The Numbers Game

It doesn’t take long of being in the UMC to realize that we have a strong focus and obession on numbers, though, I’m confident we are not the only denomination. So here are a few reflections that I keep thinking about in this never ending debate.

On the author bio of many books we often find the number of how many church attenders said writer has in their church, especially the ones who grew it from 1 person to thousands. I hate this. Why do pastors need to brag about how big their church is? Honestly, most of us don’t care. I feel if Jesus had a bio it would probably say that his church grew smaller during his tenure because people turned away due to his really high demands and expectations. Or that a lot of people left his church, because we welcomed those that made the comfortable and affluent people nervous.

We love our numbers and they become the defining factor of all that we do. It feels that questions about the effectiveness of a ministry program are never: how are your people engaging more deeply in prayer, and scripture study; or how is authentic community being formed; how are people engaging in social activism that reflects the heart of God; how are people encountering God through communal worship; how are the sacraments shaping our ministry; how are people feeling welcome and know they can share their full lives with the leaders and one another? Instead we ask: how many people came to your ministry gathering last night? Talk about a slap in the face of the theological foundations of ministry!

One of the hardest parts about this is that our ministries and our own selves become defined and valued by how many people come. It often feels that our whole ministry and practice of ministry (meaning who we are as people and ministry practitioners) is completely defined by how many people come. It might be seen as nice that we  help people pray, and create space to ask honest questions, and show up in their life events, but at the end of the day, we become valued and defined as a person and a ministry by how many walk through the doors in our weekly gathering. It is incredibly burdensome and exhausting, because at the end of the day we can’t really control who comes or doesn’t come.

The argument for numbers is often said that each number represents a person and a story. And while that is technically true, how it feels to me is that a person and their story get reduced to a number on a sheet. And that number determines how we feel about ourselves and our ministry and how others judge and perceive our ministry.

I remember coming back from a youth mission trip and when talking about the trip with several people in the church, their immediate response was “it looked like a smaller group than last year.” No questions about any transformation that happened, no questions about meaningful encounters, joyful moments, or community being strengthened and formed more deeply, but only that it’s a smaller group. We don’t look to celebrate what did happen but get sad that the group is smaller, discounting the multiple of reasons of why the group is smaller.

To me it seems that we love to idolize numbers. They are the primary way we judge whether a ministry is good or not. It creates an enormous amount of pressure on those leading ministries. And I would not be surprised if it is a contributing factor as to why some people leave the ministry. The business world loves its numbers and it’s focus on the bottom line. But the church is supposed to be different and model a different reality and different way of being.

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Love Letters to God – Does She Read Them?

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Willimon and Trevor Noah

Today I saw these 2 videos and coupled with yesterday being World Refugee Day and working on a sermon today, my heart is overwhelmed with all that is happening in our world

 

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Reflections From Holy Saturday

I begin this post with a confession, for yearsI have seldom enjoyed the holy week and Easter time in church. It is not something I look forward to, in part because it seems every year is the same message without addressing the realities of our world. And there is definitely an element to me that feels very inauthentic among everyone who shows up. And yet, this year I felt something I have never felt before during this season. I have been reading  Walter Brueggemann’s devotions for Lent titled A Way Other Than Our Own. His reflection on Holy Saturday (the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday) was striking to me.

He begins with devotion with these words:
“Nobody knew how long Saturday would last. Nobody knew if Saturday would ever end. So  it is now as well. Nobody knows how long Saturday will last or if it will ever end. Saturday is that in-between day of stillness and doubt and despair when time stands still in lethal flatness. The old Saturday was about abandonment and disappointment at the far edge of the crucifixion. And then came all the Saturdays of fear and abusiveness, of the crusades and the ovens and genocides in too many places. And then came our particular Saturdays of Katina and 9/11 and economic collapse, Saturdays of overwhelming failure with no adequate resources.”

We seldom talk about the Saturday during Holy Week. The day where Jesus remains dead. I remember walking around this past Saturday and being overwhelmed with what has been happening in the world: chemical weapons were used on Syrians, our country launched 59 missiles on Syria, the threats from both sides in regards to North Korea, and the US dropping a 21,000 bomb that cost millions of dollars to make and then seeing people celebrate the use of bombs and violence to kill others. It was a heavy week and a very long Saturday (to use the words of Brueggemann). With all that was happening, with the fear and threats of more violence, here I was walking on this Holy Saturday remembering that this is a day we remember that Christ is not alive. It was truly frightening. It the midst of all that is happening in our world and in our country to walk around knowing that on this day in the Christian calendar we remember that the one who rejected violence, called us to be peace makers, who was God incarnate and taught us to serve all people and love our enemies (not bomb them) is dead.

It was terrifying to think of facing such issues without the presence of God in our midst. As Easter come it was quite a comfort to know that Jesus is now alive and meets with his followers, and proceeds to invite us to not accept the world as it is but to join in the continual work of God so that hopefully one day we do not have to mourn about the devastating affects of violence, but celebrate God’s shalom as all people live in peace and well-being.

Our Easter experience is robbed if we don’t acknowledge the reality of our current world and remember that the resurrection invites us to a passionate response of kingdom living. To end with Brueggemann’s devotion on Easter Day “Imagine you and I, today, are a part of the Easter movement of civil disobedience that contradicts the empire. Let’s see what happens. Let’s see if life is longer than death. Some will never move and will keep trusting in the empire. But we know this much: we have been breathed on. We have been addressed. To us he said, ‘Peace be with you.’ He said it three times, and then he charged us with forgiveness. We are on the receiving end of his offer of life…Praise God!”

 

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We Cannot Be Silent

This video was shared me with yesterday from Sojourners. A reminder that the church cannot be silent.

And since the new administrations has said the DAPL should continue. Here is a moving prayer from Sojourners.

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Walter Brueggemann on Idolarty

I found this short video today from one of the most prophetic voices in theology today, Walter Brueggemann. “The dominant narrative cannot produce life, but the alternative narrative of the gospel is a promise of life through neighborly vulnerability.”

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God, Stay With Me

Last night we had a church council meeting where we discussed which ministries were growing, which were weren’t but could, and which ones needed to end. Every church I have ever known constantly has conversations about how do we grow and get new people. The Methodist Church’s focus on numbers always makes my spirit feel uneasy and that we are treading to close to being concerned about what the world thinks is important as opposed to what God values. I am not against reaching new people, but often our conversations become centered around the fact that everything we do needs to be geared towards gaining new members. Seldom do our conversations center around how do we as the church engage in a bold prophetic critique of events happening in our world while modeling an alternative vision for how to live in this world and inviting others to join us. Which, now under a new president, we are quickly seeing many opportunities that the church needs to prophetically respond to.

As I was traveling home last night I couldn’t help but just feel exhausted over the ways the youth ministries were mentioned in this conversation. I know we are not growing numerically. I get that. But man, it is hard to hear that though. While people mentioned the youth ministry is very important and there was no mean spiritedness at all about their sharing that it’s not growing, it still is hard to hear. I deeply love the youth I get to work with, and I love the things we are trying to do. I do my best to pour my heart and soul out in ministry, but to be honest, at the end of the day, I have no idea how to make a ministry grow. I think part of our issue is that churches are so boxed in to a model that is decades old and it’s difficult to break out of that model. But to make one grow, who really knows how to that expect God?

But one thing I often notice around church growth conversations is that they so often center on our efforts. What new strategies can we implement? What are the latest business, marketing, and leadership ideas can we incorporate? And so on. But what I hardly ever seem to hear is how God plays a part in it. We are desperate to make our churches grow so they don’t die and yet the spirit and presence of God seem to not come into the picture.

So as I was driving home I just felt like praying but not couldn’t find the words to say. So I listened to this beautiful cover of Stay With Me by Sam Smith, sung in this version by Black Violin. They changed several of the lyrics up a bit and as I was listening it was a perfect ministry song of lament. This crying out that there are things we don’t understand, our ministries don’t go as planned and we are just pleading God, stay with me. I need you now. It’s love and your all I need. Deep down we need this thing to work, please don’t leave. God, stay with me; stay with us.

I love the youth I get to work with every week and I am so grateful that they are a part of my life and faith journey. So maybe, if God stays with me, and I attune my heart to the Spirit’s presence I can figure out how to love them well, how to be a faithful model and guide of someone trying to live out their faith as a (in the words of Brian McLaren) contemplative and activist (which I hope to be one day).

I am thankful to God for the gift of music and the way God speaks to the depths of our souls through music. I am thankful that God’s presence is with us. I pray I can faithfully tune my life to the ever surrounding presence of God. If I spend more of my time intentionally in the presence of God then I will more naturally love these youth better and be a better pastor to them, for them, and with them.

Thank you God for listening to the depths of my soul, for understanding me, and for staying with me.

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