ‘our constituency is our surrounding community.’ And don’t ask ‘How can we best serve our community?’ Instead make your mission keeping your members happy. Pastors, the best way to accomplish that is to maintain the status quo and never, ever, ever say no.

Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?

Jason Micheli —  February 18, 2013 — 4 Comments

1223-Jump-Elie-01-popupJames Davidson Hunter, a sociologist at UVA, writes convincingly about the causes of Christianity’s rise in the ancient world. The faith spread, Hunter argues, not by being a religion promulgated by the poor, as the popular myth tells it. The faith spread by being, almost from the beginning (think of the wealthy women mentioned in the Gospels as ‘sponsors’ of Jesus’ movement), a religion of the elite.

Christianity was from the get-go a religion of the culture-makers. Christianity changed the world because it so quickly changed the hearts, minds and worldview of artists and intellectuals who shape and change culture.

That is why Constantine was able to convert to Christianity. It was politically expedient to do so because the cultural elite of Rome were already largely Christianized.

For Christians to change the world anew, to influence culture and not just retreat from it, they need to reengage the arts and intellectual disciplines as Christians- and I’m not talking about those terrible looking Amish romance books you see in the ‘Christian fiction’ section at Barnes and Noble.

I’ve brought this up before and I bring it up again because of Paul Ellie’s article in the NY Times Book Review: Has Fiction Lost Its Faith? 

Ellie points out that fifty years ago writers like Flannery O’ Connor, Walker Percy, Graham Greene, Reynolds Price and even John Updike wrote ground-breaking, lauded fiction that was suffused with their Christian convictions. Today, Ellie observes:

A faith with something like 170 million adherents in the United States, a faith that for centuries seeped into every nook and cranny of our society, now plays the role it plays in Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “This Blessed House”: as some statues left behind in an old building, bewildering the new ­occupants.

To Ellie’s reckoning, only Marilyne Robinson’s Gilead (click and buy it now!) counts as an analogous, contemporary novel with equal parts Christian sensibility and aesthetic quality. It’s a beautiful book in case you haven’t read it.

Following the contours of Hunter’s argument above, you could see the loss of faith in fiction as something of a harbinger. As art goes so goes popular culture. The absence of a credible Christianity in contemporary literature could portend a popular culture in which Christianity plays an even more marginal role:

In America today Christianity is highly visible in public life but marginal or of no consequence in a great many individual lives. For the first time in our history it is possible to speak of Christianity matter-of-factly as one religion among many; for the first time it is possible to leave it out of the conversation altogether. This development places the believer on a frontier again, at the beginning of a new adventure; it means that the Christian who was born here is a stranger in a strange land no less than the Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Soviet Jews and Spanish-speaking Catholics who have arrived from elsewhere. But few people see it that way. People of faith see decline and fall.

Ellie’s use of the world ‘frontier’ is a wise one for Hunter’s argument can point the other way too. Christianity finding itself on the margins, almost as immigrants in a strange new land, can be seen as an opportunity to reengage the faith in new, creative ways, to rediscover the ‘core’ of our story and convictions and to reemphasize the importance of training Christians to enter their fields of study as Christians.

This opportunity then is one not limited to the world of art and literature. It’s the opportunity which God, in God’s infinite sense of humor, has laid open to the whole Church.

Kill the Church

Jason Micheli —  January 29, 2013 — 1 Comment

KillCompany_finalLast night I finished reading Lisa Bodell’s book, Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution. Back when I was a young, know-it-all elitist (hey, I’m not young anymore), I looked down my nose at business and leadership books. They were secular, shallow, consumerist and not theological I sneered.

Of course, that was before I realized:

A) mainline seminaries do an atrocious job of preparing pastors to…you know…actually lead, vision and fundraise for an organization and

B) the mainline churches those mainline seminaries aren’t preparing pastor to lead are in desperate straits, in desperate need of leadership and change.

So I’ve reassessed and have read a good number of book’s like Lisa Bodell’s. Some are good, some not so much- just like theological books. Kill the Company, is in the former category; in fact, it’s like a kick in the pants/splash of cold water/wake up call/epiphany sort of good.

Bodell’s basic premise is that what hold companies back and leads to failure isn’t their inability to dream big, identify the right next step or sketch goals. It’s their inability to let go of the status quo in order to achieve those dreams. Weighed down by the demands of the status quo, and all the internal processes, procedures and loyalties that come with it, employees never have the time to get to the vision thing. And after a while they cease believing change is possible.

Here’s the thing.

You could pretty much go through the entire book and just scratch out the word ‘company’ and in its place put ‘local church’ or ‘denomination.’ Her assessment is spot-on for what ails churches. 

For example, here’s this from page 6:

In fact, too many CEO’s Denominational Officials and executives Laity refuse to see that what has generally been accepted as the undisputed path to success and profits is in many ways holding their companies churches back. They have forgotten that great business ministry is not just about improving on what you’ve got; it’s about inventing something different and better. So they insist that employees pastors try to build on bad things rather than allowing them to tear down the bad and do something new. They Denominations, Boards, Conferences et al implement supposedly innovation-enhancing programs that create additional layers of process, making it so difficult just to get things done that people pastors, staff and lay leaders no longer feel that they have control over their work. This leads them to resign any dreams they might have of making a real difference to the company. They become complacent zombie workers, repeating the same thing day after day, lacking any incentive to be innovative.

The penalty for taking a risk is greater than it is for not taking any risk. Yet by definition, an innovative company church is a place that embraces and rewards (smart) risk. It’s one where people are encouraged and, yes, paid to think. And question. And challenge. And experiment. 


I’ve often thought the NY Times wedding pages are a good harbinger of the trends to come. Long before ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ died a relatively quiet death and well before a seeming cultural consensus settled about homosexuality, the NY Times posted wedding announcements celebrating gay couples like they we just ordinary couples.

That’s not a comment on the rightness/wrongness of the issue; it’s just a comment that the Times foreshadow future trends.

So here’s another trend.

Those same wedding pages this week wrote a story about the ever-increasing trend of couples getting friends, duly vested in made-up online religions, to preside over their ceremony.

As much as I refuse to pimp myself out to marry couples who are just treating me in the same way they do the caterer, it’s also depressing that an increasing number of people prefer to circumvent any faith element in their wedding altogether.

This is the cultural climate in which we’ll need to figure out how to do Church into the future.

Here’s the article…and before you get your friend to perform your wedding after a few minutes on Google make sure he/she is legal.

IN the days leading up to their August wedding at the Ram’s Head Inn on Shelter Island, Kinara Flagg and Paul Fileri chose Andrew Case, a friend and former law school classmate of Ms. Flagg’s, to officiate.

In some places, online ministers may need backup.

In the eyes of the couple, Mr. Case, who had become a Universal Life minister through a quick online ordination, was the right man for the job. In the eyes of the law, however, Mr. Case, who was not a part of an active ministry, was officiating in the wrong county.

An increasing number of couples are steering away from traditional religious and civil wedding officiants in favor of friends and relatives who become ordained through online ministries. But many couples are unaware that while New York State recognizes marriages performed by those who became ministers by the power vested in a mouse, there are five downstate counties where such officiants are not technically legal.

Ms. Flagg and Mr. Fileri, who knew that Suffolk County on Long Island, which includes Shelter Island, was among the handful of no-online-minister zones in the state, obtained their marriage license in Monroe County (where Mr. Fileri grew up and which recognizes online ministries), making their wedding a legal union after all.

“It’s surprising that Suffolk County does not recognize these online ministers,” Ms. Flagg said.

Neither do the counties of Nassau, Westchester, Putnam or Dutchess, owing to a 1989 ruling by the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court in a case involving a Suffolk County couple who were then embroiled in a divorce. In that case, the court ruled that the couple’s marriage and prenuptial agreement were void because their officiant was a Universal Life minister.

Though Ms. Flagg speaks for many married couples when she says “we wanted a friend to marry us, someone who could speak about us to our friends and family, rather than a person who doesn’t really know us and recites a lot of formulaic vows,” it remains that Connecticut, Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee, a part of Pennsylvania and (of all places) Las Vegas do not necessarily recognize the credentials of officiants who were created, for better or worse, through such online ministries as the Universal Life Church, the Church of Spiritual Humanism, Rose Ministries and the Temple of Earth.

For many years, New York City also did not recognize online ministers, but in 2006 began allowing them to officiate at weddings in the five boroughs. But the appellate court’s ruling still holds for the other counties. (In September 2007, a couple in York County, Pa., who had been married two months earlier by an online minister received a call from a county clerk who told them that a judge had ruled that ministers who do not have a “regularly established church or congregation” cannot perform marriages under state law. Their marriage, they were told, might not be valid. Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union advised them to seek help from the organization if the legality of their marriage was ever challenged.)

New York Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, a Westchester County Democrat, who has been trying since 2005 to pass a bill in Albany that would give online officiants legal power to marry couples throughout the state, said, “We need to change the law so that people everywhere can be legally married by online ministers.”

“I have had lots of conversations about this issue with the Judiciary Committee staff in Albany, and everyone knows something needs to be done,” Ms. Galef said. “I’m not quite sure what is blocking this bill. Is there opposition from priests, rabbis and other clergymen who see this as both a competitive and economic thing? I just don’t know.”

The Rev. Kent Winters-Hazelton, who once served in a no-online-minister zone at the United Community Church of Wantagh on Long Island, in Nassau County, and is now pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Lawrence, Kan., said that he understood why some states still do not recognize online ministers.

“In some places, there is still an understanding that certain qualifications have to be met by a minister or a justice of the peace before they are legally able to perform marriages,” he said. “And I agree with that.”

Here’s the rest of the article.

And are United Methodists now reaping the bitter fruit of having done so a century ago?

I’ve been reading Tim Keller’s new book, Center Church, the past week. In it, Keller gives much attention to the task/question of contextualization; that is, how we do communicate our message to the given context in which we live.

Keller notes that it’s not really a question of whether or not we should contextualize.

We can’t avoid contextualization unless we’re willing to avoid communication altogether. Every time we paraphrase a scripture passage, every time we extrapolate a point or a meaning, every time we settle upon what we think is the ‘plain sense’ of scripture we’re contextualizing BECAUSE, after all, we’re also a part of the culture and formed by it in ways we don’t always know.

Just ask Harrison Ford in Witness, Christians can’t avoid being in the world and  we never really cease to be of the world either. 

Preaching, then, is just a simpler term for contextualization.

So the question isn’t if we should translate the Gospel to culture but how.

Keller argues that Mainline (liberal) Christianity in the early 20th century sought to make Christianity palatable to the modern world by redefining orthodox Christian doctrine in naturalistic terms– terms stripped of a reliance upon revelation and the supernatural.

 The result was a Christianity redefined thus:

The Bible is filled with divine wisdom, but this doesn’t mean it’s inerrant. It’s a human document containing errors and contradictions. 

 Jesus is the Son of God but this doesn’t mean he was preexistent or divine. He was instead a great man infused with God’s Spirit. 

Jesus’ death is not a cosmic even that propitiates God’s wrath at Sin. It’s an example of sacrificial love that changes us by moving our hearts to follow his example. 

 Becoming a Christian, then, doesn’t entail the supernatural act of new birth (conversion prompted by grace). It means to follow the example of Jesus, follow the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. 

You can agree or not with Keller’s point of view, but there’s no question the breakdown above quite simply IS the dominant articulation of Christianity among most United Methodist (and other mainline traditions) churches and clergy.

This is what makes most mainline Christians ‘liberal’ even if they think of themselves as conservative politically.

Here’s Keller contention:

You can’t make such adaptations to what scripture is, who Jesus is, what the Cross does and how you become a Christian without creating a religion that is entirely new and alien to Christianity. 

The Mainline/Liberal effort to reconcile Christianity to the modern world of the 20th century (the naturalistic world), Keller says, results not in an adaptation of Christianity but in an entirely new religion that contradicts orthodox Christianity.

Even if you would quibble with Keller’s characterization, his next question remains TNT:

By adapting the faith to the norms of the ‘modern early 20th century world’ did Mainline/Liberal Christianity back the wrong horse?

Mainline Christians a century ago assumed that what was ‘modern’ for them would remain so- that those who clung to a revelation-based, supernatural understanding of the faith would be judged to be on the wrong side of history.

Keller says this was a category mistake.

Late modernity and postmodernity, he notes, has rejected modernism’s confidence that science and reason can ultimately answer all our important questions and that technology can solve all our problems.

In other words, 100 years removed from Methodism’s capitulation to culture, that culture has shifted out from under the Church. 

In other words, Mainline Christianity wedded itself to what is now a fading, obsolete view.

And since adapting its faith claims to the culture a century ago, Mainline Christianity has experienced steep decline; meanwhile, Pentecostalism (the least modern- Enlightenment based- form of Christianity) and Eastern Orthodox Christianity have grown exponentially in the past hundred years.

So its a cautionary tale.

The how of contextualization should refer more to our mode of communication than to the content of our confession.

HeWhoMustNotBeNamed speaks again. Apparently, I misread the gmail account.

And, apparently, was already taken because the address is: <>

My bad..

Here’s the latest anonymous message.

Nice try in outing me on your website.

However, no one will find my true identity due to the wrong contact information you have provided.  You should pay as much attention to details, as I do to destroying all your plans.
In the Peace of Christ,

As some of you may know, HE WHO MUST NOT BE NAMED is the moniker I sometimes use in sermons to protect the anonymity of a certain short-red-faced-bushy-eyebrowed-falls- asleep- before -the- doxology-generous- with- his- money- and- his- criticisms- parishioner (bless his heart).

Hilariously, now, one of YOU has taken this mantle and taken to emailing me cryptic, quasi-threatening emails from- yup-

Here is an example:

Rev. Micheli,

In the most recent posting on your “website” I have found issue with your claim regarding church signs.  First of all, if you truly do no like these signs STOP going past them so frequently.  Second, these signs are EXACTLY what the church needs.  We need to show the godless generation (those young adults you want us to reach out to) that the church has a sense of humor.  
We cannot rely on our pastors to provide the comic relief needed during a boring service to attract this crowd that YOU say we need to attract.  These signs serve a purpose.  Maybe Aldersgate needs to reexamine our sign humor.  Do we really need to advertise for the youth group on them or our children’s activities.  
If they want to come to those programs people will figure out when it is, and if they can’t do it without a sign then its not MY problem.
Be careful young man, you never know, we might just put one of these signs in our pastors front yards!
In the Peace of Christ,

Every day, two freaking times a day, I have to drive by one of those church signs with the individual letters you can move around like magnet poetry to create- supposedly- witty, catchy, thought-provoking, chicken-soup-for-the-vanilla-soul kind of messages. And on swim practice days, its 4x/day.

You’ve seen the ones.

‘Christianity: Some Assembly Required’  

‘Life is fragile, handle with prayer.’ 

‘1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4Given’ 

 ‘America bless God’

 ‘One in the hand is worth two in the…just kidding. 

Call me cynical (if you haven’t already) but I hate these signs. I’m sure some of you love them and think I’m cold and callous, but I think they’re lame.

My problem isn’t that these don’t communicate.

My problem is that I fear they communicate very well.

They say to anyone who’s never wanted to go to church before: ‘Stay away. We’re exactly what you thought we were.’

They say:

We’re not going to challenge you.

Our religion is the sentimental kind that will have about zero application to your life.

You don’t need to be here because the paradoxical message of Christ can be summarized in this lame Christian koan.

And this isn’t just me being cranky. In the book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church, David Kinnaman notes that one of the most frequent reasons cited by young people is their impression that the Church is shallow.

So you see churches with lame signs only appeal to people inside churches not to the people who’ll be driving past your church come Sunday morning off to some other way to spend their time. Meanwhile, your sign conforms to all the impressions out there that Church isn’t a place of depth, unexpectedness or adventure.

Thus my plea…take down your lame sign.

And then there’s this sign, which has even more depressing suggestions of lameness (I mean…how did NO ONE in that church think that might be a double entendre).

I get calls all the time to my office from people shaking me down for money. Admittedly some of the calls are from people with a legitimate, sudden need where the church can be a helpful one-time help. However, working as a prison chaplain made me pretty good at recognizing a hustle.

On those days, when I decline to help the caller and instead direct them to one of our partner agencies in the community who are in a better position to assess their needs and route them through county services, it’s not uncommon for my refusal to help to be met by an angry rant about me being a Christian/pastor and I’m obligated to help everyone.

To which I sometimes reply (but always think): Jesus didn’t help everyone.

And he didn’t. Indeed for many an encounter with Jesus seemed to ruin their life not make it better (see: Young Man, Rich).

It can be shocking for readers of the Gospels to realize, perhaps after reading them straight through, that Jesus didn’t offer a miracle to everyone who needed one. He didn’t heal everyone who crossed his path.

His path to the cross was more important. 

That the previous sentence will strike many of you as callous/conservative/dogmatic is revealing. I mean isn’t it telling that in many United Methodist churches the terms ‘mission’ and ‘outreach’ refer exclusively to works of mercy for the poor and refer not at all to professing our core conviction?

Richard Stearns’ is correct that oftentimes our definition of the Gospel has a ‘hole’ in it, yet the Gospel is still a bigger piece of our calling than is the hole.

I think we often lose sight (and I count myself guilty here too) that we serve the poor not because it’s a good thing to do (the Red Cross takes care of that), and not because Jesus told us to and we feel obligated (that would make us just as joyless and duty-bound as Pharisees).

We empty ourselves on behalf of the poor as an expression of our worship of the one who made himself poor so we might become rich. In turn, because Jesus made himself poor we serve the poor with eyes expecting to find him among the poor-who accordingly are actually rich- thus, engaging the poor, is no different than bible study. It’s how we grow more deeply in Christ.

Because mission and service are means of discipleship for us, it’s all the more important that how we engage those ministries reflects and is consonant with our confession about Jesus Christ.

Here’s how a post from Relevant Magazine puts it:

Christianity is about self-sacrifice, but if it’s not for the purpose and glory of Jesus, there really isn’t a point. We would love to tell others we believe it’s all about Jesus. Yet, our actions say we don’t. It’s obvious in how we give. We often give without researching the organizations we’re helping. And when we do research, our focus is often fiscal—what does my dollar accomplish?—not on Christ-inspired outcomes. We must ask, “How are lives being changed?”

For Jesus, the most important outcome possible is the glory of God. When on earth, He profoundly understood that everything should serve this purpose. He also understood that the connection to God’s glory came through His work on the cross, as the savior for God’s people. When we realize this, Jesus’ reasoning for allowing a woman to spend an entire expensive perfume flask on Him makes sense. Those around Jesus scold the woman, because the perfume could have been sold to help the poor. Jesus rebukes them, saying, “For the poor you always have with you, and you can do good for them whenever you want, but you do not always have me” (Mark 14:7). Jesus is foremost.

This is not to say that justice and mercy cannot be brought through non-Christian organizations, because it certainly can. Life change does that; life change also involving the good news of Jesus, though, is even better.

Click here to read the rest of Relevant’s Post.

As part of our God-Sized Vision sermon series, I’ve been pointing to the findings from the Pew Trust Survey’s data on religion and young people.

Here’s one 20-something’s (a friend) feedback on Church and Christianity. Write it off all you want. A handful of years and your church will be sending him/her mailings, promotions and wondering what you can do to get them interested in your church.

1. Church is decreasingly relevant to my life. Throughout my college career I have slowly become less involved (to not at all) and any thought that goes into faith is usually in discussion with others or in well meaning debate. I enjoy reading and talking about it, but don’t attend church regularly.

2. I associate the word ‘worship’ with very emotional-hands-in-the-air-bad-music-contemporary services, and general discomfort about being surrounded by that. I do like hymns….and bluegrass. The bluegrass worship on sunday morning blue ridge mountain radio is good. But generally followed by a fist-shaking, southern drawl infused, guilt trip. I think worship can be a positive, and have experienced that on mission trips.

3. My favorite part of worship has always been the sermon. I generally tune out to a lot of the other goings-on. I prefer digging in deep, and being critical in a constructive way. An hour of prayer concerns during a service does not make me feel more a part of the community – despite the small town sentiment I wish characterized the times I have had to listen to very gruesome descriptions of “my [insert distant family member]’s [insert personally revealing ailment]”

4. I think most people generally equate a lot of different ideas about christianity to stand true across the board. For example, if you are a Christian you don’t support gay marriage. Even though this is extremely ignorant, I don’t think it is uncommon. Also in college people tend to say that christians are very conservative, can’t have fun that isn’t team building etc. Formality and commitment seem to me to be big reasons why people I know are reluctant to become involved in a church setting. People are much more willing to consider issues/opinions/ideas around a table in the company of friends (with wine) than they are to have the same conversation in a church setting.
Don’t mean to sound so negative, but I figure a critical opinion will be good? Honest as well though. Hope this is sufficient.

There’s a saying (cliche) that’s floated around the United Methodist Church for as long as I can remember: ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words.” Despite how often people quote this, it’s stupid.

It’s attributed to St Francis of Assisi but frequency of citation has made it almost a Methodist slogan of sorts. And, like all cliches, there’s some wisdom once you dig to the bottom of it. In this case, our actions and way of life with others should be in concert with what we believe about the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.

Sounds good and obvious, right?

However, it’s a cliche that depends upon bad, unhelpful theology. Tim Keller, in his book Center Church, points out that ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies on the assumption that the Gospel is primarily about things we do to achieve salvation, in which case communicating the Gospel can be done without words.

But that’s not the Gospel. 

The Gospel’s not a message of things we must do.

The Gospel’s a message about what we could /can not do for ourselves. The Gospel’s a message about what God has done for us, once and for all. And that’s not a message that’s self-interpreting or self-evident. 

The Gospel requires preaching or, rather, proclamation. As scripture says, salvation comes by ‘hearing.’ Good works are the fruit of hearing the Gospel; they are not the Gospel.

Part of me fears Francis’ quote is so popular in the Methodist world because we’ve lost the ability and the boldness to proclaim, in pulpits and in every day speech, the Gospel. The cliche has become, for us, an excuse. (And part of me wonders if our denominational inability to communicate the Gospel is what has led to us being behind the curve in communicating via social media.)

But with all due respect to Francis, the message about the Word become flesh very definitely and even primarily requires words.

It’s nearly a week since election day. Most of us have settled back into our lives and Facebook is no longer a minefield of incivility.

In the past week there’s been considerable analysis of the Republican’s demographic problems. Politicos point out how the Republicans will prove incapable of winning national elections if they continue to rely on the vote of white Protestants, an increasingly shrinking piece of the electoral pie. Only 1/5 voters last Tuesday so identified themselves. If Republicans want to put together a national, majority coalition, observers have said often since Tuesday night, they need to adapt and reach younger voters, more diverse voters and religiously unaffiliated voters.

Some Republicans in the press have embraced this reality- always the first step to change- while others have denied it and posited other explanations for their defeat Tuesday.

Here’s the truly sobering data from Tuesday night. The Republican Party’s problems is the same problem the Church faces.

According to the Pew Trust Survey, released last month, nearly 20% of Americans identify themselves as ‘religiously unaffiliated.’

The stigma against religious ambivalence that was once so strong among the greatest generation, and even their children- which, no doubt, led to a degree of shallow, cultural Christianity off of which the Church has been subsisting decades- is no longer. People today feel free to identify themselves as unbelievers without concern that someone will look down their nose at them.

No surprise: many of the religiously unaffiliated are my age and younger and they’re diverse.

In a nutshell, the Church is facing the future holding Mitt Romney’s electoral strategy, which a week’s hindsight demonstrates is a losing bet.

And just as Republicans have been doing this week past, some Christians are willing to face the reality (and the challenge) and vision for the future while other Christians seem determined to deny reality or, worse, blame the culture, turn their backs on it and jettison the universal implications of their beliefs.

Interestingly (tragically), the convergence between the Pew Trust survey and Tuesday night’s results goes deeper. The Pew results found that very many of those who identify as religiously unaffiliated do so because they perceive Christianity to be “deeply entangled with conservative politics and do not want to have any association with it. As a result, many young Americans view religion as judgmental, hypocritical, homophobic, and too political.”

What’s more, 2/3 of the unaffiliated say the Church is too concerned with money and power (70%) and too involved in politics (67%).

In other words, the ’80’s and ’90’s may have been good for the Christian Coalition but the fruit they’ve reaped has not been good for Christians.

As Mitt Romney found out Tuesday, the college students who voted for Obama this time around aren’t the same college students who voted in 2008. Meaning, the trends are only going to continue and get worse for the Church unless we face facts.

The bad news in the data is that the Church has allowed our infatuation with the trappings of Empire to define how many perceive us.

The good news in the data is that most of the unaffiliated have bowed out for good reasons and not- thank God- because they’re not open to Jesus.

I’ve been reading Tim Keller’s new book, Center Church. Essentially it’s a book on ecclesiology, theology of the Church.
QWriting about the increasing numbers of unchurched people and how this new context will demand that Christians learn again how to witness to their faith in a gracious manner, Keller makes this analogy:
50 years ago everyone knew a gay person, at work, in the neighborhood, in family or social circles. Only, they didn’t know they knew a gay person because gay people seldom shared that part of their lives. As a result, it was easy for people to harbor inaccurate or hurtful stereotypes about gay people. As election day showed, those stereotypes are gradually eroding because know everyone knows they know a gay person, often someone they love or care about or respect.
Here’s how Keller threads the needle:
Today, everyone knows a Christian, at work, in the neighborhood or in social circles. Only, increasingly, they don’t know they know a Christian because Christians seldom share that part of their lives and churches do not equip them to do so in a normal, gracious way. As a result, it’s easy and increasingly common for people to harbor inaccurate or even mean stereotypes of Christians.
Christianity then will be increasingly marginal to the extent Christians lead people to believe its marginal to their lives.

I hear it all the time when I’m planning a funeral service for someone who was not a Christian. Families often have a strong need to mis-remember their loved one as someone who was more religious than was actually the case. Families also presume that someone like me won’t perform the funeral service for someone who was not a disciple, which isn’t so. In those instances it’s not uncommon for me to hear equivocations like: ‘so and so believed in God; so and so just didn’t believe in institutional religion.’ 

Here’s the thing that always takes them by surprise: I hate institutional religion too.

Rowan Williams’ replacement as Archbishop of Canterbury has just been appointed by the Queen. Williams is a giant in the theological world and a hero of mine. He straddles the liberal-conservative divide in a way that makes him hard to peg and wins him few allies.

By most accounts, Williams’ ten year run as archbishop was ineffective or, worse, disastrous. His ten years in Canterbury prove a cautionary tale. Even someone with a peerless mind, an obvious love of God, a gentle spirit and a healthy dose of creativity was incapable of changing the institutional blight of an established denomination (the Church of England).

Rowan Williams and my own United Methodist tradition sprang to mind as I read Tim Keller’s new book, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City.

Keller’s emphasis on church renewal is combatting the natural tendency of churches to drift towards institutionalism by recovering a sense of the church as a movement of believers towards a unifying vision.

Keller helpfully distinguishes the characteristics of institutions and movements. It should come as no surprise where almost every mainline church and denomination falls in this rubric.


Held together by policies

A culture of rights and quotas, a balance of responsibilities and rewards

Emphasis on compensation, extrinsic rewards

Changes in policy involve long process, much resistance and negotiation with many parties

Decisions made procedurally and slowly

Innovation from top down, implemented in department silos

Feels like a patchwork of turk conscious mini-agenices or committees

Values: security, stability, predictability, ‘we’ve always done it this way…’

Slow to change

Emphasis on tradition and custom, future trends are dreaded and denied

Jobs given to those with tenure, next in line

Few can articulate mission, or mission is actually the agendas of many different groups


Held together by common purpose, vision

A culture of sacrificial commitment

Emphasis on celebration, intrinsic rewards

Vision comes from leaders trusted by group with loyalty

Decisions made relationally and rapidly

Innovation bubbles up from all, executed by all

Feels like a unified whole

Values: risk, creativity

Dynamic, quick to respond to needs

Emphasis on present and future

Jobs given according to fruitfulness

Everyone can articulate mission and every endeavor contributes to it

A sermon for All Saints based on Ezra 3

On Thursday afternoon this week, I found myself in what you might describe as a ‘sour mood.’ Or, as my wife likes to put it, I was ‘man-strating.’

First, early on Thursday I received an email from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named here in the congregation, my own personal Caiphus. For some reason, he felt the need to email me to dispute Dennis’ sermon from last Sunday.

You know, the sermon that was written by and preached by NOT ME. I mean if I’m going to start getting blamed for Dennis’ sermons too then he’s got to step up his game. Specifically, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named wanted to dismiss the Pew Trust statistics Dennis shared with you, about the percentage of people in their 40’s and 30’s and 20’s for whom church is not relevant to their lives at all.

His email was succinct: “I come to church every Sunday. If other people don’t that’s not my problem.”

That’s when I started manstrating.

Right after reading his email, I got in my car where I discovered that every single radio station was playing a campaign commercial, the kind explaining how this Tuesday is the most critical date in the history of human civilization and unless Barack Obama/Mitt Romney wins the earth will stop spinning, America will cease to exist, and the Death Star will reach full operational capacity.

Driving in my car, my mood worsened.

When I got home Thursday afternoon, my phone rang. And rang. And rang…don’t you love phone calls this time of year? Barack Obama’s campaign called me 3 times, asking for my vote and my money. Mitt Romney’s campaign called me 2 times, asking for my vote and my money. George Allen and Tim Kaine followed with robo-calls of their own, asking for my vote and my money.

So when my phone rang for the 8th time, I was full-on manstrating.


‘Is Jason Micheli there?’ the voice on the other end inquired.


‘No, he’s not here,’ I lied, ‘can I take a message?’


‘My name’s Matt. I’m calling from Princeton Seminary.’


‘Oh,’ I said, ‘this is Jason.’


‘But I thought you said…’


‘Never mind what I said. How can I help you?’

He then explained that he was a seminary student and that he was calling on behalf of the Bicentennial Campaign, soliciting gifts…and testimonials from alumni.

He tried to grease the sale by telling me all the new things going on at my alma mater, and then he asked if I would make a gift to the campaign.

I said sure. He said great. I said okay. He asked how much.  I told him.

And he said: ‘Times are tough, huh?’

That’s when my mood turned truly foul.

‘Look kid, maybe no one’s told you yet what you can expect to make as a pastor but I’m not Bill Gates. Besides, you should’ve called earlier. I’ve already given money to Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, George Allen, Tim Kaine, NPR and the Rebel Alliance.’

He sounded confused.

‘Well, um, would you like to share any thoughts about how your seminary education prepared you for ministry? We’d like to compile these and publish them in the alumni magazine.’

And instantly my mind went to that email from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, sitting in my inbox, still waiting for a reply.

And I knew this was one of those moments where a grown-up could choose to bite his tongue and not resort to petty sarcasm. But I’m not one of those grown-ups.

‘Sure, Matt, I’d love to share my thoughts. Here goes: Princeton Seminary prepared me exceedingly well…to maintain a church for church people.’

I could hear him typing my response.

‘In fact, Matt, why don’t you suggest to the trustees that they can slow down, delay the Bicentennial for several decades, because based on how Princeton taught me to do ministry it must still be 1950.’

‘That’s not the kind of feedback we were looking for’ Matt said.

‘Of course not, but its what you need to hear.

Princeton Seminary taught me to pray the kinds of prayers church people like, to preach the kinds of sermons church people like, to plan the kind worship services that church people like, to manage the kind of church that church people like.


But seminary didn’t teach me how to do any of those things in a way that makes church relevant and life-changing to an unchurched person.


And that’s the future, Matt. And the clock’s ticking. It’s ticking faster than any one in church wants to believe.’


Those Pew statistics Dennis shared with you last week- about how with each new generation the church plays an ever-shrinking role- those aren’t just numbers.

They’re people with names and stories. People God loves.


That’s why this week I sent our youth director, Teer Hardy, out into Alexandria and DC, to find some those people behind the numbers and hear their side of the story.


I wish I could show you the video he shot. If we were in the National Cathedral, I could show you the video. But since we’re in this sanctuary, you’re just going to have to listen. Here’s one of the responses (Cue Audio)


My name is ___________________. 

I’m 33. I’m married and have a 1 year old boy. I work full-time.  

As a 30-something, how relevant is the Church to you in your life? 

At this moment, not very much. I guess it’s been almost five years since I worshipped in a church, besides a few weddings. Some of my earliest memories are of going to church during Advent. 

I miss that element in my weekly life, of worshiping and belonging to a community. Part of me would like to have that resonance of faith in my daily life, but most churches don’t seem to have someone like me, someone my age, in mind. Your question could easily be turned around, couldn’t it? How relevant is someone like me to your church? 

When you hear the word ‘worship’ what comes to your mind? 

The word ‘worship’ doesn’t immediately lead me to think of institutional religious practices. 

To worship, to me, is to reframe my attention away from everything I typically pay attention to as a full-time working mother, and turn to God, experience awe, gratitude, connection to other humans. I could attend a formal church service and never experience any of those things, but I do experience them in other ways and places.  

What assumptions or habits do churches have that are an obstacle to someone your age? 

I think there is a risk of the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction. I think churches sometimes try to pander and make themselves appear relevant to a young audience. People my age and younger are a lot savvier now. We’re marketed to all the time; we can tell the difference between a sales pitch and a genuine interest in us.


This is someone who grew up in church and is open to being a part of another one.


But did you hear what she said?


People like her won’t return to what they left if it’s the same exact thing they left before.


Now it’s easy to write people like her off. You can say ‘it’s not my problem.’

I could steer you towards plenty of people who would agree with you.


You know where they’re all at this morning? That’s right, in dying churches.


And Methodism’s got plenty of those. Churches who love their way of doing things more than they love their mission to reach new people.


Churches where perpetuating how they do things is their mission. Churches who feel no urgency until the day comes they can no longer pay the bills.


But, just in case there’s still some of you who want to dismiss the statistics and not be bothered about the strangers in the street who don’t think Jesus can change their lives, we solicited some other interviews too.


Cue Audio:

My name’s _____________________. I’m 24 and work full-time.


What about how churches do worship fails to resonate with you? 


I think everyone is at a different place in their lives and everyone has a different perspective. I know that my ideas and opinions about things have changed, and I would be amazed if they didn’t change again. Sometimes it feels like churches want new and younger people so long as we don’t come with our own opinions and needs. We’re expected to sign on to exactly how they like to do worship. In that sense, it’s not much different than children’s church when I was a kid.


It’s difficult for me to accept someone else’s preferences if I don’t get the feeling that they’re open to someone else’s way of doing things too. 


This other response come to me by way of Facebook:


My name’s ____________________. I’m a Graduate Student.


I think my faith is in a transitional phase. In college, I found Christian groups to be radical and extreme and it made me doubt the beliefs I had learned my whole life in church and youth group. It left me feeling that the Church just isn’t all that relevant to real life. 


Worship sometimes feels like a passive ritual to me. You show up, listen, then go home.  It doesn’t impact my day to day life. 



Those two people. Guess where they came from?

They grew up here at Aldersgate. They’re ours. Yours.

So, even if you think we don’t have a responsibility to reach as many new people as we can, at the very least you should agree that we have an obligation to people like these two.

After all, you’ve made promises to them.

Remember? When they were baptized- you promised to do whatever it takes to nurture their faith.


If we’re not willing to create the kind of church that will be relevant to them when they grow up, then, frankly, we should stop baptizing them when they’re babies.


If we’re not willing to adapt how we do church, we should stop baptizing children.


Because every time we baptize, we vow to do everything it takes to make them a saint.


Shirley Pitts can tell you- John Wesley understood this.

Remembering the saints is something we do. Once a year.


Producing saints, Sunday after Sunday, day in and day out- that’s our Christ-given great commission.



This is what you need to remember.


Dennis and I- one of our three goals for the coming 18 months is to raise the number of people in worship by 10%.


Round it up to 100 people if you want.


Before you nod your heads and say ‘that’s a great idea!’ remember the Ezra chapter 3 catch:


We can’t say we’re going to build a new temple and think we can do so by replicating how we’ve always done things before.


Because how we do things now will net us what we have.



We’re making worship our number one focus this year and our goal is 10% more people worshipping God with us.


To get to that goal, we’re going to have to be creative, take risks, value people over preferences, we’re going to have to examine all our assumptions, we’re going to have to get more basic/more essential, and change.


And if you think I’m talking about worship style or music style, you’re missing the point. For example:


Most of you would be very reluctant to invite an unchurched friend to worship with you. I understand that reluctance, but it’s got to change.


Many of you can’t talk about Jesus or use religious language in a normal conversation with your peers. I was like that; I understand that, and we’ve got to change that.


Many of our members are involved in all kinds of activities in the church without ever worshipping with us. I understand that’s an ingrained part of the church culture, but it’s a part of the culture that’s got to change.


Other than acolytes, we don’t have our children or youth involved in worship, serving communion, reading scripture, helping to plan, leading prayer or ushering. I understand that might sound chaotic. It’s still gotta change.


Many of you don’t know the names of the people you sit near in church every Sunday. I DON’T understand that and it’s definitely got to change.


Many of you think worship is something Dennis or I or Andreas or Jason or the band or the choir offer you, and you receive- rather than something we collectively offer our larger community on behalf of God.


And more than anything, that mindset has to change.


Look, I know change bothers people.

I’ve been at this long enough to have habits I’m afraid to change.

I understand.


But what I want to bother you more, what I wish I got emails complaining about, what I wish I got emails complaining about, is how our community is filled with lost coins, lost sheep, lost children and how we’re not laser-beam focused on getting them here so they can embrace a Father who’s waiting for them.


I want that to bother you because Jesus made it very clear: it bothers God.


I was still on the phone with Matt from Princeton when another call beeped in.

It was probably another campaign calling me for my vote and my money.


But at least it snapped me out of my rant and Matt said:

‘That’s a good point Mr Micheli, but transitioning a church into the future- don’t you think that’s your congregation’s responsibility too? Don’t you trust that God can equip your people with the necessary gifts?’


I told him he must get very good grades in seminary, and he chuckled gently.


And then the little jerk asked me for more money.


But he was right.


Building on our foundation for a new future is a gigantic, God-sized calling. And it belongs to all of us. Together.


Ezra says the leaders who build the new Temple after the exile are the grandkids of the ones who remember how things used to be.


Ezra says, at first, everyone thinks their idea to build a new Temple is a great idea.

But Ezra says some have a change of heart when they realize the new Temple won’t be the same as the old.


Some refuse to give their money to it, Ezra says.


Others opt out Ezra says.


But others, those who are old enough to remember what was 50 years ago, Ezra says they weep.


They weep, but they’re still there. They’re still there when the new Temple is dedicated.  They’re still committed. They’re still contributing. Because of what God did for them in the past, they’re still invested in the future of what God’s doing.


And sure when the new Temple is dedicated, Ezra says you can’t distinguish the sound of celebration from the sound of grief.


But that’s okay.


Because as messy as it is, that’s what it sounds like- celebration and grief, that’s what it sounds like- when God’s People take the next faithful step.






Did you see this latest poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life?

For the first time ever, in 2012, 50% of Americans say they never attend a religious service while a quarter of respondents say they are ‘unaffiliated’ to any religious tradition.

In truth, the results of this study shouldn’t be a surprise to any one who knows someone under 40, in college or doesn’t attend church. Jesus has been an increasingly tough sell for some time now, especially for folks in my generation/income/education bracket, and this often for good reason. It’s not so much they don’t like Jesus; they just don’t like Jesus’ friends.

What the Pew study really points out is just how severely behind the trends the Church has been. While congregations and denominations struggle and decline, refusing to adapt to their new post-Christian context- instead repeating the ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ mantra and hoping the days gone by come back- the social stigma against ‘no religion’ has gone away for good.

Gone too is the ‘de facto established religion’ status Christianity has always enjoyed in American culture.

In the future, the Church won’t be able to rely on societal norms persuading people to become Christian.

In the future, the Church will have to rely on…faith.


For the first time in its history, the United States does not have a Protestant majority, according to a new study. One reason: The number of Americans with no religious affiliation is on the rise.

The percentage of Protestant adults in the U.S. has reached a low of 48 percent, the first time that Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has reported with certainty that the number has fallen below 50 percent. The drop has long been anticipated and comes at a time when no Protestants are on the U.S. Supreme Court and the Republicans have their first presidential ticket with no Protestant nominees.

Among the reasons for the change a spike in the number of American adults who say they have no religion. The Pew study, released Tuesday, found that about 20 percent of Americans say they have no religious affiliation, an increase from 15 percent in the last five years.

Scholars have long debated whether people who say they no longer belong to a religious group should be considered secular. While the category as defined by Pew researchers includes atheists, it also encompasses majorities of people who say they believe in God, and a notable minority who pray daily or consider themselves “spiritual” but not “religious.” Still, Pew found overall that most of the unaffiliated aren’t actively seeking another religious home, indicating that their ties with organized religion are permanently broken.

Growth among those with no religion has been a major preoccupation of American faith leaders who worry that the United States, a highly religious country, would go the way of Western Europe, where church attendance has plummeted. Pope Benedict XVI has partly dedicated his pontificate to combating secularism in the West. This week in Rome, he is convening a three-week synod, or assembly, of bishops from around the world aimed at bringing back Roman Catholics who have left the church.

The trend also has political implications. American voters who describe themselves as having no religion vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Pew found Americans with no religion support abortion rights and gay marriage at a much higher-rate than the U.S. public at large. These “nones” are an increasing segment of voters who are registered as Democrats or lean toward the party, growing from 17 percent to 24 percent over the last five years. The religiously unaffiliated are becoming as important a constituency to Democrats as evangelicals are to Republicans, Pew said.

The Pew analysis, conducted with PBS’ ”Religion & Ethics Newsweekly,” is based on several surveys, including a poll of nearly 3,000 adults conducted June 28-July 9, 2012. The finding on the Protestant majority is based on responses from a larger group of more than 17,000 people and has a margin of error of plus or minus 0.9 percentage points, Pew researchers said.

Pew said it had also previously calculated a drop slightly below 50 percent among U.S. Protestants, but those findings had fallen within the margin of error; the General Social Survey, which is conducted by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, reported for 2010 that the percentage of U.S. Protestants was around 46.7 percent. Analysts disagree on whether the increasing numbers of nondenominational Christians should be counted as Protestant. Pew researchers do include independent Christians in their Protestant figure.

Researchers have been struggling for decades to find a definitive reason for the steady rise in those with no religion.’ The spread of secularism in Western Europe was often viewed as a byproduct of growing wealth in the region. Yet among industrialized nations, the United States stood out for its deep religiosity in the face of increasing wealth.

Now, religion scholars say the decreased religiosity in the United States could reflect a change in how Americans describe their religious lives. In 2007, 60 percent of people who said they seldom or never attend religious services still identified themselves as part of a particular religious tradition. In 2012, that statistic fell to 50 percent, according to the Pew report.

“Part of what’s going on here is that the stigma associated with not being part of any religious community has declined,” said John Green, a specialist in religion and politics at the University of Akron, who advised Pew on the survey. “In some parts of the country, there is still a stigma. But overall, it’s not the way it used to be.”

Click here to read the rest of the article in the Washington Post.

Maybe it’s always been the case and I’ve simply not noticed it, but lately I’ve taken a lot of crap (fairly?) for criticizing my alma ecclesia, the United Methodist Church. Honestly, it’s not hard. Critiquing the several-decades- too-late- and-many-dollars-short UMC is like Jerry Seinfeld telling jokes to a besotted night club audience. If the crap I’ve taken is fair so is, I believe, the crap I’ve given. After all, we Methodists are predictable, sentimental and pop-cliche. In typical modernist fashion, we’re enamored with bureaucracy, meaningless legislative gestures and the latest fads which might appeal to seekers- which is impressive since we’re also impervious to change and innovation, allergic to accountability and unaware of genuine cultural trends.

I often point out how our terminology for church governance betrays how we traded in the Gospel for Robert’s Rules of Order. Instead of a diocese (a nice churchy word) we have a district, as though we worked for Dunder Mifflin. Instead of an archdiocese we have a conference, like the ACC. Instead of a proud episcopacy, we have a superintendents, just like the public school system, which ironically is also an unwieldy outdated bureaucracy.

But maybe that’s harsh 🙂

Given my usual prickly posture of critique, I thought I’d offer up an unusual praise. As you may know, I’m reading NT Wright’s, How God Became King. Here’s a previous entry.

Wright’s thesis is that Christians in the West have historically and categorically misread the Gospels. We’ve read them through the cipher of the creeds and our prejudicial understanding of Paul. We’ve read them as modern liberals and conservatives. As a consequence, we’ve missed how the Gospels all attempt to tell a WHOLE story not isolated teachings or vignettes. They attempt to tell the story of how the God of Israel became, in Jesus Christ, King on Earth as he is in Heaven. Wright’s thesis is one that puts ascension not crucifixion or resurrection as the climax to the tale. It’s one that marries worship and social witness in a way I think the usual liberal and conservative options miss.

And that’s where Methodism- actually John and Charles Wesley- come in. Wright cites Wesley as a rare example in the history of the Western Church who ‘got’ both the experience of loving God in one’s heart (worship) and practicing that love in a life of loving neighbor by serving the poor and advocating for justice.

I think Wright’s reading of the tradition is correct as is his identification of this Wesleyan synthesis as we Methodists’ true treasure.