Churches Focused Inward: The Greed Question and the Trauma Question

church

Thom S. Rainer, a long-time consultant and researcher of Christian congregations, wrote a article that has been shared recently in my social media circles. It’s entitled, The Most Common Factor in Declining Churches. In this article, Rainer says, “Stated simply, the most common factor in declining churches is an inward focus.”

In some ways, this is not surprising, but it is hard to hear. Rainer gives a list of common traits found in inwardly focused congregations. To summarize them, congregations are inwardly focused when their ministries and budgets are used almost exclusively for their own members.

These days, I see a lot of congregations turning inward. That is not the case across the board, of course. Many are engaged actively in their wider communities. But I see and feel this trend, and I hear it from others too.

So what does this trend look like? To begin, it might be helpful to say that inwardly focused churches can be quite loving. Often, these communities have formed deep bonds between their members over the course of decades, and they take care of one another with beautiful commitments. When new people show up, these members can even extend that care to include others. But by and large, these kinds of congregations have stopped reaching out, meeting their neighbors, or engaging in any kind of mission or service.

While this is happening, we are additionally experiencing rapid changes in religious demographics and patterns of congregational participation. We’ve probably all seen a host of articles trying to explain why Millennials do not affiliate with congregations to the same degree as previous generations. We’re learning about the rise of the Nones as well: These people are religiously unaffiliated and include approximately 23% of the U.S. population (7% are atheists and agnostics, and 16% identify as “nothing in particular” and/or “spiritual but not religious”).

As congregations encounter these cultural shifts, they can become inwardly focused. This is connected to a desire to survive, and that force can be quite strong. Sometimes, survival is literally a question of whether a congregation can remain open; other times, survival is rooted in a desire to stay intact as is without having to make significant cultural and structural changes.

In the midst of all of these dynamics, some congregations become obsessed with gaining new members — less for the purposes of discipleship and inclusion (both faithful endeavors) and more for the purpose of maintaining current budgets for buildings, staff, and programs. Consciously and unconsciously, when presented with new ideas and opportunities for ministry, these congregations continually ask, “How will this benefit us?'[1] Opportunities for callings and connections then become occasions to do cost/benefit analyses: Will this idea gain us members? Will people leave the church if we follow this calling?

How will this benefit us?

In some contexts, this is absolutely a question of greed. In an effort to survive as is with an image that is affluent and influential, some congregations begin to run themselves like businesses and mirror the practices of the corporate world. But in other contexts, this question is an expression of authentic trauma. Congregations fear closing or losing what has been. At times, both dynamics can be present in the very same congregation.

Christian leaders have a dual calling to challenge this greed while comforting this trauma. It can feel like a fine line, but if we do this well and turn our orientation outward, it might just lead to a new reformation of the Church itself.

Renee Roederer

[1] I am grateful for a conversation I had recently with Rebecca Harrison, a Presbyterian leader in Asheville, North Carolina, and several other people in an online forum. She observed that too often, congregations ask, ‘”How will this benefit us?” Our discussion informed this post.

 

 

 

The Man Who’s Transforming My Grandma’s Apartment Building

food

Last week, I visited my Grandma in Southern Indiana. We caught up with one another and shared the local gossip. She has lived in the same apartment building for sixteen years, and she has some great friends around her. I often hear about them when we see each other or talk on the phone. Though I’ve never met them in person, I’ve learned their names and know a bit about them.

Lately, she’s been mentioning a new friend. He’s relatively new, and in the short time he’s lived there, he’s transformed the place. And he’s done that in the simplest of ways: He just brings people together.

It’s that simple.
It’s that transformative.

Sam* makes big meals and invites everyone. Sometimes, he does most of the cooking himself. Other times, neighbors pitch in also. They seem to enjoy finding ways to complement his main dishes with their side dishes. They come together, laugh, and tell stories.

It’s that simple.
It’s that transformative.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the sacred act of convening. To be honest, I think it’s magical. When we bring people together with intention, we begin to connect in ways that we never intended. That’s an interesting paradox, isn’t it?

When we create spaces for people to gather, or when we enter convening spaces of others, we can expect meaningful connections to happen. That’s the intention. But the particularities of how it will happen? We can never seem to predict it. Connections form in ways we never intended.

This is what we’re experiencing together in this new, unfolding community called Michigan Nones and Dones. Last October, we simply started to gather as a Meetup Group, and it has been magical. We are a community for people who are religiously unaffiliated (the Nones) and people who left traditional, religious institutions behind for a variety of reasons (the Dones). We have had conversations of depth and formed meaningful friendships. At times, our conversations have moved in directions I never dreamed. And it’s all still in process.

When my Grandma talks about her new friend Sam and these meals they’re all having, she uses language of resurrection. “This place was dead. But now it’s alive again.”

You can never anticipate fully how new life will emerge when people simply gather together. But often, it does.

It’s that simple.
It’s that transformative.

Renee Roederer

* I have changed his name to keep his anonymity.

Housed

House

Recently, my husband and I had the chance to meet someone new. Until that moment, she was completely unknown to us, but our stories are connected. She grew up in the house where we currently live.

As she was growing up, she was best friends with our neighbors’ daughter. Since she was back in town visiting (from the Austin area no less, where we also used to live) our neighbors walked a few doors down and introduced us. We began to tell stories about the house we shared.

Her stories had more depth and longevity, of course. This is our first house, and we’ve only lived here a year and a half. But as she talked about her parents and her growing up years, she answered some wonderful curiosities for us . . .

. . . Her father was locally famous for growing roses. He grew many in the backyard and more in the basement during the winter months. Our basement has many nails which supported grow lights for these roses.

. . . Her mother was locally famous for baking cakes, cupcakes, and pastries. That’s why we have an enclosed sunroom addition with a second sink. Even more important for baking, there used to be a second oven too.

. . . All the neighborhood kids used to play in our house and yard. It was a central location (and of course, the central place for all the delicious treats!)

I loved to hear about these. Stories of the past then easily moved to stories of the present.  Our new friend loved that Ian is gardening here. He’s doesn’t grow roses, but many types of food and flowers are flourishing in the yard again. I loved to ponder our house’s history as a central location for people. We bought this particular house because we wanted to host others. It isn’t particularly large, but its rooms feel so spacious and open with a lot of light. They flow well into one another which is great for hosting.

Her family preceded us, and they lived here thirty years. We’ve been here less time, but we’ve inhabited the same space and made memories in it too.

And this made me wonder, how often are we unaware of this kind of experience? How often are we housed in the stories of others? There are obvious connections that we never think about. The only thing separating these connections is time. That’s it. Just time. What if we could know the stories that house us?

Stories of people and events on the same land,
Stories of people and events in houses of worship,
Stories of people and events in schools,
Stories of people and events across distant family trees,
And likely, many more stories, only unknown to us because time has passed.

I like to ponder this, and I’m curious to consider how we make stories now which will house others in the future.

Renee Roederer

 

Out of Bounds and Beyond the Expected

victory

This sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church in Ypsilanti, Michigan and was focused upon luke 13:10-17.  The audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.

Luke 13:10-17

Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, and right in the middle of his words, a woman appeared. This woman had a painful ailment which caused her to be bent over continually, and she had struggled in this way for eighteen years. She simply appeared while Jesus was teaching, and though we can’t know for sure, I wonder if she just wanted to sneak in. . .

I wonder if people ever really saw her, or if they merely viewed her through this ailment she was experiencing. Did they see her as a person of worth and value? Or did they somehow believe she was cursed because she had this struggle? We don’t know. Perhaps she had become somewhat invisible to the community. Maybe she decided to sneak in without much notice.

People may have stopped seeing her. At the same time, she struggled to see others. Bent over in that painful state, she could never look anyone in the eyes. I bet that was isolating. I imagine that was painfully lonely.

So she appears while Jesus is teaching, sneaking in and hoping to go unnoticed.
But Jesus sees.
Jesus notices.

Jesus sees the pain that she’s been carrying, but he also sees her. He sees her as a person of worth and value, a daughter of Abraham. She is a daughter of the covenant. She never asks for Jesus’ attention and notice, but he gives it generously with great care.

Jesus calls over to her and says, “Woman, you are set from your ailment.” I wonder what she began to think. . . Could it be true? But Jesus didn’t speak words only. With care, he laid his hands on her. And immediately, she stood up straight and began to praise God.

She stood up straight. In other places in the Bible, that kind of language is used to talk about resurrection. In a sense, this was a resurrection experience. She gained new life. She was restored to the community, and she rejoiced. Her pain ceased, and she was beginning to know her worth again. She never saw this coming, but Jesus saw her.

That was a happy, unexpected ending, but the story doesn’t end there.
It is also a challenge for us today.

The leader of the synagogue was furious. In fact, the story says that he was indignant. He stood up and began to speak. Though he was angry with Jesus for this action, I notice that he didn’t address Jesus directly. He addressed the crowd that was gathered there. “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not the sabbath day.”

This woman hadn’t asked for anything. She just stepped in, maybe hoping to be included, but the leader of this synagogue treated her as if she had interrupted everything. “Come on those days to be cured!”

She hadn’t asked for anything.
Jesus did this.

And Jesus comes to her defense. I imagine he was indignant himself. He saw some hypocrisy here, and he did not hold back. He said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

Now keep in mind that Jesus had come here to teach, and now, having expressed compassion for this this woman and healed her, he was teaching. But he was teaching in ways they might not have expected. He was even teaching with some anger, reminding the people who they are, Whose they are, and Whose day this is. The Sabbath day belongs to God and is dedicated to freedom from oppression.

The Sabbath day of all days. . . shouldn’t it be a day of God’s Kingdom being realized? Is there not a better day to heal and see the worth of human beings, especially those who have been marginalized and pushed to the outside? Is there not a better day?

Jesus saw the great gulf between this indignation they were expressing and some of their own actions. So Jesus stands up for those who need healing. The Resurrected One reminds us what the Sabbath is all about. It is a part God’s reign being realized on this earth. And in in his angry words, the people were convicted. The story says that “his opponents were silenced,” and they all joined in this beautiful rejoicing.

Perhaps they didn’t expect to rejoice on this day in any special day. Maybe they didn’t expect to have their routine interrupted or to witness anything extraordinary. It makes me wonder. . . what did they expect? Did they expect to show up in the synagogue simply to have their just routine experience – to hear some holy words, to say hello to some friends, and go back home to other routines? Is that what they expected?

But they did experience something extraordinary:
The Kingdom of God will break in
whenever and wherever the Kingdom of God will break in. . .

And it makes me wonder. . . what do we expect? How might we need to be interrupted? Perhaps we need to be interrupted by people who are marginalized – people who are living their lives beyond our sanctuary walls this morning. If they decided to be present today, they might just come in a bit late, sit by themselves, and hope not to be noticed. They might not expect anyone to notice them and see their worth.

Maybe we need to be interrupted by the people who would never walk through the doors of a church building. Some feel that the Church has been too harsh and judgmental. At times, the Church speaks a language so removed from everyday life that it seems not to connect with others. Some have given up on Church and walked out altogether, and some have never entered because they don’t feel comfortable here. Is this what we expect? More of that? Maybe we need to form relationships with our neighbors and listen deeply. What do they long for spiritually?

The Spirit will break in whenever and wherever the Spirit will break in.
The Kingdom of God will break in whenever and wherever it will. . .
convicting us,
convicting people beyond us, and
bringing us together,
not as we have always been,
but in new, fresh beginnings of the Spirit.

What if we began to expect that?

What if we began to see this day for what it is?

Sunday is the day of resurrection.
It is the day of resurrection life.

What if we began to live as though that message was real, trusting that we truly belong to God? What if we were commissioned to leave this place with the expectation that we will see people — really and truly, see people with value —
viewing their pain with care,
witnessing their passions and gifts,
walking alongside their joys,
and honoring their deep worth and worth.

What if this day of resurrection could transform us that deeply?
And what if we began to expect it?

I bet it would transform our lives. I bet it would transform our churches. I bet it would transform our communities because we would begin to see people in new and deeper ways. Perhaps, seeing us alive, they would view us in new ways also.

This weekend, I saw an interesting article online. [1] It was by a man named Thom Rainer, who has researched congregations for more than twenty-five years. He had a challenging recognition. He said, “Stated simply, the most common factor in declining churches is an inward focus.” He is speaking about congregations which exist primarily for themselves. He is speaking about congregations which tend to spend nearly all their time and energy focusing upon themselves. The ministries are primary for the members. . . The funds of the budget are used almost exclusively to meet the needs of members. . .

I wonder if this is also connected to a congregational experience where people merely expect the routine – to hear some holy words, to say hello to some friends, and then to go home back to other routines. A congregation which exists for itself and its own routines begins to decline. Then it can easily become obsessed (as many of our churches are) with making new members, sometimes out of faithfulness, yes, but sometimes out of a motivation to increase the size of the congregation in order to meet the size of the budget. That’s where many churches are today.

But thank God, there is more. There is a deeper, fuller life which calls all of us away from an inward focus.

The Spirit will break in whenever and wherever the Spirit will break in.
The Kingdom of God will break in whenever and wherever it will. . .

So in its midst – right here in front of us today – will we come alive? Will we rejoice and praise God for the unexpected ways God continues to show up? And will we leave here ready to see and be seen – to live in our community, seeing worth and value in the lives around us? Will we?

May God invite us into this kind of resurrection life.

Amen.

Renee Roederer

[1] “The Most Common Factor in Declining Churches,” Thom S. Rainer

Horse or Rider? Who’s the Athlete?

horse.jpg

[Public Domain Image]

On Saturday, my husband Ian and I caught a few minutes of the equestrian individual jumping event at the Olympics in Rio. This isn’t an individual event entirely, of course, because it involves a horse and a rider. That makes two.

For the longest time, Ian and I had the same questions as we listened to the coverage. The commentator kept making athletic statements, sometimes using the pronoun ‘he’ and sometimes using the pronoun ‘she.’

Who is considered to be the ‘he,’ and who is considered to be the ‘she’?

-And-

Who is considered to be the athlete? The horse, the rider, or both of them?

Eventually, Ian and I let out a laugh at the same time. Though we hadn’t talked about it yet, we had been wondering these questions simultaneously. We had clearer answers once the commentator said, “She went to Stanford,” and “He loves bananas.”

That definitely cleared some things up, but as I continued to watch and reflect, it raised larger issues too:

This commentator seemed to admire the athletic prowess of the horse and the rider. But I realized that only one of them has a choice about competing. What happens to the life of the horse if he makes a permanent decision to stop jumping?

The athleticism of horse and rider are simultaneously admired, but who benefits from a win? Is the horse treated differently if he wins? When the horse ages or can’t win anymore, is he permitted to live another chapter elsewhere, or is he sold and killed?

The horse didn’t go to Stanford, yet he was considered to be an intelligent animal with some autonomy. The commentator referred to him with language we might use for a human. I wondered, why do we respect the intelligence of some animals but relegate other highly intelligent animals (pigs come to mind) to a lifetime of living in cramped cages where they can’t even move?

We love our pets, and we admire the strength of powerful animals. We enjoy safaris, and we work to conserve the habitats of some creatures around this world.

But we also support an food industry which causes endless suffering for some animals from birth to slaughter. We assume these animals have no intrinsic worth, and we keep their suffering out of view.

So horse or other animals? Who’s valued?

Perhaps we need to remove the ‘or’ and ponder these inconsistencies.

Renee Roederer

Aly Raisman, the Most Phenomenal Silver Medalist Imaginable

Aly_Raisman_Rio_2016

[Wikimedia: Agência Brasil Fotografias]

Over the last two weeks, the world has watched the performances of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team with utter awe. These gymnasts have demonstrated unbelievable strength and skill while I’ve sat on my couch as a sedentary spectator. I’ve watched their art and athleticism with my mouth wide open. As they tumble and fly through the air, one-word questions of astonishment tumble out of my mouth: “What?” “Who?” “How?” I struggle to believe that these feats are possible, yet they are happening in Rio. These gymnasts are individually remarkable, so naturally, all five of them formed a team that was virtually unbeatable.

Aly Raisman was their team captain. She is an incredible gymnast and leader. After watching it all unfold, I have concluded that Aly Raisman is the most phenomenal silver medalist imaginable.

Raisman returned to the Olympics after winning the individual all-around gold during the London games in 2012. This year, it seemed that a repeat win was unlikely. Simone Biles entered the competition highly favored, and she did not disappoint.

But when I watched Aly Raisman perform her floor exercise routine, I was equally impressed. It became clear that any other year, she would surely win the gold medal herself. Watch her opening tumbling pass here. It’s incredible.

Silver medalists can have it tough. A number of studies have demonstrated that bronze medalists are often happier silver medalists. Bronze medalists consider their alternative and realize they might not have had a place on the podium. Sliver medalists consider their alternative and realize they could have won the gold. This recognition can be painful.

In the midst of this, I have great admiration for Aly Raisman. She is strong, skilled, and immensely talented. In a year when Simone Biles could not be beaten, Raisman was graceful and generous. That relational posture demonstrates power and leadership. She and Biles have even become close friends. We watched them hold hands during competitions, support each other between their routines, and laugh hard together during NBC interviews.

Aly Raisman is phenomenal. She has showed us that second place can also demonstrate tremendous leadership.

Renee Roederer

When Anything Is Funny

Tig_Notaro_Bumbershoot_2010[Wikipedia: Tig Notaro at Bumbleshoot 2010, by Shawn Robbins/Kata Rokkar]

Have you ever had an inside joke with yourself?

Perhaps you’re in a meeting that’s stretched out for hours, and you instantly find a tiny detail to be hilarious. Maybe you’re walking outside, and while no one is watching (thank goodness) you trip unceremoniously on the sidewalk and do a face plant. Or perhaps while recounting a stressful moment to a friend, it begins to sounds so over-the-top-ridiculous that you can’t stop laughing together.

All of these things have happened to me.  I bet they’ve happened to you too. This is proof that almost anything can be funny. It’s not that everything is a laughing matter. Far from it. But in the right time and context, almost any subject matter can launch us into fits of laughter.

Take for instance, one of the most hysterical, random moments I’ve ever seen in a comedy video. Watch Tig Notaro push a stool around. It’s fantastic!

If we’re in a truly stressful situation today, that isn’t funny. Nope, not at all. But I bet we might find one detail that is. Savor it. It might help.

Renee Roederer