Deacon Sunday Sermon – Nudges and Shoves – 5/22/2011

Below is the sermon that I preached yesterday for Deacon Sunday at my church.  At my church, the Deacon President preaches for this service.

First Old Testament Reading:  Psalm 139:1-18
Second Old Testament Reading:  Jonah 1:1-4,7,11-12,15-2:1,2:10-3:3a

Audio:  Here

Have you ever wondered what you should be when you grow up?  Whenever you might grow up?

Have you ever wondered if you are doing today what you are supposed to be doing?

Yeah, me too.

Parker Palmer in his book Let Your Life Speak quotes a poem from May Sarton:

Now I become myself
It’s taken time, many years and places.
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces ….

The journey of discovering who we are is often a long one, a winding journey, and one that has almost as many steps back as forward.  In the church, we call the destination “vocation”.

We often associate vocation with a job in the church, but vocation is so much more than that.  God gives each of us gifts, and calls each of us to a job or a role in life – a vocation – that will use those gifts in the best way.  In essence, we are called to discover who we are – who God has made us to be – and once we find it to be that person as best as we can.  You may be called to a role in the church, or perhaps another career in medicine, law, advertising, sports, or science just to name a few.

The good news is that God already knows who we are meant to be.  In the Psalm we heard this morning it says:  “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.”  Some people call this God’s Plan for Us, but I believe it’s simpler than that – it’s God’s revelation of who we are.

And we’re not alone in finding out who we are.  God is present in the journey, and nudges us along the way.  Those nudges take a lot of different forms.  Most are subtle – an internal tug within ourselves to something that interests us, a thought that seems to have come from outside of our self, or the words of encouragement of a trusted friend or mentor, or an insight after reading something.  Some are more like shoves, not as subtle, taking the form of dreams or visions or hearing an actual voice – and many of the stories in the Bible take that form.  However we hear the message, God is with us, and will not let us go until we understand.  It just takes time.

Jonah heard God’s voice at the beginning of today’s scripture.  It was a little more than a nudge, but less than a shove.  The shoves came later.

Jonah was a prophet, and as such likely accustomed to transmitting the word of God to others.  In this story, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, and cry out against it for God had seen the wickedness of that city.  At the time, Nineveh was an enemy of Israel, and this was a dangerous message, to be delivered to the enemy.

Jonah heard the message of God very clearly, but decided not to follow it.  And the nudge didn’t quite work in this case.  Albert Schweitzer was also nudged by God into his first career, through much subtler means.

Albert Schweitzer heard his early call through a still, small voice.  The son and grandson of preachers, Dr. Schweitzer himself chose theology and philosophy as his areas of study at the University of Strasbourg, ultimately earning a PhD at the age of 22.  One of his professors advised him to consider a teaching position in philosophy, but he chose theology as his primary focus.  In his autobiography he says, “to me preaching was an inner necessity. The opportunity to speak every Sunday to a congregation about the essential questions of life seemed to me wonderful.”  From his earliest years his call to ministry was expressed through his internal spirit – through his gifts and interests given to him at his creation.  And so he went on to succeed in his field, serving a church, leading a theological seminary, and publishing a famous work of theology.

Sometimes God speaks to us through ourselves, by giving us interest in a particular subject, or through us hearing someone else tell us what they see as our gifts.  Schweitzer heard that quiet call to ministry in his early career.

My own story of becoming my true self starts with a bit of nudging as well.

I was a lot like some of the youth in this church when I was in high school.  I was quite involved in the church, serving as a Deacon and going to Triennium, working at Camp Johnsonburg and serving in the higher levels of the Presbyterian church system.  I was also a bit of a geek, taking every computer course my high school had, playing in the band and serving on the stage crew.

I started at Rutgers feeling that I was headed one of two ways – either to a future in the ministry, or to a future working in the computer field – and I started by taking courses in both.  Then I had a bad experience on campus, and a few months later I saw a few odd things happen in my work in the greater church.  And I came to the conclusion that the church was about a small group of people trying to control the actions and beliefs of a larger group of people. As a result I quit my church roles and walked away.  I was done with the church, though not done with God.

More than 15 years later, I reconnected with the church through the camp.  One summer Sunday while volunteering, I began to form an inner question – whether or not I should be attending a church again every Sunday.  Talking with others I discovered that this was a common question, and I worked with the camp staff to develop a weekend retreat to help adults figure out whether or not to return, and if so how to find the right church for them.

Guided by what I learned at the retreat, my search process led me to Lawrenceville (with a few well-placed nudges from Alicia Pasko Morrison and Jill van den Heuvel).  That was in 2006.  Shortly after that, invitations from individuals and the congregation brought me to my work with the Deacons and with the youth.

All throughout this time I began to periodically wonder if I was in the right job.  I’d been working in Information Technology for 20 years at this point, and I began to wonder if the world of machines and concentrating on the bottom-line and career advancement was where I belonged.  My co-workers tell me that I would light up when I talked about my church work, particularly with the youth.  I starting thinking about and researching seminary.  I bought the Parker Palmer book that is referenced earlier and in the bulletin, and spent lunchtime at work reading it to try to figure out what I was feeling and hearing around vocation.  Something was beginning to change.

There are three questions that I have for you to consider today about your own journey.  The first question is this – when have you heard a nudge from God in your life?  When have you made a choice without really knowing why you did?  When has someone else said to you “You really should consider” this or that, often without knowing why they were asking the question?  Has God nudged you?  Is God nudging you today?

Sometimes God gives us a shove, because we need it.

Jonah decided to turn from God’s direction.  He hot-footed it out of town and boarded a ship to Tarshish as a passenger, directly in the opposite direction of Nineveh.

While Jonah was on the ship to Tarshish, God turned to shoves.  God caused a great storm to come up on the sea and put the ship in danger.  This storm was bad enough that it scared even the seasoned sailors on board. The crew, realizing that Jonah was the cause of their trouble, asked him what they should do to him, so that God would end the storm.  Jonah, apparently seeing that he was putting their lives in danger as well as his own, told them to throw him overboard so that the sea would become quiet for them.  Jonah understood that he had taken a course against God, and begins to show signs of a change of heart – at least as far as putting others in danger.

Finally in desperation the crew pleaded directly to God.  They asked for God’s forgiveness for what they were about to do, and then threw Jonah overboard, expecting him to drown and at that point the sea calmed.

Jonah expected to drown, in order to save the ship and the crew.  But instead, something fantastic happened.  He was swallowed up by large fish.  And scripture tells us that he lived in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.

God’s shove for Jonah was very clear.  Albert Schweitzer’s shove was a little more mysterious, but just as clear to him.

One summer day in Schweitzer’s 21st year he awoke, and lying in bed he pondered his good fortune.  Before he finally arose he had reached a decision – he would pursue his passions and scholarship until he was 30, and after that he would devote himself directly to serving humanity.  The exact nature of how he would do that wasn’t yet clear, but the direction was.

Another morning eight years later he found a copy of the magazine of the Paris Missionary Society on his writing table.  He was about to put the magazine down and take up his studies when an article caught his eye – “Les besoins de la Mission du Congo” – The needs of the Congo Mission.  The article spoke of the mission of the society in the French colony of Congo – the mission that was founded by Robert and Isabelle Nassau, who were members of this church.  The author of the article expressed the hope that his appeal would bring some of those “on whom the Master’s eyes already rested” to a decision to offer themselves to this work, concluding “Men and women who can reply simply to the Master’s Call, ‘Lord, I am coming,’ those are the people that the Church needs.”  Schweitzer’s autobiography states the working of God in his heart very simply:  “I finished the article and quietly began my work.  My search was over.”

Albert Schweitzer expressed the shove as a clear call – through the words of a magazine writer but nonetheless directed clearly at him.

For me, the shoves started in the summer of 2008 – a summer of extremes.

The high for the summer was the youth conference trip.  Our church staff and advisors led a group of youth and young adults to the Montreat Youth Conference for what was my first time at the Montreat center. The trip connected me with my prior church life in ways as subtle as listening to Sheridan singing while Rich played guitar, to ways as extraordinary as an experience that I had during a worship service that I can only call a vision.  It was made clear to me that week that while I had been considering my past church experiences and my present church experiences two separate parts of my life’s story, they were actually one journey.  I left Montreat feeling the best I’d felt in a very long time, and at the same time wondering even more whether I still fit in the corporate world that I lived in every day.

And then 10 days later, I was laid off from my job – a job that I’d held for over 13 years.  And … in one morning I was cut off from my income, from the large part of my sense of self-worth that was wrapped up in my job, and from the friends that I saw everyday.  I was isolated, spending a much larger part of my day alone at home.  I’m an introvert, but at some point being alone that much becomes too much.

To this day I’m still not sure of God’s part in my layoff.  At the time it felt very much like I was being kicked out of the nest – that I needed to get out of my old job and consider the church as a career.  Or maybe it was a little like being thrown into the sea.

For the next 18 months I searched for another Information Technology job, with no success.

In December of 2009, I interviewed for and was nearly chosen for an IT job in a non-profit organization, indirectly supporting youth.  After a few weeks I was told that another candidate was selected – that it was “this close” – and I was devastated.  I began to wonder why God had chosen to ignore my prayers, had left me standing alone.  Through my work on the Deacons and in the church, I very clearly saw God at work in other people’s lives, but not in mine.

A few days after New Years God gave me another shove.

One particular morning, I was lying in bed and suddenly had the feeling that I was standing up next to my bed.  Next to me, on my left, was this sort of orange-colored, milky, cloud – about the size of a person.  It was completely clear to me that this was God.  At the same time I got the sense of two things happening at once.

The first thing was that I was standing looking out into the world, and God was standing next to me looking into the world.  Both of us were silent but fully present to each other.  God was there for me.

The other thing that was happening at the time was a sense that I was standing looking into the world, and God was facing me … screaming and gesturing at the top of God’s lungs, gesturing wildly … and I wasn’t getting any of it.  The idea was very clear – that God wasn’t ignoring me, but that I just wasn’t hearing the message.

Through all of this I had a sense of eerie calm that I’d only felt once before – during the vision at Montreat.  It felt like all of my troubles were lifted and that all was right with the world.

And then it ended, and I was back lying in bed.

A couple of weeks later I was having a rough morning and a friend offered to have coffee.  She is a pastor in the area, and a recent graduate from Princeton Seminary.  During the conversation I talked about what was bothering me and I inexplicably found myself asking her for information and advice on attending seminary.  That started a more earnest process of discernment about seminary and a call to ministry.

So, my second question to you is:  When have you felt a shove from God?  Has God ever reached out to you to tell you something in a way that made you just Stop and take notice?  Is God shoving you today?

Throughout all of the disruptions in life, God is still with us.  God walks beside us on the journey that God has made.

God was still with Jonah even after he was thrown overboard.  After three days in the fish, Jonah was ready to talk to God.  In a poetic prayer, Jonah speaks of his distress after being thrown into the water, and how he cried out to God.  Jonah spoke of being distant from God, never again to be in God’s sight, but that God pulled him up out of the water.  Jonah prayed that he would do what he had originally vowed to do.

And at that point, God caused the fish to spit Jonah out onto dry land, and Jonah again heard the voice of God telling him to go to Nineveh.  And this time, he did, proclaiming God’s word there.

And the people there responded, and in turn were spared.

Albert Schweitzer had a happy ending as well, with God’s help.

Over the next eight years Dr. Schweitzer concluded his work at the seminary and began his medical studies to become a doctor.  At the age of 38, he reached the mission at Lambarene and began his work.  In his two trips to Africa before and after World War One he re-established a clinic from the ground up that had a capacity of 200 patients.

I concentrated for the rest of last year on discerning whether or not God is calling me to seminary and the ministry.  I met with a number of people and audited a class at the seminary.  The Session of this church and the presbytery have taken me under care in the official “becoming a Presbyterian minister” process.  My wife and I have worked hard at discernment of what the changes to our life will be, and have planned for school and the future.  I will be starting my Master of Divinity degree at Princeton Seminary this summer.

And God has been with me, though at times I didn’t quite see it.  This church, particularly Jill Cifelli, Rich, some youth and some friends, supported me, as well as my friends from Facebook and Twitter.  The church and the Deacons in particular gave me a place to use my time and talents for good and I found myself choosing to work for the church to fill my time.  I also had the support of my loving wife who rode the rollercoaster with me, going through her own journey that my situation caused as I went through mine.  God was there to support me through the long dark time.

So here’s the third question – when have you felt God with you on your journey?  How have you felt God’s support during the hard times?  Who has been the face of God to you?

God is with us.  God has known each of us from the moment that we existed, and knows who we are meant to be.  God helps us along the way in ways both quiet and still, and loud and unusual.  With God’s help, each of us can find the way in God’s time to becoming the best person that we can be.

And that is good.

Amen.

Re-Connecting with Faith – Finding Your Home – Adult Retreat January 25-27, 2008

September 7, 2007 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Church New Member Process, Religion 

Re-Connecting with Faith: Finding Your Home – Adult Retreat
Johnsonburg Presbyterian Center, Johnsonburg, NJ
January 25-27, 2008

Are you considering a church home?  Do you currently attend a church, but feel like you’re not getting everything you need?  Are you looking at spiritual alternatives?  Have you recently moved and need to find a new church?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, this retreat is for you!

For a variety of reasons, a large number of adults leave the spiritual home of their youth, or spirituality altogether.  However, after a while, many of these people feel like something is missing in their lives.  Returning to a spiritual community after an absence can be a bit challenging for many people.  Will you encounter the situations that caused you to leave?  Will you be accepted?  Will you be fulfilled?  All too often these challenges result in the person staying away from a spiritual community altogether, and everyone loses.

Or perhaps you’ve moved to a new area and are having trouble finding that church home like the one you left behind.  This can often be a long and difficult process.  After all, how do you go about “trying on” churches, or even denominations for that matter?

This weekend long retreat is held for adults who are currently without a spiritual home, or who are attending a church but don’t feel fed there.  We’ll take some time to tell our own stories; who we are and what it is we’re seeking.  We’ll also look at some of the challenges in finding a spiritual home and what some different churches have to offer.  Come and join those who have gone through this discernment process before and who can help you find your way.  Presbyterianism is optional – the program does not assume any particular denomination.

For more information, contact the camp office at 908-852-2349 or info@campjburg.org.  The camp website is found at http://www.campjburg.org/.
The cost is yet to be determined but should be between $50 and $100 per person; if money is what’s keeping you from the retreat contact the camp – we have limited assistance available.

An article about last year’s retreat can be found HERE.  This year’s program will be very similar.

Fear and the Visitor/New Member

March 13, 2007 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Church New Member Process, Religion 

When we held the Reconnecting with Faith retreat this past January, one of the questions that we asked the group was “What is keeping you from getting involved/more involved in a faith community?”

The word “fear” came up multiple times.  I’ll try to describe the different sides of that fear, in the hope that by understanding it, those responsible for working with visitors and new members can help reduce its effects.

One important caveat:  The visitor or new member has both a fragile faith and fragile sense of self within the church.  I am purposely avoiding any judgment of those visitors.  The time for judgment of the appropriateness of a person’s attitude or beliefs is when they are being considered for membership or higher office, not when they first come in the door.

Fear of Acceptance/Rejection

Here’s a situation that may or may not have happened to you personally.  I’m sure that you have enough relevant experience to understand the emotions.

Let’s say that you are 13 years old.  You’ve just moved to a new town (possibly in a different part of the country).  It’s your first day of school.  You’ve managed to survive the morning classes, and maybe you’ve made a friend or two.  Most of the people around you are strangers, and they may or may not see you as strange.  It’s lunchtime.   You’ve gotten your lunch, and you’re standing at the side of the cafeteria looking for someplace to sit and eat.  Do you find a table by yourself?  Do you hope that somebody will invite you to join them?  Do you dare to ask to join a table where others are already seated and talking?  Will you be called a freak?

That’s what going to a new church feels like to a visitor who is looking for a church or considering the possibility of going to church.  A 30-something man or woman (or couple, maybe with kids) is reduced in an instant to a gawky 13-year-old in a new school.  Do you take a seat in the back pew to hide?  Will someone invite you to sit with them?  You may remember the service from the church you grew up in (or attended last week), but there are creeds in the bulletin that you don’t have memorized – that you’ve never heard of.  Do you stand or sit during the 2nd hymn?  Oh my, it’s Communion Sunday and there are no trays up front.  How do I take Communion?  Do they even want me to take Communion?

(This leaves out one of my personal fears – what happens when they hear how badly I sing?  Ha.)

Once the service ends, will someone talk to me?  Do I want them to?  Should I go to coffee hour?

In my search for a church to return to, I experienced all of these fears.  In some churches I was ignored (notably in the church that I ultimately joined – they had a bad day).  In some churches I was smothered with attention.  At least once I got a dirty look for daring to inhabit the chosen pew of a family.

In some churches I was treated well.  I was welcomed, people asked about me and why I came.  People talked to me during coffee hour.  I felt at home.

It’s tough wondering if you will be accepted.

Fear of Commitment

The lack of a church experience in your life often leaves a hole.  For some its a big hole.  For others its a little hole.   Something (or someone – like your child) is pushing you to look into joining (or rejoining) a church.  Maybe it’s God.  Maybe it’s just you.  Maybe you don’t know.

At the same time, you have a routine.  Your Sunday mornings have been free (and often free from the need to get up early).  Your checkbook has not felt the pinch of a weekly donation.  Your Sunday evening, Tuesday morning, Wednesday evening, etc are free from church committee meetings, bible studies, youth group, etc.

At some time, you will be called upon to make a commitment to God (and Christ if you choose a Christian church).  That commitment is one of money, time and talents.  You’ll sacrifice some free time and some personal resources.  You may be prepared to do so.

Or maybe you aren’t prepared yet.  You don’t know what the church will ask of you (or how much).  Combine this with a fear of acceptance/rejection, and you have a worry about whether or not the amount of time/energy/money that you are willing to commit at this time is sufficient to be accepted.

“What will they expect of me?”  “What am I getting myself into?” – I’ve said both of those through the course of my return to the church. (I’m pretty sure I said at least one of those this past weekend.)

During the Reconnecting with Faith retreats, we heard complaints about expectations around personal resources.  We heard of one church where financial contributions (including supporting the church school) were essentially mandatory.  In one case, a woman who was young and had done youth work, and who also plays guitar, related her experience visiting a church.  The pastor talked to her after church, and as he learned of her particular abilities was obviously mentally putting her on committees.  “Oh, you can help with the youth group.”  “You play guitar, we can sure use your help with the contemporary service.”  This woman was scared off by the demands placed on the first day visitor.

What will they demand of me? – this is the question.

One extra note here – “We’d love to see you next week” sounds coercive to some.  “We’d love to see you again” is a better choice.

Fear of Special Circumstances

In our retreats, we had a few people who had different reasons to be worried about being judged.  We had someone who is gay.  We had at least one person going through a divorce.  We had several who had been away from the church for a long time (like me).

The church (in my opinion, to its detriment) is very good at making snap judgments of people based on their traits and/or personal situations.  Homosexuality, divorce, age, marital status, even time away from the church are all things that can cause church people to “look down their noses”.  I’ve experienced it with my long-time absence from the church (though that came more from church people in my own family).

Remember what I wrote above about fear of acceptance or rejection.  Add these special factors and what do you get?  A 13-year-old who is nervous about a new situation, but who also feels (rightly or wrongly) that they are wearing a target on their shirt.  It’s like there’s a scarlet letter on your shirt – G for gay, D for divorced, I for inactive, O for old.

The good news here is that a church that is intentional in its welcome to visitors can get past these fears.  Sometimes it means broadcasting your acceptance (and in some cases, the boundary of what you will accept) – in the website, in the bulletin.  Sometimes it just means listening to each person’s special circumstances and being clear on the church’s position while loving the person.  “We’d love to have you come back again” sends a strong message to someone who has laid their cards on the table.  “We’re glad that you visited, but our church has problems with {homosexuality, divorce}” is better than letting someone attend on a regular basis and run into that particular wall should they choose to pursue membership.

Fear of “What Happened Before”

In the retreats nearly 1/2 (or possibly more than 1/2) of the participants were able to point to one or more specific incidents that caused them to leave the church or consider leaving the church.  These incidents cover the entire spectrum of church activity.  Some mentioned a specific theological concept (or more than one) where they differed from the church (that they belong/belonged to).  Some mentioned “people behaving badly” in church – rude, insensitive, political behavior or even in one case physical abuse.  Others mentioned a focus on money and donations to the exclusion of theology.

Each of those people is experiencing or has experienced pain at the hands of the church.  Some of that might be considered self-inflicted.  Some is just “one of those things” (like a theological split from their church).

The key is to recognize that pain, and help the person get it out of their system.  This is what we do at the Reconnecting with Faith retreat (among other things).  It is not appropriate to fish for this in a visitor, but when it does come out the church and particularly those involved with visitors and new members should be prepared to handle it.

Conclusions

People walking in the door for the first time are usually nervous.  The church generates fear in them to some degree.  A church is most successful at attracting and retaining visitors when it can help visitors get past that fear.

Reconnecting with Faith – one at a time

February 22, 2007 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Church New Member Process, Religion 

I have a co-worker who wanted to attend the Reconnecting with Faith – Finding Your Home retreat in January.  Unfortunately, she couldn’t afford an entire weekend away from home.

So I’m giving her the “Home Game” version of the retreat over several lunches.  In the interest of confidentiality I can’t reveal much about her story and situation.

I will say that she is currently churched but looking for another congregation, possibly in a different denomination from her current church.

I’ll let you know how it goes at the end.  If this works, we might be able to turn the retreat into a program that can be used by churches with individuals or small groups over time.  The key to making it work is a willingness to let go and drop the assumption that ONE particular congregation, denomination, or even faith tradition is right for everybody.  You may believe that there is one right faith, but simply being insistent about it to a sojourner is more likely to backfire than build a disciple.  Slow and gentle is the way to go.  If you really are right about your choice, they will come around and agree.

What is keeping potential new members from getting involved

February 22, 2007 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Church New Member Process, Religion 

In today’s post, we look at this question:
What is holding you back from getting involved/more involved in a faith community?

The caveats about the makeup of the retreat group found here apply.

The retreat participants indicated at least some interest in getting involved in a new spiritual community by the fact that they registered for and attended the retreat.  This answers the questions of “why haven’t you gotten involved” or “why haven’t you gotten more involved”.

  • Inertia
  • Fear (of acceptance and other things)
  • Laziness
  • Lame excuses
  • Fear of commitment
  • Indifference
  • “My Will or God’s Will?” (lack of clarity – am I making this change for me or for God?)
  • Family and tradition pressures (am I tied to a particular church or denomination because it would kill Mom/Dad/Grandma if I changed?)
  • Church not meeting our expectations
  • Fear of rejection
  • Don’t need the community
  • Mileage/proximity/distance
  • Other commitments (time mainly)
  • Being in a pigeonhole (being labeled due to traits like age, marital status, sexual orientation, race, etc)
  • Scheduling (services, other activities, day vs. evening)
  • Needing to feel invited
  • Allowing space for other spiritual opportunities

This list is a bit short, mainly due to the fact that it was the last one covered in a brainstorm session and time was a bit short.

This concludes the series on what potential new members are thinking.

What potential New Members want to avoid in a spiritual community

February 21, 2007 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Church New Member Process, Religion 

Yesterday, we spoke of what potential new members were looking for in a new spiritual community.

Today, we get a smaller list of things that those same potential new members are looking to avoid when choosing a new church.

All caveats about the makeup of the group found here apply.

It’s important to note that the group started out by saying “This list is the opposite of the Want list.”  They felt that we could have taken everything on the Want list and try to avoid the opposite.  That’s the main reason that this list is short.

Fear was mentioned more than once.  From my memory, it was the use of fear as a motivating factor by the church and/or preacher against the parishioners.  This covered beliefs, required service and/or monetary contributions, and internal politics.  Another aspect that was mentioned was fear of change within the church.  A few members of the group had gone through some serious internal church conflicts (the phrase “level 5” was used by at least one Presbyterian in the group who’d been through that conflict).

  • Fear and zealots (fear is defined as “you must believe this or else” and using fear as a motivation for a particular belief)
  • Exclusion (of anyone, but particularly of identifiable groups like race, gender, sexual orientation, age, etc)
  • Old regime (a small group in charge, has always been in charge, and will not relinquish control)
  • Pulpit politics (mainly non-church issues)
  • Participation by guilt (church and committees)
  • Irrelevance to my life
  • $$$ focus (fundraising for the linked parochial school was mentioned here, but it covers more territory than that.  Being valued by how much money you give.)
  • Hopelessness – joy for what IS (being caught up in talking about how bad it is that we are not X {bigger, getting along better} rather than celebrating what we ARE)
  • Not open to new ideas or change
  • Sense that community can only exist within those four walls
  • Unwelcoming – lack of warmth (including not talking to and welcoming visitors)
  • “Stuck in the Mud”, “Way we’ve always done it” and “We’ve
    Tried that before”
  • Avoid ritualistic traditions with no purpose
  • Emphasis on money
  • Focus on growth of buildings (build congregation first)
  • Being pigeonholed (being identified as a particular type of person based on traits or history)
  • Ties/formality of dress
  • Lack of flexibility with expectations

Again, this was simply a brainstorm to allow people to figure out what they are looking for and looking to avoid when choosing a new church or spiritual community.  No analysis was done as to the feasibility of any of these ideas or their faithfulness.

What potential New Members want in a spiritual community

February 20, 2007 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Church New Member Process, Religion 

The first question asked of the group was:
What Are You Looking For in a Spiritual Community?

The following are responses to the brainstorm.  Some may be repetitive and others are contradictory (different people want different things).  I will amplify a few that were better communicated in person.

  • Involvement (personal experiences)
  • Welcoming fellowship – embracing
  • Connection, belonging – “Cheers” – NORM! (the quote from the TV show – want to feel known and appreciated)
  • Recharging/revitalizing
  • Awe – mystery – presence
  • Non-exclusion (this covered a lot of territory including race, age, gender, and sexuality)
  • Family programs
  • Variety in music
  • Flexible service times (it’s hard for some to make 10am/11am Sunday)
  • Positive agenda (build up people)
  • Personal relevance
  • Location (close to home, mainly)
  • Facility comfort/aesthetics/accommodations
  • Continuity in tradition
  • History
  • Safe space – intentional (meaning that the community work intentionally to generate a safe space for members to be open and honest without fear of politics and reprisal)
  • Framework to do good works
  • Opportunity to share one anothers’ journeys on a deeper level
  • Alternative timing/schedules
  • Green – eco-conscious
  • Youth programs/young adult (this and Sunday School were important even to people who had no children and didn’t plan to have any)
  • Over 30, No Children – fill that hole (this is the feeling that churches have programs for youth and young adults, programs for children and families, and programs for older adults but nothing for this group)
  • Diversity/acceptance
  • Inspiring Sunday message – NOT political (political meaning non-church issues)
  • No discount (this is a core value of the camp where the retreat was held.  It means no discounting others or yourself)
  • Direct service in the community
  • Intergenerational relationships (the person mentioned a church that paired up older adults as “foster grandparents” for new members)
  • Welcoming community
  • Accepting people as they are (we talked a bit about dress and “come as you are” as well as accepting people around other traits)
  • Empowering people to serve rather than trying to fill
    offices
  • Pastoral care
  • Diversity in services
  • Ceremony & ritual

Remember that this is what this group of people WANT in a church.  There was no discussion around whether or not these ideas were practical or fit within the belief structure of the church in question.  The primary purpose of asking the question was to get the participants thinking about what they should evaluate when looking at potential church homes.

Inside the heads of potential members

February 20, 2007 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Church New Member Process, Religion 

In the next few days, I will present some information from the Reconnecting with Faith – Finding Your Home retreat.  I do so in the hopes that it will be useful to churches and new member programs in particular.

The information results from brainstorming done by the participants of the most recent retreat.  There are three sets of information:

  1. What are potential members looking for?
  2. What are potential members looking to avoid?
  3. What is stopping you [the retreaters] from getting involved or more involved in a faith community?

Please keep in mind that this was a small group (about 10) in New Jersey.  The needs in your area may be different.  Also, this group was concentrated in the 20-40 age group, though we had representation of older folks.  This group was predominantly white and middle class as well.  A few of the participants were coming from a non-Presbyterian Christian denomination.

Reconnecting with Faith – Finding Your Home retreat 2007 – How’d it go?

January 29, 2007 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Church New Member Process, Religion 

Reconnecting with Faith Retreat 2007 Group

The Reconnecting with Faith – Finding Your Home retreat was a big success this past weekend at Camp Johnsonburg!

We had 10 paying participants, plus 4 staff (and a few other camp folks floating in and out during the weekend).  The participants were a very diverse group in several dimensions.  We had people from age 20-something to age “I don’t want to guess and be wrong”.  We had people in churches, people not in churches, and people looking at alternatives to Christianity.  We had some racial diversity.  We had theological diversity in that we had folks all along the spectrum from conservative to progressive.  Most of us came from a Presbyterian (PCUSA) background, and there were a few Catholics in the group.  We had 3 couples, a few singles, and a few married folks whose spouses didn’t attend.

The weather was a bit cold (particularly Friday, though it wasn’t the 4-degree F cold that the camp folks had to put up with before we arrived Friday morning).  There was just the right amount of snow on the ground; we got a little each night – just enough to cover the ground but not enough to slow us down.  The lake was frozen over except for an oval about 1/3 of the size of the lake.  The geese and swans were camped out on the frozen part.

We began the weekend by doing some get-to-know-you games Friday evening, followed by some fellowship and food time.  We also outlined the Johnsonburg standard core values of “No Discount” (of yourself or others), “Challenge by Choice” and Permission-Giving.  Because some of the participants knew each other outside of the retreat and the knowledge that someone might want to leave their church could be dangerous in the wrong hands, we added a new rule – “What happens at Johnsonburg stays at Johnsonburg”.

Saturday morning, we had a very emotional and uplifting session where each group member was able to tell the story of their faith journey.  These stories brought the group even closer together and allowed each to unburden themselves of the reasons that they might be looking to join a church or switch churches or leave the church.  A participant said it best:  “Mark and I can’t really do justice to the beauty of the stories that were told at the retreat this weekend.”

Saturday afternoon we did some brainstorming: what people wanted in a faith community, what people were looking to avoid in a faith community, and what stumbling blocks were keeping them from making progress in discerning whether or not to join a faith community and if so, which.  This session provided some good ideas for each person when they are considering a new faith community.

Saturday afternoon we had some free time.  Some of us took a 4-mile hike along the Yellow and Red Trails, while others connected with each other, relaxed, or even napped.  The camp canteen was open for a while so that folks could purchase a souvenir of their retreat experience.

Saturday evening, we completed the afternoon activity by brainstorming ideas on how to look for a new church.  Use of the Internet, friends, neighbors, coworkers, church visits, church staff and other resources were highlighted.  Those who had taken this route before were able to add their own experience to the bounty of ideas.

Reconnecting with Faith Spirituality 101

We then experienced a fascinating lecture – Spirituality 101.  In 90 minutes, our retreat’s minister leader went through the breadth of spiritual options in the world, along with the options within Christianity and the historical reasons for the number of denominations that we have.  It was amazing – I’ve had full semester religion classes that contained less information than this presentation.

Reconnecting with Faith Fellowship

Later Saturday evening we had food and fellowship again, with S’mores and Banana Boats cooked on the fireplace in the dining hall.

Camp Johnsonburg labyrinth in winter

Sunday morning after breakfast (including a wonderful body prayer for grace) we began with Quiet Time.  A number of the group ventured out into the cold to walk the camp’s outdoor labyrinth in the quiet stillness of the sunny winter morning.

We followed that with a worship service planned by the retreat participants WITHOUT the aid of the religious professionals.  The service was very camp-like and yet still had all of the reverence of a church service.

After worship we concluded with evaluations, lunch, and an invitation to enjoy the camp facilities for the rest of the day.

For this retreat, the people ARE the program.  I’d like to thank the folks pictured above for their wonderful contributions.  I’d also like to thank all of them for the mutual respect that we all felt – in this era of Christians tearing each other apart we were able to assemble a group from all parts of the spectrum who worked together to help each other while respecting the conscience of each of us.

I’d also like to thank the Johnsonburg staff who helped plan/staff/support the retreat – including Lorelei, Kurt, Alicia, Harry, Josh, Shelly, and everybody else.  Additionally, I’d like to thank Dave Myers, who served as our minister-in-residence and all-around expert on things religious.

Based on feedback received, there’s a pretty good chance that we’ll try to do this retreat again.  Watch this space or the camp website sometime this fall for more information.  As I’ve stated before, any suggestions on how to advertise this retreat to the target audience (particularly those NOT in a church at the moment) would be appreciated.

If you have any questions about this retreat, please feel free to contact Lorelei at the camp or me.

Off for the Weekend

January 25, 2007 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Church New Member Process, Life, Religion 

Carolyn and I will be headed up to Camp Johnsonburg for the weekend for the 2nd Reconnecting with Faith – Finding Your Home retreat (which I’ve written about here and here).

We’ve got a good group – about an even split between last year’s group coming back for followup and new folks (including a few new to the camp).  Carolyn and I are going up early Friday afternoon to meet with the camp folks and finish the planning, and then the rest of the crowd arrives in the evening.  It’ll be COLD (a high of 17F is predicted Friday at camp), but the group will be warm.

See you next week!

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