In honor of World Communion Sunday…

8 10 2012

Here are some pictures from my worship experience last Sunday. My master’s degree cohort attended a trilingual church in West Philadelphia, and it was a beautiful experience of what the body of Christ can be!

Every Scripture passage, every song lyric, every prayer had to be repeated three times: once in Spanish, once in English, and once in Indonesian. In contrast to most churches I know, which aim to get people out the door in exactly 60 minutes, this service showed us the value of slowing down…even if we only understood 1/3 of what was being said. But it was a beautiful inefficiency, reminding us of our connection to Christians throughout the world and throughout history.

The service was wonderfully inclusive and participatory. Men and women of all different nationalities sang in the band onstage; then, after each reading, three new speakers would move to the podium for the next segment of the service. Probably half of the congregation was involved somehow in leading worship for their church.

There’s just something about stumbling through the Indonesian lyrics of “Shout to the Lord” that makes you appreciate the power of music. Many of the tunes were familiar to me; some were not. I can hardly put into words how amazing it was to know that we were all praising the same God, with the same tunes, in our own languages.

The sermon for the morning was about prayer; but rather than simply challenging us to pray “more” or “better,” the pastors sent us into the neighborhood to pray. So we, the Urban Studies students who had just arrived in the city one day earlier, joined lifelong residents and immigrant families in praying for their community.

We returned to the church to share a meal together…well, two meals really. First, the sacred Communion ritual practiced by Christians worldwide. Then, a home-cooked Indonesian meal prepared and served by the church members.


It was an incredible start to the week. I was challenged throughout the residency to deepen my faith, sharpen my reason, and act upon my sense of justice; this church spoke to me on all three levels. Church members admitted freely that they were far from perfect; they’ve had their share of growing pains and cultural misunderstandings. But in spite of it all, they have remained faithful to their calling: growing, serving, and worshiping together.

(photos by Nathan Corbitt)

A Control Freak’s Guide to Delegation

17 04 2012

Read up on any ministry blog/book/magazine for a while, and you’re destined to find advice about how important it is to delegate. Empower the laity. Give your job away.

It all sounds great, really, but it is often easier said than done. When I’m planning the details of some event or program, it sounds like a lot of work to call up these delegatees to recruit and prep them. Much easier just to do it myself. That way, I can do everything exactly how I want…and if something goes wrong, I’ll take the blame.

You might say I’m a little bit of a control freak.

But I’m trying. And sometimes I just have to translate the benefits into a tangible form for my workaholic mind: when I delegate well, our youth ministry is always the better for it. Delegating allows me to be more productive, more effective, and more joyful along the way.

So, here are the lessons I’ve been learning lately:

1. Delegate the tasks that make you break out in hives. For example: I’m good at planning Bible studies. I’m good at listening to kids. I’m not so good at preparing food for the masses. (And in fact, I am apparently incapable of simple food-related tasks, like picking up cakes). And when I am put in charge of youth group dinners or breakfasts or receptions, I freak out.

But here’s the thing.  There are a ton of people in our church who have the spiritual gift of cooking. I should never have to put myself through the agony of something multiplies my stress level exponentially, when the exact same task can be done better (and more joyfully) by someone else. So from now on, I commit to delegating all food-related tasks in our ministry.

Note: I did not say, “Delegate the easy tasks.” Or, “Delegate the tasks that don’t matter.”  There is a difference. People can tell when you’re just giving them busy work. But there are surely essential tasks in your ministry that are causing you undue stress. Start there.

2. Delegate for growth. Let’s say you do the same back-to-school event every year. If you’re always in charge of the whole thing, it will always look exactly the same…and you will quickly reach the limit of how much you can do. But when you involve others, they can take care of the tried-and-true aspects of the event, and you can focus on expanding, adding new ideas, and thinking critically about how this event fits in with your larger vision. Giving away your nuts-and-bolts ministry tasks will free you up to dream big, plan strategically, and ultimately, grow.

3. Take baby steps. If you haven’t been in the habit of delegating, then start small; it will help you get used to the idea of giving up control, AND it will help your volunteers get a taste of what the process looks like. Last year, I had a few parents cook breakfast for our graduating seniors, while I handled the rest of the details of the event. This year, I have two parents in charge of decorations, and two other parents in charge of food (and so the cycle continues…they will be delegating to other parents!). Make it a goal to delegate a little bit more every year.

4. Choose people you trust. Don’t pick random people off the street to do your ministry work. The ensuing uncertainty will give you a heart attack. Instead, choose people whom you have seen in action, whose work lines up with your vision. In an ideal world, you would have a system in place where new volunteers can learn the ropes from experienced volunteers before they have to step out on their own.

I can tell a difference between the volunteers I trust and the ones I don’t. I’m constantly checking up on the second group, while the first group works like a well-oiled machine. Learn to tell that difference…and then capitalize on it.

5. Give clear instructions … but don’t hover. I think it’s good to stay in communication with your volunteers, but as much as possible, give all the information upfront, so that they can plan out exactly what they need to do. Which means, you need to have all the information upfront. I’m going to try to be better about this; depending on the task at hand, that might mean job descriptions, meetings with volunteers, trainings, etc.

And then … let go. You’ve got people you trust. So trust them! And (dare I say) trust what God is doing with them. Sometimes it will look exactly like you envisioned. Most of the time it won’t. Often, it might even be better.

Donations (not!) Accepted

28 02 2012

For the past month, the children’s ministry at our church has been collecting stuffed animals for a mission project at Shriner’s hospital. This morning, our children’s minister was sorting through the donations bins.  There were your usual stuffed elephants and tigers and dogs.  And then, there was this:

There’s so much wrong here, I don’t even know where to begin.  First of all, this doll has no nose or mouth, just two black button eyes.  And then, the doll itself!  (The backside was even raunchier than the front!  I’ll leave that to your imagination, though…)

Best of all (worst of all??), there was not just one, but TWO, of these lovely donations.  We’re still trying to figure out what to do with them…but needless to say, they will not be given to the children at the hospital!

How Local is the Local Church?

1 09 2011

As a lifelong Methodist, I don’t claim to have any expertise in Catholicism.  However, one of my Catholic friends once explained their parish system to me in such a neat way that it has always stuck with me:

Because the Mass will be the same at every Catholic church, it doesn’t really matter which church you go to.  The focus is on the Mass, not the priest or the specific church.  So you usually end up going to whichever church is closest to your house.

I know that the church is not a building, it’s the community of believers. But most churches do have a building, which means that they have a very specific geographic location as well as a unique role within their immediate communities. And I believe the church, as a body of believers, has a responsibility to that local entity: to know the neighbors, contribute to the community, and reach out to meet local needs.  For that reason, I do think there is value in living near your home church, so that your spheres of influence (both as an individual and as a church member) intersect in strategic ways.

When we lived in Atlanta, we certainly did our fair share of church shopping, with mixed feelings.  But there was definitely a part of me that felt it would be most healthy and faithful to drop the “shopping” aspect altogether and just settle down at a random church.  After all, if you truly believe that each local church is a microcosm of the body of Christ, then it shouldn’t matter what kind of music they sing or what kind of donuts they serve before the service. Eventually, if you get involved, it will start to feel like home.

We currently attend (and work at) a 101-year-old mainline church, with a congregation that is probably 90% white and middle class.  The neighborhood surrounding the church is ethnically diverse, with mostly low-income residents.  The majority of our members drive a significant distance each Sunday morning, passing several other churches along the way.

Last year our church hired a group of evangelism consultants to research our community and congregation and help us develop a strategy for church growth.  Informally (that is, off the record), one of the consultants commented that we should be training our church members to evangelize the people in their own neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools.  He said that while it was all well and good to focus our mission efforts on the neighborhood around us, we should not expect this outreach to result in church growth.

I’m sure his recommendation was based in real church experiences…but when measured against the gospel and message of Jesus, his dichotomy is misguided at best and dangerous/racist/heretical at worst.

Yes, it’s easier to stay in our comfort zone with people who look and think just like we do.  But Jesus calls us to do hard things.

Yes, we absolutely should be reaching out to people in our own neighborhoods and workplaces.  But that does not absolve us of our duty to reach into other neighborhoods and other workplaces.  If I’m not mistaken, Jesus’ commission should be taking us all over the world!  And the Apostle Paul rejects any kind of “us vs. them mentality” that would even allow for a distinction between “our people” and “the neighborhood people.”

Yes, we like to pat ourselves on the back for providing charity services to the poor folks in the neighborhood.  But Jesus calls us to do more than that: to know our neighbors by name and care for them as individual people rather than as labels.

Yes, integrating the church is slow, hard, uncomfortable work.  But if our church is not attracting the poor and marginalized in society, then we must ask ourselves what we’re doing wrong.

What do you think?  What has your experience been with this ministry/evangelism dichotomy?  How is your church reaching out to its local neighborhood?


Dance Upon Injustice!

13 09 2009

The church we attended today is nestled in a small, historic building, right in the midst of Midtown.  They keep the door open throughout the service for anyone passing by, and the walls are thin enough (or perhaps the music was loud enough) that we could hear the first verse of “Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble?” as we we were walking in.  After we settled into the pews, the words really sank in for me, in a new way:

“Open up the doors and let the music play.
Let the streets resound with singing.
Songs that bring Your hope, and songs that bring Your joy,
Dancers who dance upon injustice.”

With the door behind us flung wide open, I suddenly had this vision of the church spilling open onto the streets, with the sounds of our worship resounding all around us.  This is exactly what “creative theology” is all about: an idea, a vision, for the kingdom lived out through music and dance (among other things).  Dancing upon injustice.

Sometimes the music and dancing is literally just that: music and dancing.  And sometimes, it’s the songs of our lives, our ministries, our stories, all coming together in kingdom-work onto the streets and into the city and into the world:

Do you feel the darkness tremble?
When all the saints join in one song
And all the streams flow as one river
To wash away our brokenness

And we can see that
God You’re moving
A mighty river through the nations
And young and old will turn to Jesus
Fling wide you heavenly gates
Prepare the way of the risen Lord

Philip Yancey on the Problem of Pain

12 09 2009

In his book Finding God in Unexpected Places (which comes highly recommended, by the way), Philip Yancey talks about the aftermath of September 11.  People were asking a lot of hard questions, like “Where is God when it hurts?”  (which, incidentally, was the title of one of his earliest books, published in 1977).

The week of September 11, 2001, Yancey consulted with his publisher, Zondervan, and decided to release a special edition of Where is God When It Hurts?, with all proceeds going to a victims’ fund.  By the end of the week, they had started printing 500,000 copies.

Yancey wrote of the experience:

“As I talked to media people about the special edition of Where Is God When It Hurts?, inevitably the interviewer would turn the question back on me.  “Well, where is God at a time like this?”  Sometimes I countered some of the harmful things other Christian spokesmen had said about the attacks being God’s judgment on America, bringing guilt and confusion to a time that begged for comfort and grace.  I talked of Jesus’ response to tragedies, especially in Luke 13.  And then I would usually tell of a man who came up to me once and said, ‘Sorry, I don’t have time to read your book.  Can you just answer that question for me in a sentence or two?’

Taken aback, I thought a moment and said, “I guess the answer to that question is another question.  Where is the church is doing its job — binding wounds, comforting the grieving, offering food to the hungry — I don’t think people will wonder so much where God is when it hurts.  They’ll know where God is: in the presence of God’s people on earth.”

(Finding God In Unexpected Places, pg. 72-73)

Finding a Church, Part 3: Sometimes all it takes…

22 08 2009

I spent the majority of   Thursday in the stock room of the store, hanging and sizing T-shirts, sweatshirts, and athletic shorts.  While I was back there, deliveries arrived from various companies, and the representative would often come inside and chat with the managers for a few minutes before heading back onto their delivery route again.

One, a middle-aged paper saleslady, lingered a little longer than most.  From the clothing racks, I could hear her discussing everything from healthcare reform to her church’s mission trips to Africa.  When I approached, she was discussing the book Unchristian, and I piped in and told her I had enjoyed that book last year.

She turned her attention to me, and upon finding out that I was new to town, added, “I don’t know if you have found a church home yet, but my husband and I have been going to XYZ Church for the past 5 years, and we really like it.”  She proceeded to tell me all about her church’s different ministries and why it felt like home to her.  I thanked her and told her that we might check it out sometime.

See that?  See how easy that was?  I tend to get nervous about inviting people to church, for fear of offending them or intruding upon their already-established spirituality.  But being the newcomer to town, I appreciated her invitation so much!  And even if I hadn’t, I don’t think I would have been offended.

Of course it’s not appropriate to walk around and harass random strangers into going to church with you.  But this invitation was natural.  I think, more often than not, we are in danger of missing obvious opportunities to represent God in the world than we are of being too aggressive.

The paper saleslady’s church is a well-known megachurch in the area, and I’m not entirely sure that we would find our home in a place so large.  But even in megachurches (and perhaps, especially in megachurches) a personal invitation can go an awfully long way.  I told her we might check it out, and you know what?  We just might.

Godvertiser’s post from a few weeks ago talks about first-time visitors and how we as a church can do better about extending hospitality to visitors.  One key thought from this article: “Another critical point to understand is that all this is not a mandate for the pastor or staff alone.  It must be lived out by everyone who attends your church regularly.  Just as everyone knows where the bathrooms are, they need to understand how to greet visitors and enfold the one-time visitors to your church.”

The work of evangelizing and inviting and welcoming is a duty for all of us.  Both inside and outside of church, we need to do a better job of looking out for people’s spiritual needs, jumping on opportunities, helping those who look a little lost, speaking well and explaining our churches to visitors.

Because sometimes, all it takes is something small.