Category: Religion

I Want the Church to Feel Like Church

006I want the church to feel like to church.

A sermon

A Table

A Baptism

A Cross at the center and a Bible in the pulpit.

A Robe and stoll

A Chancel

A Pew




I want the seasons: Advent, Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord,  Ash Wednesday, Lent, Transfiguration, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, Christ the King Sunday, Ordinary Time

I want the church to feel like church.

I want to look over and see the young couple, newly married talking to the elderly man, recently widowed.  I want the row of church ladies who sit in their same pew every week and save a seat for Maxine and Myrna. I want the children with their baggies of cheerios and the parents with their cups of coffee. I want the men in ties and coats sitting next to the teenagers with ripped jeans and tie dye shirts.  I want the prayers for those in the hospital and the shared news of the child being deployed.   I want the embrace of the college student home over break, and the thrill of the new baby in the stroller. I want the safe place to talk about suicide and abuse, job loss, and depression.  I want the disagreements over politics and discussions over culture.  I want the feel of the bulletin, the smell of the candles, the order of worship, the confession of sins and above all, I want laughter.

Laughter at our humanity. Laughter at the joy of being together. Laughter at the ways we take ourselves so seriously. Laughter at the celebration of life. Laughter at the profound privilege of being able to worship and sit in the presence of God.  I want to be so overwhelmed by the joy of being in the presence of God, that we cannot help but laugh as Sarah did and sing as Mary did and pray as Hannah did and wrestle as Jacob did and argue as Moses did and weep as Jesus did and confess as Paul did and preach as Peter did.

I want to sing and believe that a weary world can rejoice. I want “Merry Christmas” to mean “Jesus Christ is born in you.”  I want “Happy Easter” to mean  “He is Alive.”   I want  an authentic place of prayer and spiritual enlightenment, a place where you can walk in the door and lay your cross at the door, and come in and sit and cry and think and be without fear of judgment.  Just come and be yourself.

God, I love the church.  I love it for all of its quirks and crazy. I love it for trying so hard to get it right.  I love it for its downfalls and pitfalls and struggles and history. I love it for its desire to be the Kingdom of heaven on earth — a truly unobtainable  mission statement, and yet one that it strives for, without delay.  I love it for its desire to be Jesus – to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visited the imprisoned, welcome the stranger.  I love it for its confession that it fails and its repentance to start over..

God, I love the church. I love it for the saints who have gone before.   I love it for the saints who played the organ and taught Sunday school and put oil in the candles and set the Table.  I love it for the ministers who have served and retired or have entered the Kingdom of Heaven. I love it for their sermons they preached and the hands they held and the meetings they ran and the divisions they tried to mend.  I love it for all of the ways in which we have almost killed it, but somehow, by the grace of God it is still alive.

I love that in the next day, all around the world, people will make their obligatory twice a year pilgrimage to church and sit in their winter coats, crammed into the pews their grandparents faithfully sat in every Sunday and the little white candles will be passed down the row, and the flames will shine on their faces and I have a view from the front and I see, that the light does indeed shine in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it.

Come, Lord Jesus. Be born in us today.  Let your church live.


The Way of Wisdom

13 Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding,

Proverbs 3:13




  • the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise.
  • the soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgment.
  • the body of knowledge and principles that develops within a specified society or period.


We are living in a time of high volatility.  Every click on the computer and swipe on the phone, causes a reaction, a feeling of threat, or defense, anger, or fear, frustration, or confusion.  People are on high alert and they take their reactivity with them into every day life,  at checkout counters, the doctor’s office, parent-teacher conferences, and on the highway. Events that would have been looked over, now cause a reaction.  People feel free to say unfair, unkind, and untrue statements that create a toxic fume that permeates the atmosphere.  All someone needs to do is a light a match.

This season of unpredictability makes us jumpy and we often find ourselves in a state of reactivity.  It would behoove the world, to move away from being right and into a place of being wise.

Think for a second:  When was the last time you sought wisdom?

Wisdom is different from knowledge. One can be intelligent and not wise.  Wisdom is not seeking answers, it is seeking understanding.  Wisdom comes from experience. It comes from suffering.  It comes from observing. It comes from a place of humility. Wisdom begins by being more connected to God and less connected to the world. – Not that we forget about the world, but rather, we spend less time being driven by it.

We seek wisdom, by finding solitude.  Henri Nouwen wrote:

 “Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self. Jesus himself entered into this furnace. There he was tempted with the three compulsions of the world: to be relevant (‘turn stones into loaves’), to be spectacular (‘throw yourself down’), and to be powerful (‘I will give you all these kingdoms’). There he affirmed God as the only source of his identity (‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone’). Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter – the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self.”

― Henri J.M. NouwenThe Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers

The season of Lent is here. The wild month of February has ended, and the liturgical calendar beckons us to come into the wilderness, into a season of solitude.

Solitude is not found at the spa or on the beach,  it’s found within yourself.  It’s found when you quiet your mind, go deeper into yourself, so that you may come out wiser, more self-aware, less reactive, more compassionate. Solitude is found when we fast from that which keeps us from God, and when we feast on that which draws us to Him.

Fast from judgment, Feast on compassion
Fast from greed, Feast on sharing
Fast from scarcity, Feast on abundance
Fast from fear, Feast on peace
Fast from lies, Feast on truth
Fast from gossip, Feast on praise
Fast from anxiety, Feast on patience
Fast from evil, Feast on kindness
Fast from apathy, Feast on engagement
Fast from discontent, Feast on gratitude
Fast from noise, Feast on silence
Fast from discouragement, Feast on hope
Fast from hatred, Feast on love

What does solitude look like?

“In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.” 

― Albert CamusThe Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

If you want to understand the world, step away from it.

  • Turn off Facebook for 40 Days.
  • Limit your access towhatever your news choice is and allow yourself only the headlines. If you watch one news station that is more to your ilk, read another news choice that is not of your liking. Read enough to understand, but not so much as to be consumed.
  • Take a screen Sabbath.
  • Spend more time creating, get a bird feeder,  bake,  give, read, and be kind to strangers.
  • Take all of the time that you spend worrying, annoyed, frustrated, angry, or sad and turn your energy to your soul and connecting with God and thinking about God’s love, God’s grace, and God’s forgiveness.
  • Be in a more intimate relationship with God than you are with your phone.
  • Every time your mind is triggered with worry or frustration, stop, say a word, and reconnect with the God of all human history.
  • Spend more time thinking about what you for, than what you are against. Spend more energy on love than on hate.  Think on these things.

Once we have spent time in solitude, finding ourselves closer to God, then we are to the world – then and only then, can  we respond to the world.

Take that time in solitude to pray.  Pray for your enemies.  Pray for the liberal. Pray for the conservative. Pray for the immigrant.  Pray for the teacher. Pray for the leader. Pray for your neighbor. Pray for the employer. Pray for the picker. Pray for the reporter. Pray for the parent. Pray for the child. Pray for the water. Pray for the air. Pray for the trees. Pray for the wealthy. Pray for the poor.  Pray for the greedy.  Pray for the generous.  Pray for the church. Pray for the mosque. Pray for the temple.  Pray for the Native American. Pray for the Latino. Pray for the African-American. Pray for the Asian. Pray for the White. Pray for the Gay. Pray for the Straight.  Pray for the married. Pray for the single.  Pray for the lonely. Pray for the homeless. Pray for the hungry. Pray for your enemies.  Pray for those you love.  Pray for people you do not understand. Pray to be understood.

“We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.”
― C.S. LewisThe Weight of Glory

If we can find a way to solitude, we will gain wisdom. If we can gain wisdom, we will know God. If we know God, we will speak the truth not be afraid.  There is a time to be brave. Bravery will come when wisdom is discerned.

You are wiser than you give yourself credit.  After all, God abides in you and you in him.  Seek God and you will know peace.

Next week I will write about finding wisdom in the hardest moments.












The Prophet in the Suburbs

Can a pastor be prophetic in the suburbs?

You know, the suburbs, that magical place, where everything is perfect.   Where are there are no problems – at least not real ones, not ones that matter.  Where there is no injustice – at least none that people want to recognize.

I heard a sermon a few days ago that convicted me to my knees. I loved it. I was with the preacher with every point she made, until she made one point that me blanche. In many ways she made me look at what I am doing, how I am doing it, and what I could do better.  She held me accountable to my silence.

The preacher said to new Master of Divinity students, as they were about to begin ministry and start serving in churches, that they shouldn’t expect to get cushy calls in the suburbs.  And then suggested that if they did serve in the suburbs they would be less likely to have an impact on justice and spreading the Gospel, because, here’s the kicker,  those churches would never call a prophet.

I sat there thinking about the suburb in which I live and serve as a pastor.  It’s the Suburb of all Suburbs.  People all over the country know about it. They know about the huge high school, the huge music programs, athletic programs, the ginormous houses and expensive cars. Yes, people know it and there are huge assumptions that every kid gets a car at sixteen, that people fly to Paris for Spring Break, and everyone has a Lake Home.

Many of those stereotypes are true, but the reality is deeper than what is seen on the surface.  I confess I felt and still feel defensive after hearing the preachers remarks. Defensive for the community I have come to know.  Defensive for their struggles with illness, job loss, death, alcoholism, divorce,  and pressure to succeed. Defensive for their passion to serve, teach, grow, and live an authentic faith.  Defensive for the truth that not every house in the suburbs has a picket fence.  Defensive for the truth that even the houses with the picket fence has pain, loss, and a poverty of the soul at some level.  Defensive for their struggles with pornography and infidelity. Defensive to say, to cry, and to argue that  you can be a prophet in the suburbs, that we need prophets in the suburbs and that people need to hear the prophetic voice.

If the prophets do not speak, who will?

I believe all people want someone to challenge them to live a radical faith in which they truly love God and their neighbor. They want someone to move them into the difficult places of their souls where they are challenged to confront their own racism and bigotry.  They want to grow in their faith and love for Jesus Christ.  So, don’t tell me, people don’t want a prophet in the suburbs.  All the world needs a prophet, even the places that  seem to have it all together.

And so I left the sermon with a tear-stained cheeks and a convicted heart. I left feeling moved to defend a culture and a community that is often judged as not wanting to hear the truth, when indeed there are truth seekers everywhere. There are justice minded people everywhere. There are people who pray on their knees every morning for their children and all children everywhere.  There are people who fight for hunger, clean air, clean water, peace and unity, everywhere. There are people who need to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ everywhere.

There is more than one prophet in the suburbs.

Come and see.




Coming Up Wanting

michigan lake sunset

It seems to me the world is coming up wanting, hungry for answers, certainties, and the desire to believe that “everything is going to be alright.”

We come up wanting, as we scroll down social media posts, searching for a quote, a video, or a joke to give us an answer to the incomprehensible world in which we live.

We come up wanting, as we find our way onto our same pew every Sunday morning and read through liturgy without seeing the words, and say “amen,” when in all honesty we didn’t really begin to pray.

We come up wanting, as we race through our meals in order to get to the practice, the game, the recital, and try not to forget the appointment, the meeting, or the phone call.

We come up wanting, as we wake before dawn, and wonder why in the world we are awake and as we lie there, our old friend Anxiety snakes her veining cold fingers around our brains and whispers, “worry, worry, worry.”

We come up wanting, because our desires have been hijacked by the world and voices that clamor for our attention.  The voices that tell us that if we aren’t worried, we are irresponsible and that if we aren’t working, we are lazy and that if we aren’t consuming, then we are lacking..

The alternative to all of this wanting, is to strive to live of the world, instead of in it; to find a way to swim up, out of the deep surface, into the light above.

There once was frog who lived in the bottom of a well and he would look up to blue circle above and sing praises of the entire universe, believing the universe to only to be that one, blue, round ball.

How limited is our thinking and our understanding of the universe and the world in which we live?  Are we all little frogs at the bottom of our wells?  How do we see beyond our own limitations?

Imagine for a moment that our desire is Christ’s desire.  Imagine for a moment that our breath was Christ’s breath.  Imagine that our worry was Christ’s worry, would he worry about such things as we?  Would he work for appreciation and recognition?  Would he check his phone while in the middle of prayer?   This is not the cliché question, “What would Jesus do?”  It’s more than that. It is rather the question,”What do you desire?”

If we desire peace beyond all understanding, we will seek his Word. So that when the storm hits, and the worry comes, and the panic paralyzes, we find ourselves anchored in an indescribable steadiness.

If we desire joy,we will seek his face. So that regardless if the day is happy or sad, joy like a light that never goes out, remains.

If we desire God, we will seek the stillness of His breath.  And in stillness, we discover that God’s breath breaks  through all that suffocates and holds us down.  The breath breaks apart the clutch of our wanting and whispers, “hush, hush. hush.”

God in a Box


Easter Sunday is over and the Easter Season has begun. -Not that anyone is really interested in the idea that Easter is a season that lasts 50 days – 10 more than the season Lent.  Fifty Days of Easter,  that’s 1200 hours to celebrate that “He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!”  1200 hours to affirm that evil has been overturned, that life is restored, that Jesus has broken the chains of sin and death, that God is on the loose!

I assume that I am not the only preacher who feels the pressure to deliver on Easter Sunday.  It’s the one Sunday, the only Sunday, people feel obligated to go to church.   So there is this conversation we preachers have with ourselves,  “I hope it’s worth their while. I hope they don’t go home and complain over their ham and potato casserole  about the service. I hope they got something out of it.”  We pull out the brass, the flowers, the regalia and put on a production and we hope that maybe, maybe, maybe worship attenders will come back.  “Will the sermon be good enough?  Will the music be moving enough?  Will it be prefect?”

Do you see what is wrong with this thinking?

None of it has to do with God.  If we leave a worship service asking the question, “What did I get out of it,” then we might as well go see a movie, or go on a bike ride, or practice an hour of yoga, because if the question is “What did I get out of it”- I am worshipping myself.

If we preachers and liturgists are focused on putting on a good show, we better hang up the robes right now, because we are no longer Teaching Elders or Ministers of the Word, or Preachers of the Word – we are Bible Entertainers and therefore, inauthentic.

Do we come to worship to give something or to get something?

Do we worship God because as the Psalmist writes:    

 It is he who made us, and we are his;
    we are his people, the sheep of his pasture (psalm 100)

Do we worship God because we believe that life is a gift that comes from the hands of a Creator who knows us and calls us by name?

Do we worship God because He sent his Son to teach, preach, heal, overthrow, die for us, prayer for us, raise for us, and we can only give  back to God a portion of gratitude for all that God has done and continues to do?

Or do we worship at all?

We carve out one hour a week. One Hour!, to sit at the feet of God and say, “thank you.”

But there is more to worship than an hour of practicing an Attitude of Gratitude.  There is more to it beyond the feel good moments of hand clapping, hand holding, and even at times, hand raising.

There is the John Calvin truth, that humankind by its very nature is a damned mess.  We have confused shame with confession.  We have made the assumption that if we are confessing and owning up to our greed, lust, indifference, prejudices, that those confessions might lead to shame — and shame is bad.

If confession results in shame, then once again, the confession is about us and it’s lost its meaning.

When I got in trouble as a kid,  I would often be sent to my room.  I would look out the window and sing a pathetic song, “Nobody likes me,”  “Nobody likes me.”   It took a long time for me to grow up and learn that if I acted inappropriately, hurt my siblings,  lied, or mouthed off, that being sent to my room to think, reflect, and maybe even confess that I screwed up, helped me re-enter my family on right footing.  It wasn’t about being disliked, it was about being more aware of how my behavior was impacting my family. I was sent to my room because I needed to think about someone besides myself.

In the same way, worship is a time set apart where we take a look at ourselves and reflect on how our behavior is impacting the world.  The objective is not to sit in shame and self loathing.  The objective is to confess that we have  screwed up, been hurtful, mouthed off,  and been dishonest.  Worship allows us to re-enter our community on right footing and to think about other people besides ourselves.

We are so isolated these days, I wonder if we even realize how our behavior impacts our community?

If we are angry and dismayed at society for its sin and injustices we must be angry at ourselves, because we are society.

If worship is about ourselves, if confession is watered down to insincerity, if our music has become entertainment and our sermons have  become “15 minutes of self-help,” we must confess that we have cheapened grace.

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” ~Dietrich Bonheoffer.


We, who call ourselves Children of God, need to be put back into a right relationship with God and thereby with society. Our civility is suffering because God has become our dude, our best bud, our  best friend on a gloomy day, instead of our Creator, our Sustainer and our Redeemer.

We have put God in a box.  Like a plastic action figure, we have packaged him up with plastic and secured Him tightly to the back of cardboard.   We have stapled  shut the lid and put Him back the shelf.

All tight and secure and obtainable and marketable.

There. That should make us feel good.








The Pastor’s Christmas Eve

christmas eve

It was Christmas Eve.  It was about midnight and we had just finished the third and final service of the evening. My colleague had just preached, Joy to the World  had been sung and the benediction given. I was greeting people at the door. A woman walked out, shook my hand and said, “that was the worst Christmas Eve sermon I have ever heard, and you can tell him I said that.  People don’t want to hear about war and bad things on Christmas Eve, they want to feel good, not worse.”  I stood there, a freshly minted ordained pastor, and said, “Well, I hope things get better from here.  Merry Christmas!”

It was Christmas Eve. My friend and colleague had just finished a long night of Christmas Eve services.  He came home, had a glass of Merlot, and crawled into bed.  An hour later, his 7-year-old was by his bed saying she didn’t feel well, and proceeded to throw up all over their bedspreads. He spent the rest of the night cleaning sheets and hosing off blankets in their front yard.  The next day we showed up for work at the same time.  “How was your Christmas?”  There was no response.

It was Christmas Eve. I wanted to make sure my kids weren’t short-changed because they had a mom who worked on Christmas Eve. I decided to bake a home-made braided roll. I stood in the kitchen in my black suit and high heels and proceeded to roll dough into three strands. Within minutes I was covered in flour. Covered. Later that night, as the choir sang, “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella,” I picked dough from underneath my fingernails. The braided roll never made it to the oven.

It was Christmas Eve. My colleague was on the fourth and final service of the evening.  He stood behind the Table with the Bread and the Cup.  He lifted the Cup and said, “This is the Cup of the New Salvation.” Suddenly, one of his contacts fell out of his eye and landed in the Cup of juice and started to float to the surface.  He took his finger and scooped it out, laying it on the Table.  “Do this in remembrance of me.”

It was the end of Christmas Eve.  Families were mingling about and taking pictures by the tree. We were just turning off the lights, when someone handed me a note, written on the back of a giving envelope.  “The church has failed me.  You did not visit my mother enough when she was in rehab. You didn’t pray enough for her.  Merry Christmas.”  Of course, because I take responsibility for everything, I assumed that by “the church,” the writer meant me.  The line,  “you have failed,” “you have failed,” “you have failed” sang in my head so much louder now than the words, “let heaven and nature sing.”  “You have failed.”  Merry Christmas.

The truth is we all fail at Christmas. That’s why we come to the manger every year: to remember grace.  We go in our complete imperfection.  We go as vulnerable as Mary, as stressed as Joseph, as unlikely as the shepherds. We go in our tired, weary, imperfect selves and receive the one thing we need more than anything else, grace, grace, grace.

Every Christmas Eve, pastors try to tell a familiar story in a new way. They try to be traditional and provocative in the same 15 minute sermon. They try to give people what they want, and be true to the Gospel at the same time. They wish, pray, lament and grieve that people will come back the Sunday after Christmas.  They wonder if their words make any difference, or if they should just get out of the way of the candles and the singing of O Holy Night.  They worry a lot about what people said about the service, as if its one more Christmas show they attended, and you hope it’s as good as the “Holiday Extravaganza” they attended last week.

And suddenly we are no longer singing with the angels, “Glory to God in highest heaven!” We are singing, “Glory to ourselves for putting on such an awesome show!”

Lord, have mercy on us.

We have turned Jesus into a movie star, when he was born right in the manure of it all.

I think we diminish his birth, by denying that truth. We diminish his birth by denying that grace.

He was born in the imperfect, tired, violent, bodily fluid, muck of this world and cried, “peace, peace, peace”.

Thank God. Thank God indeed.


The Path: Advent Devotional

P1110008 green trail through woodsI was walking along a path, deep in the woods.  It was narrow, but defined, made not by man, but by the gentle hooves of deer as they made their way in the thicket.  Wild blueberries and large, green ferns blanketed the earth while majestic trees, centuries old, canopied the sky.

My Companion and I could not walk next to each other, for the path was too narrow.  He walked close behind me as we made our way over thick roots and the curves and dips of the earth.

As we walked along, my mind began to wonder with the worry and challenges in my life. They came to me, or I would come upon them and they would distract me from the moment.  They were like boulders, weighing heavily on my mind and heart.  I would get distracted, irritated and discouraged.  I thought I needed to carry them, take care of them, fix them, own them. They weighed me down, darkened the path and made me weep.  And then, one day,  I  turned and passed the boulders to my Companion.  As He touched them the boulders would crumble into bits of rock and dust, and the weightiness would no longer exist.

Allowing us to keep going on our Way.

The burden was not the purpose of the path.  The burden was not mine to carry.

Every now and then, He would rest his hand on my shoulder and whisper a Word in my ear, telling me to notice, listen, look up, be.

Never, do, should, ought or need. 

I would lean in, so I could hear his Word and pay attention.

It was easy to get off the path, to find oneself in the middle of nowhere, or stuck in the mud, or lost along the Way, or weighed down again by heavy boulders.

I realized I had to watch where I was going, stay focused on the path in front of me and not get too concerned with what was coming up ahead.

There was enough beauty to take in and pay attention to in the path that was before us.

We walked on, Jesus and I.

And as we walked through sun beams and cob webs, around tree stumps and snake holes, we breathed in Peace.

And then I knew, the path was Joy.



I wish I was an Evangelical


I took a road trip with my friend, who is an Evangelical Christian.  Normally, if I’m in a car with someone other than a fellow Presbyterian, I am with an Atheist, or a Buddhist/Christian, or a “Spiritual but not Religious” person, Rarely am I in the car for a long period of time, with an evangelical.

She came to faith in college at Campus Christian House. She was not born into her faith, she came to it. Today, she is part of a church community that acts out the mandate of the Great Commission, to go out and make disciples.

She said she lives by this acronym: JOY

  1. Jesus
  2. Others
  3. Yourself

Everything her small group does is based on the priority of helping people grow in their faith and bringing more people to know Jesus.  Her small group is not a support group, it is a faith formation and outreach group.

As we drove through a downpour on a busy highway, and she talked about her love for Jesus and her commitment to outreach,  I felt like a wimpy Christian. I thought,

“I wish I was an evangelical.”

I was not raised in an evangelical home. My mother was drawn toward the mystics and contemplative prayer. My Dad taught critical thinking.  My faith formation was rooted in feeling but measured in critical thinking.

My best friend in junior high was Mormon. She and I walked home from school together every day and when we weren’t talking about boys, we would often talk about Jesus. She seemed to know a lot more about the Bible and Jesus than I. I hadn’t heard about the Second Coming, or the Book of Revelation. Somehow, my Sunday school class seemed to stay with miracle stories from the Gospel and a few “child friendly ” Old Testament stories. My friend would use words like, “rapture,” and “second coming,” leaving me puzzled and confused.  I loved talking to her about her faith. I admired her conviction. I struggled with my beliefs as she so firmly stated her own. I had a feeling about God, but I was afraid to say what I believed, in the likelihood that I would say it wrong.

When I got to college, I tried Intervarsity. One day,  I told the leader of the group that I wanted to speak or offer a testimony  to the large group and they said only guys were allowed to do that, so I left and joined the Newman Catholic Center. I loved the Newman Center.  We talked about world issues, poverty, women’s rights, eco-justice and AIDs.  Images of Jesus were everywhere. The hands on work of ministry fed me. I loved the Catholic community and yet, I still wasn’t sure what I believed.

It wasn’t until seminary, and I read Barth and Calvin and Niebuhr,  that I found a foundation for my faith. It wasn’t until seminary, that I really studied the Bible.  It was in my little seminary room, that I read the Bible without judging myself or it. I came to it, embraced it, discovered it. I realized that the Word, Logos and God, Theos were intertwined. I fell in love with the Word.  For the first time the Word became Flesh. It became real, living, life giving and redeeming. It was in the safe conversations with fellow seminarians that I felt I could start to speak for myself and not rely on quotes from CS Lewis or Beuchner or Bultmann to speak on my behalf.

It was the time in my life that I could not get enough of Jesus. I miss it. I recall it when I need to remember who I am and whose I am.

And yet, as I was driving with my evangelical friend, I still felt that the strength of my convictions and the measure of my faith was tepid. I realized that the church can so easily become a social service agency, another program in the week, a product to be applied. I realized that as a pastor, I can easily slide into the role of CEO, life coach and motivational speaker.  Jesus can get lost in the junk drawer. Joy becomes diluted by self-satisfaction and personal preference.

If the mainline church is going to survive, we are going to need to embrace joy. We are going to need to be strong in our convictions.  We have to be willing to put the discipline of loving God and neighbor before ourselves into authentic practice. We have to be drawn back to the Word made Flesh and not be afraid that we will get the answer wrong.

Let us not be afraid to be evangelical.

The Holy Spirit Alive!

linda's picture

Photograph by Linda Rinker

The Holy Spirit Alive!

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.  (Acts 2:1-2).

Orchard Park Presbyterian Church 

Indianapolis, Indiana

 Summer, 2015


In the winter of 2015, church officers determined that there were three major areas that needed the greatest attention at Orchard Park Presbyterian Church.  First, there was a deep need for the congregation to establish a shared identity and vision. It was crucial that that common identity be born out of the congregation. The congregation needed to learn who they were, who was their neighbor and how they were called to serve.  They needed to discern these questions as a congregation. Second in a similar vein, there was a great desire to improve communication strategies and overall presentation of the congregation.  New branding and website was imperative, along with an overall communication strategy that reflected Orchard Park’s identity and purpose. The third greatest need was to eliminate the church’s mortgage.

The following proposal suggests three projects that will address each of these priorities.

Identity                                               Communication                                 Mortgage

(Purpose)                                             (Outreach)                                           (Future)


Condition:             To create a common narrative of who we are and who we serve

Intervention:         Appreciative inquiry process: Discovery, Dreaming, Design, Doing

Result:                  3-5 new action plans that unify and testify to our common purpose


Condition:             To establish a communication strategy that shows our identity to the congregation, community and world.

Intervention:        Communication Assessment, Branding, Website

Result:                  Church Identity/ Feeling of Revitalization


Condition:             To pay off mortgage.

Intervention:         Summer campaign

Result:                  Debt is extinguished


The Theory:

All organizations go through life cycles, through times of birth, growth and death.  In order for organizations not to die and go full circle they must be revitalized.  The sooner organizations can change, shift, adapt and recreate, the more they continue to thrive.  If congregations do not revitalize, they decrease in number and energy to the point that they are in need of greater change, or redevelopment.  Redevelopment takes longer than revitalization to push to rebirth, but it is possible to prevent death and move into new life.

In considering where the congregation is in its life cycle, Church officers have identified the congregation of Orchard Park to be in the Redevelopment Phase.

“Redevelopment is what the journey is called when the congregation has fundamentally congealed. The church now has become primarily focused on preserving the status quo. The congregation’s God-given energy flows almost totally towards its own survival. When the faith community walls itself off from its community rather than living to serve, death is inevitable” (Sellon 2002, xii).

A redevelopment effort returns the congregation to the earlier stage of “formation.” This starting over again necessitates letting go of pride, guilt, shame, deception, illusion, and fears about the congregation and about change. There is a certain logic to the process of beginning formation over again. The probable steps are as follows:

  1. Identity: “Why are we in business? What are our assets and strengths?” Members rediscover who they are and why they exist as a congregation in this place and time.
  2. Vision: “Where do we want to go?” Members reaffirm their obligation to become more faithful to their congregation as it could be in the future.
  3. Strategy: “How will we get the job done?”  Leaders re-equip members and themselves with whatever it will take to reach for their new future. They plot and prepare for the step-by-step progress that will make the dream come true.
  4. Experimental Action: “What are we ready to try?” Members choose the highest priority and closest possibility in their plan and commit themselves to a metamorphosis, one small step at a time until the dream turns into a revised vision or a full reality.
  5. Reflection: Finally, “How is it going, and what’s next? Where do we adjust our course?” The congregation should always pause for thanksgiving, absolution, offertory, and celebration. The insights and prayers of the membership guide the evaluation of how they are doing.


The Purpose: The Urgency:

This means that younger families coming into OPPC from our neighboring communities do not necessarily see their family dynamics, ages, tastes, values, social needs, or aspirations reflected on the faces of current OPPC members; this must change over time if this congregation is to continue to grow and thrive. This change must happen in concert with discerning the will of the Holy Spirit for OPPC, and is embodied in the themes that form the vision of the future for OPPC. People exploring OPPC as a possible church home must feel embraced and not shunned, welcomed as they are and not for what we want them to become, comfortable, and encouraged to question and express doubt, knowing that God’s love and grace are bigger than any question we can ask or doubt we can harbor (Mission Study Report 2012, 23)

This paragraph was written in the 2012 Mission Study Report, and succinctly addresses the sense of urgency: The ultimate goal of this project is to lead the congregation through the process of redevelopment into new life, so that they are able to articulate who they are and why they exist, and live into a unified, shared vision.

The purpose of this project is to bring the congregation to a time of personal and spiritual renewal so that they can gain and establish a unified vision, of who they are, and who they serve.

  • 41% of the membership is estimated to be 65 or older, as compared to roughly 11-15% of the population in our surrounding communities;
  • 13% of the membership is estimated to be 35 or younger, versus 30-38% for the surrounding communities
  • the average age of our members is 58

The Project:

To shepherd the congregation through a season of appreciative inquiry in which they discover who they are, dream who they want to be, design how they will accomplish those dreams and do the work for the glory of God. Over the spring and summer we will do the work of discovery and dreaming, with a congregational event in the late summer.  We will then move quickly into the design and doing stages with another large event in early fall.

While the core planning team does the work of collecting data from the congregation and the community, a communication and website consulting firm will be working alongside us to assist with a communication assessment, branding and eventually a new website.

A third major project will be a campaign to pay off the mortgage.  With the mortgage paid in full, the congregation will be free to dream, design and implement new ministries without the weight and obligation of debt.


The Outcome:

The ultimate goal of this project is to lead the congregation through the process of redevelopment into new life, so that they are able to articulate who they are and why they exist, and live into a new story.  The purpose of this project is to bring the congregation to a time of personal and spiritual renewal so that they can find their voice and use it for God’s will.

By the end of this season, we will determine if there is a more unified vision and common narrative.  We will make this determination through interview and outcome and an overall feeling of renewed energy and outward focus. We will have a concise communication plan, brand, and website.  The mortgage will be paid in full.



The Timeline:

Month Objective Activity ExpectedCompletion Date Person ResponsibleShelly Wood is Project Manager * Budget
May Discovery Phase Communications Assessment – Secret Worship attendee, on-site group interviews & Communications eSurvey July 2015 Shelly and Session select 25-30 individuals for eSurvey & 10 individuals forCommunications Panel $5, 750
May – July2015 Discovery Phase Core Planning Team:·       Interviews the congregation·       Creates Wall of History·       Interviews organizations who use the church·       Interviews the neighborhood July 2015 Core Planning Team
May Introduce Campaign to pay off mortgage  
June Congregational Meeting Bylaw amendments and vote to sell property July 2015
August2015 DreamingPhase Branding/Identity ScopeAugust 15 – OPPC meets to brainstorm visions of what they’d like OPPC to be. Repeat process to discern OPPC’s identity and new branding as necessary. New Logo September 2015 Open to all church members to sign-up to participate. After first meeting, present vision to church to see if they own the direction the church is going. If yes, move on if not, repeat brainstorming session. $14,500.
August2015 DreamingPhase August 15,   Discovery/Dream SummitEstablish five provocative statements – based on what we have learned, this who we are, who we want to serve and how we want to do it. September 2015 Open to all church members, all whose use the building, the learning center, and the neighborhood. Nominal cost for food and material
September2015 Congregation wide event – mortgage is paid off September 2015 – Early Possible cost for food
August-September Designing Get consensus from the congregation. – Do you agree that these five statements best define who we are and who should serve? September 2015 Core planning team
September Designing and Doing Second SummitCreate five year plan for the five provocative statementsCreate teams for short wins Mid September Nominal cost for food and material
November Implement-ation Phase Subscription & Hosting – Launch of new website! End of November 2015 Fishhook and Web Team $732/yr

The Evaluation:

During the entire process, we will be considering both process evaluation and outcome evaluation.  The focus will be less on how we are doing and more on how the congregation is changing, learning and growing.  Evaluation will be built in to the structure.

We will measure outputs- (what happened and how many people showed up) and indicators (what changed  in the congregation and the community, based on the project).

Identity and Vision Evaluation

Quantitative Results

  • Innovation teams up and running
  • More improvisational initiatives
  • Recognize people working in new ways
  • Five strong action plans with defined purpose and implementation

Qualitative Results

  • Level 1—Participant reactions
  • What worked, what didn’t from participants’ perspectives, (surveys after each summit)
  • Level 2—Participant changes at end of intervention
  • Do we see the congregation more outwardly focused?  Do they know their neighbors? Is there an increase in energy, desire to serve, and openness to new ideas?
  • Level 3—Is change maintained within leadership?
  • Do we see that the congregation as a whole has bought into the desired changes and is living them out in small and large ways?
  • Level 4—Impact on organizational outcomes
  • What has improved as a result of intervention?          
  • Was it worth the investment

Communication Evaluation

Month Objective Activity Expected Completion Date Person (s) Responsible
July 2015 Discovery Phase Communications Assessment- we will have a communications report that identifies the churches strengths and weaknesses and shows opportunities for improvement presented to selected church leaders. July 2015 Shelly WoodCore planning team, membership and growth committee
September 2015 Dreaming Phase OPPC will have electronic files of all new logos, a customized Visual Identity Guide of new branding, stationery package of all templates for correspondence, a Branding/Identity Unveil Plan for strategies & tactics to unveil to the congregation. October 2015 Shelly Wood, Core planning team
October 2015 Development Phase New websiteincludes-

  • Home page
  • Sub pages
  • Resources
  • Event pages
  • Staff
  • Responsive design layouts
November 2015 Shelly Wood/ Norma Schehl
November 2015 Implementation Phase New and updated online website November 2015 Shelly Wood/Norma Schehl
OPPC will evaluate its effectiveness by –

  • An increased number of website visits- keeping a record of visits and comparing it to a baseline prior to new website
  • An increased number of visitors,         initiated by website visits – filling out the Connection Cards during the Sunday Service and checking the box which states that they visited the website first
  • An overall feeling of revitalization, updated branding and overall positive attitude – at the end of the Discovery Phase, Dreaming Phase and at the end of the Implementation Phase, OPPC will provide Formative Assessment Exit Slips to a cross section of the demographic of the congregation to determine what worked and what didn’t work in that phase of the project.

Example of an Exit Slip:

                                                                Discovery Phase

1.      Does the Communication Assessment reveal the top three areas that need the most time and attention for improvement?           5 strongly agree – 1 Strongly disagree

5       4       3       2       1

If not, what area(s) do you think needs the most attention and why?


2.      Does the Communication Assessment suggest concrete ways to strengthen/build our communication?

5       4       3       2       1

If not, what would you like to see? Would you be willing to be part of this?


                                                               Dreaming Phase

3.      Did the brainstorm/discovery session reveal OPPC’s vision and refine its identity?

5 strongly agree – 1 Strongly disagree

5       4       3       2       1

If not, what would you say should be its vision and identity and why?


4.      Was the brainstorm/discovery session communicated well to the congregation so that the members could own the vision and identity discerned at the session?

5       4       3       2       1

If not, what could have been done differently?


                                                              Implementation Phase

5.      Does the new website help us communicate a unified vision of who we are?

5 strongly agree – 1 Strongly disagree

5       4       3       2       1

If not, why?


6.      Is the new website easy to use and is key information easily accessible?

5       4       3       2       1

If not, what could have been done differently?


  • The Exit Slips will be gathered after each phase listed above and then Shelly Wood, the Core Planning Team and the Membership and Growth Committee will track the responses and adjust accordingly.
  • The overall goal is for the congregation to discern who God is calling them to be and to serve. By the end of this project, the congregation, will be able to put words around who they are and why they exist.
  • The evidence that the congregation is changing, learning and growing will be evaluated as we see new ideas, increased engagement of the congregation and a feeling of ownership.

Mortgage Evaluation

  • Quantitative Results
  • Debt is paid in full
  • Qualitative Results
  • Overall feeling of financial health and stability
  • Does the congregation have a sense of unified accomplishment in being debt free?
  • Does the congregation feel empowered to use resources out of abundance instead of scarcity?
  • Is the congregation better off being debt free?

The Appreciative Inquiry Process

Renewed Identity

Discovery, Dream,  Destiny and Design


“The discovery phase involves a data collection and narrative exploration. It begins the process of revealing the positive, the successful, and the prideful experiences of the individual and collective. Through carefully developed interview questions based in the affirmative topic selection, the focus is to explore and enliven the stories that are shared through interviewing the defined group within the organization. Generally, the more reflective of the entire organization, the more effective the outcome” (Ludeman 2003, 125).

What is our enduring faith task, and what fresh form could we take it today?

What do we wish to be known for in our community?

What guiding story or image crystallizes our vocation?

Steps in Discovery

  • Interviews the congregation
  • Creates Wall of History
  • Interviews organizations who use the church
  • Interviews the neighborhood

Chart a Course: Three Essential Questions:

Who are we?

  • Who are we historically as a church in this place?
  • What were our best days like?  When were they? What years? What was going on the church?
  • Search for common elements.

Who is our Neighbor?

  • The core team will look for creative ways to learn about our neighbors. (knocking on doors, Going to coffee houses, identifying new people in the neighborhood)

Why are we here?

  • Resist the temptation of jumping into action. Pray. Discern. Listen.

Listen for Common Themes


The dream phase of appreciative inquiry begins the process of what could be. Whether we call it dreaming, envisioning, or imagining, the focus is to think about possibilities beyond the realm of present day thinking (Ludema 2003, 145).


Hold an Evening event for Discovery and Dream

  • Set a wide table. Include members of the community, the entire congregation, those who use the building on a regular basis
        • Share Research.
        • Come up with provocative statements: use previous statements that have been used before.
        • Do not reinvent the wheel – use and honor the work of the past. Then ask the question, “Where is there passion and where is there not passion in these past dreams?” What new dreams are there?
        • We want our congregation to look like this, feel like this, be known for this. – Do you agree?
        • Decide “what’s hot and what’s not”
        • Collect the dreams and begin provocative statements.
        • Establish emerging Design
        • Write provocative statements, get consensus on the directions you want to go in worship, nurture, care, and/or service; design strategies that take you from where you are to where you want to go, assign leaders/participants for each strategic direction, and begin doing/experimenting.


Design is more than a Vision. It enhances the organization by leveraging its own past experiences to create a Strategic Intent. Strategic Intent signals what the organization wants more of and recognizes that the future is built on what can be based on what is.

After the discovery and dreaming phase, the core planning team re-engages the congregation again and gains consensus on Provocative Statements, asking the questions: Do you agree with these provocative statements?  Do you want the congregation to look and feel this way?



Offer Second Evening Event, Focusing on Design and Doing

Agree upon top 5 provocative statements

Design Interventions based on interests – make five-year plan and back it out.   Take the top design interventions and find leaders that have a passion in them.  Break into five small groups that will work on implementing the interventions.

  • Build Support
  • Share the Vision.
  • Testify to ways the vision is being lived out
  • Celebrate small successes
  • Start gathering stories.
  • The core team monitors redevelopment
  • Communicate outcomes
  • Support innovation teams
  • Support improvisational initiatives
  • Recognize people working in new ways
  • Furthering the use of appreciative inquiry

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