Will Transitional Kindergarten Kill-off Church Preschools?

A key reason people give for going to church or returning to church after being apart is the desire to give their kids a solid faith foundation that will endure throughout their lives.  We know from our work at the Diocese that positive experience at church camp, in youth ministry programs and other Christian education experiences are powerful imprints on the lives of our kids.

The state of California has begun a program of free transitional kindergarten in the public schools.  Don’t ask me how the State intends to pay for this program given the squeeze on resources for the rest of K-12 education.  But one consequence of that decision is to undermine the economics of virtually every church support preschool in the state.  These pre-K programs have been the revenue mainstay of preschools and the loss of students to the public schools is putting serious financial pressure on every church preschool program.

We celebrate the work of congregations who pour their heart and treasure into nurturing our kids and teaching them the lessons that help them see the Body of Christ in each person.

My thanks goes out to Lori Robinson, Associate for Family Ministry at St. Timothy’s Danville for permission to re-print for you her sermon from September 23, 2012 that speaks beautifully about the lesson appointed for the day from Mark about seeing Christ in every child.

Listen with your heart:

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,

and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me

but the one who sent me.”     Mark 9:37

If you do a Google image search on your computer with the phrase “Jesus and children” you will see dozens of inspiring pictures of Jesus surrounded by adoring youngsters.  In some pictures there’s a child in his lap.  In others, he stands facing a group of children with outstretched arms.  In every picture, Jesus is beaming at their upturned faces and the whole scene is bathed is a warm, glowing light.  These charming pictures project an image of innocent children playing at the feet of a gentle and loving Jesus.  The message these pictures convey is clearly that Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world!

But this familiar scene of Jesus with children is a very modern interpretation of attitudes towards children. The idealized vision doesn’t accurately reflect the actual relationship between children and adults in the New Testament era.  Social scientists and religious commentators point out that the children of ancient Mediterranean culture weren’t valued in the same way we value children in modern Western culture.  Children in Jesus’ time had little status within the community. And like so many other low status groups of every time and place, children were treated as if they didn’t really exist; as if they were invisible.  A child of this era was most likely viewed as a “non-person” – particularly by the male population. (1)   It was adults – not children – who mattered.

So, for Jesus to tell his disciples to welcome a child in his name probably doesn’t give his disciples a very warm and fuzzy feeling!  It is – at the very least – shocking and probably insulting to them.  And it’s another example of how Jesus challenges the people around him to be in relationship with those who are the most powerless and vulnerable.  Jesus uses a lowly child to teach that God’s kingdom is not like the world the disciples are used to.  God’s kingdom is a reality where everything is upside down – where the last are first and the least are to be treated as the most welcomed.

Today’s Gospel doesn’t have the shock value for us that it had for its earliest listeners.  We aren’t the least bit insulted at the thought of paying special attention to a child.  Indeed, our culture values children in a way that was inconceivable at the time that Mark’s Gospel was written.  We promote childhood as a time of innocence – we don’t want our children to grow up too fast – we don’t want them to be exposed to the challenges of the world too soon.  The desire to treasure our children is deeply embedded in our modern culture and in the church.  So, how are we to understand this use of the imagery of children presented in today’s gospel in a contemporary context?  Is it possible that we too sometimes fail to see – and welcome – the children in our midst?

The spiritual nurture of children is one of the values the church promotes – it’s why we have Christian education programs for children.  But as much as we claim to value children, I sometimes wonder if we are misguided in how we view children within Christian community.  In a culture that encourages children’s participation in all kinds of activities – even on Sunday mornings – commitment to bringing children to church on a regular basis has dwindled. And even when children are at church, the ways in which we interact with them is often lacking. It’s not that we don’t “do” things with children at church.  Parents want and churches provide all kinds of programs for kids. But I wonder if we – as Christian communities – ever take the time to be self-reflective about how to fully support and nurture the spiritual growth of the children in our community?

Spiritual growth is a core value for all Christians and it begins for many people in their childhood.  Take a moment to think about your childhood experience of church if you went to church as a child.  What was that like?  Did you feel safe?  Did you feel loved?  Did you feel seen and heard and valued for who you were as a child?  Were questions allowed?  Were you encouraged to explore and express your own thoughts and ideas about God and Jesus?  Was the God of your childhood one that sustained you into adulthood?

Questions like these matters because what we think children should get out of church shapes how we treat children in church.  Having lots of programs for children may look like a great thing. But having programs for children is not the same thing as being in relationship with children.  One of the biggest misconceptions about children and church, in my opinion, is that if children are seen “doing” lots of things, the assumption is that we are doing our job of raising them as Christians.  And “doing things” seems good in a culture that values busyness over idleness.  But it may not be very good spiritual formation for a child.  Let me give you some examples of what I’m talking about:

  • It’s a common occurrence in churches to ask children to perform for us.   It’s wonderful to see children singing an anthem or playing a part in the annual Christmas pageant – and some children love doing it.  We praise and applaud their efforts.  But is it possible that performing for adults, even if it’s in church, is simply that – a performance; a way to be noticed for those children who love being actors or singers?  And does having children perform for us result in deeper spiritual formation for the child?
  • Oftentimes children are asked to create something to be used by the church or to give as a gift to someone.  Many children are very creative and having things made by children is very cute. And who doesn’t love to see a child’s artwork on display? We praise and applaud their efforts. But does having children create something for someone else result in deeper spiritual formation for the child?
  • Most – if not all – churches have space dedicated to children.  Children are used to being segregated into a different space than adults.  And segregation has its advantages.  It allows adults to have an experience together without the distractions that children naturally provide.  And it allows children to have experiences together without being overwhelmed by adults.  But when we separate our children from ourselves, we run the risk of communicating the unspoken message that they are not welcome to be part of the community – at least temporarily.  What does that do to the spiritual formation of the child?

Please don’t misunderstand me!  I’m not saying that any of these scenarios are necessarily bad.  Singing a song during a church service can help a child feel more connected to the worshipping community.  Being Mary or Joseph or a shepherd or an angel can help a child experience the sense of awe that is at the heart of our faith story.  And having time and space where children are the focus of attention and able to build community with one another is important. But it is also important to examine the assumptions we make about children and how our actions affect children.

I hope that we can all agree that the wellbeing of children matters to us – both in the church and in the world. So, our obligation to support and honor children also extends beyond the doors of St. Timothy’s.  And we don’t have to look very far to find other children whose needs should be just as important to us as the needs of our own children.  Just go outside, look across the patio, and you will see Noah’s Ark – which is St. Timothy’s preschool.  Noah’s Ark is an important part of St. Timothy’s outreach to children and families in the San Ramon Valley.  And this very special preschool honors the whole child – including the needs and challenges of individual children – in its philosophy of child development.  It has experienced, dedicated teachers who work unbelievably hard to help children grow socially, emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually.

Noah’s Ark is a wonderful model of how to provide the care and nurture that all children deserve. And yet I wonder how connected we are to this critical ministry to children?  There was a time when Noah’s Ark had over 100 children attending the school with more children on a waiting list.  But times have changed.  The combination of the recent economic decline and the introduction of a transitional kindergarten in the public school system had a tremendously detrimental effect on preschools including Noah’s Ark.  And no matter how dedicated the Noah’s Ark staff is or how hard they work to provide a program with integrity and respect for children, they need help to remain a vital outreach ministry for this church community.  So, I wonder what we can do to support Noah’s Ark as they endeavor to support deeper spiritual formation for the children in their midst?

Whether it’s a child in here or out there, we are called as a community to nurture and foster the wellbeing of all children.  We are called to support children on their faith journey.  And we are called to appreciate children for who they are, not what they can do for us.  That is what it means to be a servant to all – especially the youngest and most powerless among us.  Where do children feel welcomed?  Where do they feel excluded? And what can we do to support, empower and treasure each child as a gift from God given to our care?  These are questions that matter because how we welcome and include children is the measure of how we welcome Christ into our church and into our lives – and not only Christ, but also the One who sent him…..

Sources:

(1)     Malina, Bruce J. & Rohrbaugh, Richard L. (2003).  Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 336.  Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, MN.

© Lori Robinson, Associate for Family Ministry

St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church

Danville, California

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Being the Body of Christ is Seeing Christ in Every Person

My thanks to Lori Robinson for permission to reprint her sermon from September 23, 2012 at St. Timothy’s Danville.  Her work with the children of our parish is truly God’s work through her hands.  Her sermon wove together the story from the appointed reading from Mark 9:30-37 with the reasons we have as a parish invested so much heart and treasure in creating an environment where we can give our kids a faith foundation that will endure their lifetimes.

Listen with your heart:

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,

and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me

but the one who sent me.”     Mark 9:37

If you do a Google image search on your computer with the phrase “Jesus and children” you will see dozens of inspiring pictures of Jesus surrounded by adoring youngsters.  In some pictures there’s a child in his lap.  In others, he stands facing a group of children with outstretched arms.  In every picture, Jesus is beaming at their upturned faces and the whole scene is bathed is a warm, glowing light.  These charming pictures project an image of innocent children playing at the feet of a gentle and loving Jesus.  The message these pictures convey is clearly that Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world!

But this familiar scene of Jesus with children is a very modern interpretation of attitudes towards children. The idealized vision doesn’t accurately reflect the actual relationship between children and adults in the New Testament era.  Social scientists and religious commentators point out that the children of ancient Mediterranean culture weren’t valued in the same way we value children in modern Western culture.  Children in Jesus’ time had little status within the community. And like so many other low status groups of every time and place, children were treated as if they didn’t really exist; as if they were invisible.  A child of this era was most likely viewed as a “non-person” – particularly by the male population. (1)   It was adults – not children – who mattered.

So, for Jesus to tell his disciples to welcome a child in his name probably doesn’t give his disciples a very warm and fuzzy feeling!  It is – at the very least – shocking and probably insulting to them.  And it’s another example of how Jesus challenges the people around him to be in relationship with those who are the most powerless and vulnerable.  Jesus uses a lowly child to teach that God’s kingdom is not like the world the disciples are used to.  God’s kingdom is a reality where everything is upside down – where the last are first and the least are to be treated as the most welcomed.

Today’s Gospel doesn’t have the shock value for us that it had for its earliest listeners.  We aren’t the least bit insulted at the thought of paying special attention to a child.  Indeed, our culture values children in a way that was inconceivable at the time that Mark’s Gospel was written.  We promote childhood as a time of innocence – we don’t want our children to grow up too fast – we don’t want them to be exposed to the challenges of the world too soon.  The desire to treasure our children is deeply embedded in our modern culture and in the church.  So, how are we to understand this use of the imagery of children presented in today’s gospel in a contemporary context?  Is it possible that we too sometimes fail to see – and welcome – the children in our midst?

The spiritual nurture of children is one of the values the church promotes – it’s why we have Christian education programs for children.  But as much as we claim to value children, I sometimes wonder if we are misguided in how we view children within Christian community.  In a culture that encourages children’s participation in all kinds of activities – even on Sunday mornings – commitment to bringing children to church on a regular basis has dwindled. And even when children are at church, the ways in which we interact with them is often lacking. It’s not that we don’t “do” things with children at church.  Parents want and churches provide all kinds of programs for kids. But I wonder if we – as Christian communities – ever take the time to be self-reflective about how to fully support and nurture the spiritual growth of the children in our community?

Spiritual growth is a core value for all Christians and it begins for many people in their childhood.  Take a moment to think about your childhood experience of church if you went to church as a child.  What was that like?  Did you feel safe?  Did you feel loved?  Did you feel seen and heard and valued for who you were as a child?  Were questions allowed?  Were you encouraged to explore and express your own thoughts and ideas about God and Jesus?  Was the God of your childhood one that sustained you into adulthood?

Questions like these matters because what we think children should get out of church shapes how we treat children in church.  Having lots of programs for children may look like a great thing. But having programs for children is not the same thing as being in relationship with children.  One of the biggest misconceptions about children and church, in my opinion, is that if children are seen “doing” lots of things, the assumption is that we are doing our job of raising them as Christians.  And “doing things” seems good in a culture that values busyness over idleness.  But it may not be very good spiritual formation for a child.  Let me give you some examples of what I’m talking about:

  • It’s a common occurrence in churches to ask children to perform for us.   It’s wonderful to see children singing an anthem or playing a part in the annual Christmas pageant – and some children love doing it.  We praise and applaud their efforts.  But is it possible that performing for adults, even if it’s in church, is simply that – a performance; a way to be noticed for those children who love being actors or singers?  And does having children perform for us result in deeper spiritual formation for the child?
  • Oftentimes children are asked to create something to be used by the church or to give as a gift to someone.  Many children are very creative and having things made by children is very cute. And who doesn’t love to see a child’s artwork on display? We praise and applaud their efforts. But does having children create something for someone else result in deeper spiritual formation for the child?
  • Most – if not all – churches have space dedicated to children.  Children are used to being segregated into a different space than adults.  And segregation has its advantages.  It allows adults to have an experience together without the distractions that children naturally provide.  And it allows children to have experiences together without being overwhelmed by adults.  But when we separate our children from ourselves, we run the risk of communicating the unspoken message that they are not welcome to be part of the community – at least temporarily.  What does that do to the spiritual formation of the child?

Please don’t misunderstand me!  I’m not saying that any of these scenarios are necessarily bad.  Singing a song during a church service can help a child feel more connected to the worshipping community.  Being Mary or Joseph or a shepherd or an angel can help a child experience the sense of awe that is at the heart of our faith story.  And having time and space where children are the focus of attention and able to build community with one another is important. But it is also important to examine the assumptions we make about children and how our actions affect children.

I hope that we can all agree that the wellbeing of children matters to us – both in the church and in the world. So, our obligation to support and honor children also extends beyond the doors of St. Timothy’s.  And we don’t have to look very far to find other children whose needs should be just as important to us as the needs of our own children.  Just go outside, look across the patio, and you will see Noah’s Ark – which is St. Timothy’s preschool.  Noah’s Ark is an important part of St. Timothy’s outreach to children and families in the San Ramon Valley.  And this very special preschool honors the whole child – including the needs and challenges of individual children – in its philosophy of child development.  It has experienced, dedicated teachers who work unbelievably hard to help children grow socially, emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually.

Noah’s Ark is a wonderful model of how to provide the care and nurture that all children deserve. And yet I wonder how connected we are to this critical ministry to children?  There was a time when Noah’s Ark had over 100 children attending the school with more children on a waiting list.  But times have changed.  The combination of the recent economic decline and the introduction of a transitional kindergarten in the public school system had a tremendously detrimental effect on preschools including Noah’s Ark.  And no matter how dedicated the Noah’s Ark staff is or how hard they work to provide a program with integrity and respect for children, they need help to remain a vital outreach ministry for this church community.  So, I wonder what we can do to support Noah’s Ark as they endeavor to support deeper spiritual formation for the children in their midst?

Whether it’s a child in here or out there, we are called as a community to nurture and foster the wellbeing of all children.  We are called to support children on their faith journey.  And we are called to appreciate children for who they are, not what they can do for us.  That is what it means to be a servant to all – especially the youngest and most powerless among us.  Where do children feel welcomed?  Where do they feel excluded? And what can we do to support, empower and treasure each child as a gift from God given to our care?  These are questions that matter because how we welcome and include children is the measure of how we welcome Christ into our church and into our lives – and not only Christ, but also the One who sent him…..

Sources:

(1)     Malina, Bruce J. & Rohrbaugh, Richard L. (2003).  Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 336.  Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, MN.

© Lori Robinson, Associate for Family Ministry

St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church

Danville, California

The Push of Theocracy vs the Pull of Spirituality

The Executive Council of the Episcopal Church has decided to move from the church’s New York City headquarters.   This will surely count as a profound milestone in the long, slow decline of church membership, attendance and pledging.   The question is whether this is taken as symbolic of the beginning of the end of the relevance of The Episcopal Church, or a tipping point where the Church makes choices, hard, profound choices to adapt to the financial, technology, demographic, and strategic challenges it faces.

The Challenges Facing the Church

  1. Changing demographics are changing the ‘market’ of the church.  One of the key lessons coming out of any analysis of the long slow decline of church membership is that demographic changes are having a profound impact on the church and that the church must adapt to those changes to remain relevant to the faithful.  Not only is the population aging, but the diversity of our communities is growing.  Traditional church planting no longer works. The church developed as a mission focused organization planting new churches along the way to minister to the people.  But these ‘vertical’ congregations are facing the horizontal power of technology, mobility and diversity. The challenge for the church is help the congregations find new ways to thrive by harnessing that same power of technology, mobility and diversity to see the Good News around us through collaboration (in church-speak this might be called area ministry), better programs designed and delivered to gain critical mass that enables ‘horizontal’ congregations to thrive by better meeting the needs of the faithful, and provides hands-on access’ to shared resources to enable traditional ‘vertical’ congregations satisfy critical unmet needs.
  2. Education is being disintermediated by technology and economics.  Higher education, including seminary training, is on the edge of transformational change at both the public and private level.  Change is coming.  Why?  The costs of higher education are rising faster than inflation.  The looming cumulative costs of pensions and health care are not sustainable given our fiscal realities and changing demographics and require new business models.  A declining church can afford fewer clergy and must depend more upon lay leaders and shared ministry programs.  The value proposition of higher education is eroding as high student debt cannot be supported by expected career earnings.  The ability of higher education to continuously raise tuition and fees is ending. The overhead and replacement costs of aging college campuses buildings, technology and infrastructure are growing.  The challenge for the church broadly is to define its strategy and execution plans to manage this process of change.  Resistance is futile but this need not be a ‘wake’ as technology can be your friend as well as your enemy.  The transformation in education will bring new tools and require new skills for the clergy.  The challenge for the church is to empower that transformation and training.  How?  By using the same technologies that are threatening the church to help re-imagine new ways to deliver the Good News, to engage people as there are, where they are, just when they need it most.   Examples of this disruptive innovation technology include, but are by no means limited to:
  •  Knowledge management solutions to make mission and ministry programs, research, Bible study materials, sermons, parish profiles and much other information and knowledge of the church and its people accessible both vertically and horizontally and searchable 24/7.
  • Continuous learning programs as moduleslike Education for Ministry, The Restoration Project, and scores of others that deliver programs, curricula and resources, knowledge bases, best practices and learning modules to give clergy and lay leaders access to the widest possible programs whether it is a home church group of 10 or a mega-church of 10,000.
  • Online communities that thrive in the extranet connecting horizontal mission and ministry program team across town with each other as well as with colleagues a half world away.  New programs and curricula can be created online from the crowdsourced knowledge and expertise of these online communities to address ministry needs, train professional and lay workers, and improve the results for the faithful participating.

Professional education in the church is not immune from these forces for change.  It can also benefit from progress in the private sector to adapt technology to meet new needs, reduce costs, and improve performance outcomes.  To survive in a smaller church that can afford fewer clergy, seminaries will need to become laboratories for developing and testing new programs and insuring that the intellectual property, and the teachings of the church are preserved and delivered to the next generation in ways that keep the faith alive in the hearts of the faithful through collaborative learning, ordained and lay community-building, and applications for ministry that turn the vineyard into the garden laboratory for faculty and students in new ways to deliver the Good News.

3.      The Theocracy of Push versus the Spirituality of Pull.  In the technology business there is a creative tension between the concepts of ‘push’ and ‘pull’.  Push is the traditional top down process of providing direction, of establishing norms and disciplining their observance.  Most of the rules of civil society, business and governance of the church are ‘push’ concepts.  In the surveys of why people don’t go to church and their changing views about religion we found in the work of the Diocese of California Church Growth Program that there is a growing disconnect between the rules of the church and their judgmental application and the sense of welcoming, support and fulfillment those surveyed sought.  This is not a problem of a diminished belief in God.  It is the perception by the faithful that the church is not facilitating, supporting, or nurturing our experience of God’s unconditional love.  A good example of push is the traditional expectation that we assemble for corporate worship each Sunday at the same time and place, sit in the same pew and listen to the same boring sermon, take communion and go home.  Repeat weekly.  But what we are learning from technology and experience is that there are other ways to ‘be in community’ with each other in a corporate sense that can be equally or more compelling for both the faithful and the church.  In tech speak we would call this adaptive functionality.  But Jesus taught us the fundamental that whenever 2 or 3 are gathered in His name He is with us.  So at the last meeting of the Diocese Executive Council we approved a new ministry program called Sacred Spaces which takes the Eucharist out onto the street into parks, alleys and other places far from our traditional Sunday corporate worship experience.  The stories of Sacred Spaces are full of joy, hope and grace—pure and perfect grace. We also learned during our Church Growth Program strategic planning phase about programs like The Restoration Project that helps build community though small group pray, learn, worship, and serve experiences designed specifically to create a holy, healthy, affirming corporate worship experience for a network of hundreds of small groups sharing the same resources, experiences and joy of being the Body of Christ.  The church needs more pull and less push to arrest the process of decline.  It needs to train the next generation of ordained and lay leaders to be creative, see the vineyard as it is not as it ‘was’ and to experiment with new tools, methods and applications. It must empower and encourage the clergy to create their own Sacred Spaces of the future offering new ways to apply old lessons to make the Good News as relevant tomorrow in the lives of the faithful as it has always been.

These are the prayers of the people. 

In our church growth program strategic planning process we found hope in the reasons people gave for coming to, or coming back to church:

  • Help me find my way on my own spiritual faith journey.
  • Help me give my kids a faith foundation to guide their lives.
  • Help me to pray, worship and serve others as I am able.
  • Help me be in community with others and welcome me as I am.
  • Be by my side to support me and hold me in my times of need.

They are also answers to our prayer for a renewed church vitality can be found in these reasons people go to church—and come back to church.  Some of the decline in the church is driven by the social fabric tensions in our society including how the church has handled issues of race, sexual orientation, divorce and other factors.  But some of it is also that the church is still delivering the Good News in the same way while the experience, knowledge, and expectations of the faithful are changing.

Let the Good News speak for itself—and focus the work of the church on the prayers of the people.  When they find Jesus in their hearts the church will be on fire with vitality—and nothing else matters.

St. Paul’s Walnut Creek 125th Anniversary

Dear Members of the Contra Costa Deanery,
In 1887 St. Paul‘s began as a church springing from Grace Church in Martinez. That was 125 years ago and we are celebrating in various ways throughout the year. We will kick off our celebrations with a Pentecost Eve liturgy on Saturday, May 26 at 5pm followed by a reception in the Parish Hall. Bishop Marc will be the principle celebrant.
We invite all parishes of the deanery to celebrate with us. Also, we are asking all clergy to vest and process into the service (red/festive stoles). In addition, we’ll be inviting all clergy raised up from St. Paul’s and all clergy who have served at St. Paul’s (former rectors/associates). Just to be sure we don’t miss anyone, I am asking those of you who know clergy that fall into those categories to send me names and if you have it, please send their contact information (email  and/or phone) so that we can double check our lists.
We planned a Saturday Pentecost celebration to encourage you and members of your church to come and honor us with your presence. Our reception will not be a sit down dinner, but we’ll have enough food to qualify as a complete meal so plan to stay and share the meal.
Please send your RSVP to our parish office at 925-934-2324 and/or by email at: info@stpaulswc.org by May 15th.
Blessings, Sylvia+

Four Reasons I Came Back to Church

by Christian Piatt

Posted: 04/ 2/2012 10:56 am on HuffPost Religion; Re-posted 4/3/2012 with thanks to the HuffPost Religion

I’ve written a couple of pieces lately that have gotten a lot of attention about why younger people tend to walk away from church. (If you haven’t seen them yet, here are the links:
Seven Reasons Why Young Adults Quit Church” and “Four More (BIG) Reasons Why Young Adults Quit Church“)

It was suggested that I might also post a piece about why young adults come back to church. Though I can’t say for sure why ALL young adults in church do so, I can share a few reasons why I, as a young adult, went back after 10 years.

I Found A Community That Defied Christian Stereotypes

I left the church as a teenager on less than good terms. My youth leader threw a Bible at me for persisting with my questions, and the only image of Christianity I saw regularly in college was the guy in the student union standing on a box with a bullhorn, yelling at passersby about how we were doomed to hell without him.

Fortunately, I found a new community in my late 20s that represented something different. We met on Sunday evenings, gathered in the round, wore whatever we wanted and never once did I feel judged or scrutinized by the others in the group. I was welcomed for who I was, not what I could do or give, and I was included in gatherings outside the Sunday evening service as well.

I would not have even given it a try, though, had my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) not persisted in inviting me. I said no many times before saying yes, and it was only after I had seen enough evidence from her that defied my presuppositions about Christianity that I was finally wiling to see who these other people she gathered with were about. Thirteen years later, I’m a Christian author and speaker, I’ve helped found a new church and I’ve led worship in multiple congregations. Fortunately, God’s grace is more persistent and patient than the time it took for me to get over my hurt feelings and biases against organized religion.

I Found My Voice

I’ve played music most of my life, but I never thought of myself as a “church music” person. There was the traditional piano or organ music with a choir and or the breathy, synth-saturated contemporary stuff. I couldn’t play the first kind and I couldn’t stand the second. It wasn’t until a minister friend encouraged me to bring my guitar to worship one night and just share a couple of songs that were meaningful to me that something changed. A place in me that had been closed off for a long, long time cracked open and hasn’t gone dormant ever since.

I believe that God’s presence is ubiquitous but not imposing. All it takes is a small open space for the divine seeds to take root. For me, that opening was in music. I can only hope that others will have the chance to find what that space-creating thing is for them. It’s worth looking for.

I Found Deeper Meaning

One reason I was so willing to walk away from religion when I did was because there seemed to be two fundamental messages I heard, week after week. And after 17 years, that got pretty old. The two themes were:

  1. If you died tomorrow, do you know where you’d spend eternity? or;
  2. Jesus could come back any day. It could be today or even tomorrow, so you’d better get yourself right with God.

I don’t really need a church to help reassure me I have some kind of divine fire insurance policy, or that God loves me in spite of the fact that I actually suck deep down inside. I was more interested in finding deeper meaning in this life, rather than worrying so much about what comes after that.In my decade away from church, I studied all kinds of different philosophies and religions, but I didn’t ever find the thing that helped me set my own ego aside, helped me get over myself and see that life is about more than just getting my needs and wants fulfilled. It’s a counter-cultural message, but when the “it’s all about you” commercialism begins to ring hollow, we start searching for something more. I found it in a community of faith.

I Found A Sense of Belonging

I talk to churches a lot about the difference between worship attendance, membership and belonging. Too often we see all three of these as synonymous, but they’re not. I wanted to find a group of people passionate about things that mattered to me, and who would make a space for me, regardless of whether we agreed on everything, or if I gave enough money, or if I had signed my name in some official book.

For a lot of churches, that affirmation of belonging comes after you commit to membership as part of an institution. The problem for me was that I didn’t really care about their institution; I only cared about the people. I came to understand the value of some institutions along the way, but young adults don’t inherently trust institutions the way previous generations have, and we don’t care nearly as much about preserving them either.

Had my initial experiences with Christianity after my hiatus been with groups that had nice buildings and big budgets, I might not have stuck around. The fact that they had little to offer other than themselves was exactly what I was looking for.

I’ll close this piece out with a short list of all the things that didn’t mater so much in my decision to come back to Christianity, but which many churches assume are critical to their transformation:

    • I didn’t care that much about the preaching.
    • It didn’t matter to me that there wasn’t an elaborate music program.
    • I was all right with the fact that there weren’t tons of small groups to instantly “plug in” to. In fact, I just wanted to hang out with people I liked and who cared about me.
    • I didn’t care what denomination the church was a part of.
    • I didn’t care about whether they had doctrines or creeds they all agreed on.
    • I didn’t care if the carpet was nice, the garden was manicured or the bathrooms smelled like lilacs.

All of those things are nice, I guess. I’m sure they’re important to someone. But I can hear great sermons online. I can download more great music to my iPod than I can listen to in a lifetime. I can join a fancy country club and feel like I’m a part of some fancy, exclusive group. What I can’t necessarily get in other parts of my life is authenticity.Everything else was nice, but it wasn’t what brought me back.

Follow Christian Piatt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/christianpiatt

Growing the Church is about Community

Photo of Christ in Hagia Sofia.
Jesus in Hagia Sofia via Wikipedia

Growing the church is about growing communityand being in communities that thrive on faith, and love and the joy of being the Body of Christ by doing His work in the vineyard we are given to tend.

It is Jesus calling us to live into our own Great Commission as disciples inviting others to join us.

To do God’s work we have to put aside some of the old ways of the church that divide us, separate us from our mission in the vineyard and remember that we are sisters and brothers of the body of Christ.

Matthew 10:40-42:

“Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”