Monday, January 20, 2014

Telling the Story Part 6: How you tell your story is your story

And now the LORD says,…"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."--From Isaiah, Chapter 49, verse 5
In March of 1974, World War 2 finally ended for Hiroo Onoda.
According to news reports, 
The soldier became a war hero in Japan after he hid on the Philippine island of Lubang until March 1974. He only gave himself up after his former commander flew out and reversed his orders from 1945, which had instructed him to spy on U.S. troops.
After his death on Friday Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga praised his spirit.
"I vividly remember when Mr. Onoda returned to Japan. That's when I personally felt that the war was over," Suga said when asked about Onoda's passing during Friday’s daily briefing.
Japan had several dozen other men who stayed in various parts of Asia long after the war. Another hold-out, Sgt. Shoichi Yokoi, emerged from the jungle in 1972 to widespread praise in Japan.
Most Japanese troops surrendered when U.S. forces landed on Lubang in February 1945. After they left, Onoda’s biggest challenge had been survival. He stole rice and bananas from locals and shot their cows to make dried beef, according to The Associated Press.
When Onoda surrendered to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, he wore his 30-year-old imperial uniform, complete with cap and sword, all of which were in good condition.
After the war finally ended for him, Onoda bought a ranch in Brazil before returning to Japan to run a children's nature school.
In a 1995 interview with the AP, he said: "I don’t consider those 30 years a waste of time. Without that experience, I wouldn’t have my life today."
For good or for ill, our experiences shape us and change us.
Today’s reading from Isaiah is written during a time when Isaiah, like Hiroo Onoda, is on a long, enforced exile from his homeland.
It is a difficult time, the sort of time that makes people discouraged.
In a time of hopelessness for his people, Isaiah puts a unique spin on the story of Israel and the exiled people of Israel, Isaiah speaks a word of hope. Through Isaiah, God predicts a new leader.
"You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified."
Isaiah predicts that Israel will arise again out of the ashes of their defeat and exile. This renaissance will not be just a restoration of the former glory of Israel. Everything will be transformed.
Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, "Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."
In a moment of dislocation and discouragement, Isaiah brings a prophecy of renewal through the leadership of someone “deeply despised.”
In our time when we think of this prophecy we think of Jesus, how he came from a despised group-- poor Jewish people in the Roman empire--and how Kings and princes eventually acknowledged him as their leader, but this prophecy speaks in general terms about how change happens.
Mahatma Gandhi used to say,
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
Similarly, Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate this weekend, was no stranger to experiencing hatred as he sought to bring leadership to the cause of civil rights.  He had a lot of quotes about returning love for hatred, and about not becoming bitter.
“Love, he said, is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”
The story you tell becomes your story by the way you tell it.
Isaiah, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Hiroo Onoda and others who faced struggles and challenges and setbacks could have told the story of their struggle as a sad story, but instead they told a story of hope.
The people of Israel were driven from their homeland and stripped of their power. When Isaiah looked around him in the place he was in exile (Babylon, which is mostly modern-day Iraq), there were no signs of hope. The sounds of anguish and bitterness of his people must have filled his ears. But Isaiah saw hope, and heard hope, and gave a prophecy of hope. He found his hope in God.
Isaiah’s message is a one we all need to hear sometimes. We all go through times of struggle and setbacks.
I spend a lot of time talking to church members and Pastors and I hear a lot of complaints.
Pastors are frustrated.
Churches are frustrated.
Churches used to grow. Now mostly churches are shrinking. It’s mostly because the people who built those churches are not having as many children Nothing has happened to American churches as terrible as the things that have happened to Isaiah. Isaiah experienced radical changes in his life and his faith. The worship of Israel was centered on the temple that Solomon had built. In exile, the people had to go back to their earlier, nomadic ways for a time. They had been people of the land, and that land was Israel.
Now they would be people of a story. And so when Isaiah told that story, he did not tell a story of decline and hopelessness and defeat. He told a story of trials that would lead to an unexpected and unimagined kind of triumph. The way we understand it now his story came true through the ministry of Jesus.
What does this mean for us today?
How you tell your story is your story.
Are you telling a pessimistic tale of disappointment? Are you telling an unrealistic story about recapturing past glory? Or are you like Isaiah, open to letting God create a future beyond your previously conceived notions of success?
The choice is up to you.
This is part of a series. Read the introductory post here:
Read Part 2, about Offering Hospitality, here.
Part 3, about Telling the Story without Words, here.
Part 4, Talking about Faith, is here.
Part 5, Getting the Conversation Started, is here.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Telling the Story Part 5: Getting the Conversation Started

"But I wouldn't know what to say."
That's the number one response I hear when suggesting that people start talking about their faith.
It's scary to try something new. What if we do it wrong? We might offend somebody. 
 Yes, we could possibly offend somebody. On the other hand, we could also inspire somebody who really needs to be inspired. We could help put someone on a new and exciting life path. We could grow closer to people we don't know very well, and put ourselves on a new and exciting life path. 
The goal of talking about your faith is not to win converts. It is to simply share what you understand as good news. Whether or not people agree that it is good news, and whether they choose to do anything about it is up to them. Most people who start coming to church do so because someone they know invited them. It is awkward to invite someone to church "out of the blue," but if you talk about your experiences in church and someone expresses interest in it, it becomes easy and perfectly natural to issue an invitation. 

In talking about faith, the key is to speak about your own experience. Try to keep it positive.  The main reason people are uncomfortable hearing people talk about faith is that a lot of religious people broadcast their judgmental attitudes in the media. On social media accounts people have made comments to me like, "Since you are a Christian, I assumed you were hateful."  That saddens me but it doesn't really surprise me.
Also, think twice about venting to non-church members about church conflicts. Churches are made up of human beings, and churches experience conflicts. Church conflicts can be painful for church members, and people need to work through them. It's fine to acknowledge that your church has experienced or is experiencing conflict, but if you are presenting only a negative view about your church to others you are feeding the conflict.

When talking about your faith, use "I" statements such as "I feel," "I like," "I appreciate." Avoid "you" statements, especially ones like, "you should," "you ought," and "you need."

When talking to people who are not part of your church, don't go out of your way to mention your faith. That will most likely create an awkward moment.  However, many people find that the more you talk about your faith with people who share your faith, the more you will naturally find yourself compelled to talk about your faith outside of church.  It is important to follow any ethical rules that apply where you work or volunteer. 

I've come up with some icebreaker phrases to use in talking about your faith.

With other people in your church:
"I really appreciated _____ in church today."
"I've always liked it when we do _______ in church."
"I would like to see more _______ happen in our church."
"I've always wanted to try/start ________ in our church."
"I've been praying a lot about _______."
"I'm starting to feel that God is calling me to ________."

With people who are not part of your church:
"I will pray for [your problem.]"
"My church has a prayer list. Would you like us to pray about [your problem]?"
"I"m still praying about [your problem.] How is it going?"
"I don't know what to think/do about [a personal problem/problem in the world.] I'm praying about it a lot."
"I'm in a good mood because in church we did ______ yesterday."
"I'm looking forward to _______ coming up at church."
"My pastor/Bible Study group/friends at church were just talking about that."

Talking about faith sounds scary, but many people find that once they start it becomes rewarding and fun and they never want to stop. Whatever you are on your journey of talking about your faith, I wish you well.
This is part of a series. Read the introductory post here:
Read Part 2, about Offering Hospitality, here.
Part 3, about Telling the Story without Words, here.
Part 4, Talking about Faith, is here.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Telling the Story Part 4: Talking about Faith

It was well over one hundred degrees outside when I heard a knock on the front door of my air-conditioned third floor walk-up. When I answered the rush of heat in the foyer nearly knocked me backwards. Standing before me I saw two young men dressed in white dress shirts and ties, with backpacks on their backs: Mormon Missionaries.
"Come in out of this heat!" I insisted. Dazed and a little surprised, they sat down and removed their backpacks.
"Have you been taking regular breaks?" I asked, concerned.
"Not really, " Elder Number One responded.
"Let me get you some cold water," I said, running to the kitchen. I brought each of them glasses of ice water.
They thanked me and and then started in on their spiel. Had I heard about the church of Jesus Christ?
I laughed. "Yes, but I'm not interested. I was just concerned about your safety on this hot day."
"Well, maybe you could try to convert us to your point of view," Elder Number Two suggested. Again, I laughed. This was clearly a clever gambit that they had been trained to use on us non-Mormons.
"No, thanks. I think you're fine just the way you are." Maybe because the heat had gotten to them, they gave up trying to evangelize me at this point and we just made polite chit-chat as they finished drinking their water. After I finished lecturing them about how they really should carry ample bottled water in their bags, they left and resumed their appointed rounds.
Most people, myself included, can't imagine doing anything like what those young men do. They must face near constant rejection every day, not to mention angry dogs and doors slammed in their faces, during their terms of service, which usually last two years. I did once have a job that involved walking door to door, for the City Directory (a book rendered useless by the Internet), but people tended to be nice to me once they figured out all I wanted from them was a little information. These days I don't knock on the doors of strangers very often, but I talk about my faith all the time. It comes with the territory of being a Pastor. It's like pretty much anything else--it gets easier with practice.
Most mainline Protestants don't like to talk about our faith. Most people work in secular settings, and we don't want to offend anyone or even get in trouble. We don't want to alienate our neighbors and make our friends feel awkward. But we tend not to even talk about our faith with each other--even in church. That's sad. The Congregational tradition talks about "testimonies of faith, not tests of faith" but we don't make testimonies very often, either. I think that's too bad. It's also endangering the future of our tradition. Mainline Protestant churches began to decline seriously right around the time that our members started having a lot fewer children. If we want our churches to survive, we need to do something that our forebearers in faith probably have not done for hundreds of years: many more of us need to start opening up about our faith. Some may not ever feel comfortable with it, and that's okay. But many more might find, as I have, that it isn't as tough as they feared.
This is part of a series. Read the introductory post here:
Read Part 2, about Offering Hospitality, here.
Part 3, about Telling the Story without Words, is here.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Telling the Story Part 3: Moving Beyond Words

The plastic flamingos that live outside of United Church on the Green in New Haven, Connecticut are a great example of telling the story without using words. The flamingos carry a humorous message on their bellies in case they are stolen. Their attire changes frequently, based on the season.
It is said that actions speak louder than words. Protestant churches practice two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion. Participation in these sacraments, according to tradition, involves offering an "outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace." Sacraments are the most important rituals that we practice, but other rituals commonly practiced in our churches also communicate our values. Some churches ask worshipers to stand during certain parts of worship as a sign of respect. Some congregations turn and face the cross while singing the traditional song known as the "Gloria Patri." In most churches, the offering is brought to the front of the church and prayers of thanksgiving are offered over it. While these rituals are not sacraments, for some church members it just "doesn't feel right" if these parts of worship are changed or omitted. This is because part of the power of a ritual comes from repetition. Doing the same things (or the same kinds of things, such as singing hymns) in more or less the same order on a regular schedule makes people feel good. It's just part of being human. Also, apparently the older we get, the less variation we like in our rituals. The problem is, the old rituals don't speak to younger people the same way they do to older people. And without younger members, churches die.

There is no easy way to deal with this conflict in the way churches worship and live out their faith commitment together in worship and in other aspects of the life of the church, but one thing I learned from my Church Administration professor as well as from several mentors is not to take things away at first, but rather to add things. One of the easiest places to add rituals is in the Children's Time. People like this part of the service to be fun, and kids love receiving stuff. When I pass out things in worship I like to have enough to provide whatever it is to the entire congregation. That is why this blog is called "A Time for All." For example, every St. Nicholas Day (the first Sunday in December) I would have the kids pass out little treat bags to the entire community. The bags included a few chocolate kisses, some gingerbread cookies, a candy cane and a clementine (a tiny tangerine) as a way of providing a magical foretaste of the coming season of Christmas. The adults seemed to love this tradition as much or even more than the kids. I believe that part of telling the story is doing things in worship (and in other aspects of the life of the church) that make us feel the way we felt when we were kids, and we snuggled up in our blankets and begged our parents to read our favorite story again. In the words of a popular hymn, 

Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

This is part of a series. Read the introductory post here:
Read Part 2, about Offering Hospitality, here.
Part 4, Talking about Faith, can be found here.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Telling the Story Part 2: Offering Hospitality

Recently I wrote a well-received blog entry offering insider tips to church seekers--people who are interested in joining a church. This entry comes at that particular question from the opposite viewpoint--how to help churches prepare to receive seekers in a way that makes them consider returning or even becoming active in their congregation.

Offering hospitality is an important way that Christians tell the story of our faith--perhaps the most important way, because if we don't make people feel welcomed, we won't get the opportunity to tell our story in other ways.

Most mainline churches think they are pretty good at this. In reality, most of them are pretty terrible at it, although their misperception is understandable. Mainline churches have traditionally operated on the principle that they are not very good at introducing adults to Christianity. They have tended to rely on a combination of having children and recruiting new members from people who are switching denominations or who have recently moved to the area. That strategy is not going to work anymore, according to a study that linked a decline in church membership to a decline in family size. Churches that want to survive have got to learn to offer hospitality a lot better--and many of them need to learn it in a hurry.

What does hospitality look like? This may sound intimidating, but hospitality starts with the exterior of the building. Recently my husband and I drove by a church on our way home on Christmas Eve. I've never been to the church or met anyone who goes there, but from what I could see from the street at twilight it looked welcoming.  Huge colorful banners with seasonal words like "joy" rustled in the wind, and the doors kept opening to welcome more and more people. Not all churches can afford banners like that, but churches that want to attract new members should consider positioning people outside during the time that people begin arriving for worship, to offer directions, help with parking or even just to offer a friendly wave and welcome. Most churches don't do that. In fact, most churches can be surprisingly intimidating. 

Not long ago I had an experience I have not had in a very long time--I visited a church "incognito," the way a seeker does. I have obscured identifying details somewhat, but what I'm describing here are mistakes that are not unique to this congregation. I Googled the name of the church and found a website that was sort of sterile, matter-of-fact and filled with Christian in-group words like "pastoral."  My husband and I were able to find out the address and the time of the Sunday service on the website. It also included a photo of the church exterior, which made it easy to find the building. When we arrived we were a little uncertain about parking but found the adjacent lot. There were signs that indicated that it was okay to park there but no clear signs about where we should enter the church for the service. After we parked we walked halfway around the building trying doors and found all of them locked. We turned back and headed back toward the parking lot, where someone motioned from their car towards the entrance. When we entered nobody was there to greet us. One older lady looked me up and down and said nothing. A couple of people who were milling around muttered hellos. I feel compelled to note that we did not look out of place. We were freshly showered and dressed like conventional middle class people and our clothing and appearance were similar to that of the people our own age at the church. 

We wandered into a common area and on the other side we finally saw a small sign that pointed us in the right direction for worship. A child greeted us at the door and handed us a bulletin. We found a seat near the rear. The person seated in the row in front of us said hello. My husband said hello, offered his hand to shake and said his name. The person took his hand and smiled but did not continue conversing with us.  A woman sat next to us, nodded coolly in our direction in what I'm sure she meant as a gesture of welcome, and then moved toward us to offer a hearty hello to the person sitting in front of us. She then moved to the seat beside him. When the service began a member offered a welcome from a lectern and asked everyone to greet one another. The people around us shook our hands and offered simple greetings. The service bulletin and the worship leaders offered directions for how to participate in worship that were helpful to us as people who have attended many church services, but which might have been confusing for someone who had little previous contact with Christianity. During the time of announcements the woman who had moved away from us indicated that she was in charge of a ministry, which made me think that at least she knew that we were not regular members. The age of the others near us also made me suspect that at least some of them either knew or had reason to suspect that we were visitors, but none of them was particularly friendly or welcoming to us as newcomers. 

At several points during the worship we were informed by church leaders that we were welcome there, but actions speak much louder than words. Prior to the Pastoral prayer the Pastor invited people to share their joys or concerns with the congregation. Most people who come to church as a seeker are there because of a crisis or problem and would love to talk on-on-one to someone caring about this concern. This was true for my husband and me. The night before we had learned that a friend around our age had died unexpectedly. My husband was so saddened by this that he felt he wouldn't be up to responding to potential friendly overtures of church members. As it turned out, of course, he needn't have worried.

The Pastor would have likely been friendly and welcoming to us, of course, but he was new, and the church member standing next to him when he greeted us at the end of the service didn't indicate to him that we were visitors.

As a longtime Christian and Pastor I am fairly certain that everything we experienced can be explained by ignorance or shyness. Many church members have only belonged to one church for their entire lives and have no idea how to make a seeker feel welcome, as they have never been a church seeker themselves. This congregation relied on the public proclamations of welcome and felt no need to add individual personal ones. I'm sure this stemmed at least in part from wanting to not overwhelm visitors (something that is also a huge mistake that some churches make.) The church members who were more naturally friendly and outgoing had clearly not been trained or placed in positions where they would be the first to greet visitors.

My husband says that he did like the worship service and he would consider being the one to be friendly and outgoing and introduce himself. As a person with more experience in church seeking I advise against that for most church seekers. I've done it and it has always led to future regrets. I guess it is possible that it could work out, particularly if you are an outgoing take-charge type of person, but if you are at all shy and reserved or are in some sort of a crisis in your life right now you need to find a church that is more open and friendly to newcomers.

If you think your church may be falling into similar patterns, do not despair. It is possible to change but it starts with awareness. I'm not going to go into a step-by-step plan here but there are books that can help guide you in the process. I have found books by Diana Butler Bass helpful (particularly Christianity for the Rest of Us.) I have had the most success with the Unbinding the Gospel series by Martha Grace Reese

One of the pitfalls of developing awareness about hospitality is that it can cause a sort of panic to take hold in the church. I have experienced a church member actually yelling at other church members for what she perceived as not offering hospitality in the best way. There is no reason to beat yourselves and your fellow church members up, but if your church is losing ground in terms of numbers, you do need to develop a sense of clarity and urgency around this issue.

Has your church found success in telling their story through hospitality? If so, how?

This is part of a series. Read the introductory post here:

Part 3, about Telling the Story without Words, here.
Part 4, Talking about Faith, can be found here.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Telling the Story Part 1

Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!--Isaiah, Chapter 49, verse 1

This month I am focusing on the concept of "telling the story." We are people of the book, like the Hebrew people with whom we share our spiritual ancestry, but it took a while for the book to be written. What we now call the Old Testament started out as stories and rules for living passed down from one generation to the next over a period of hundreds of years.  The actual writing of the Bible is estimated to have begun around 1000 years before the birth of Christ. However, it was not until after the Hebrew people experienced a painful forced exile in the foreign country of Babylon (land that today is mostly part of Iraq)  that the Hebrew people began to really organize the texts into something one could call scripture. For most of their early history the Hebrew people were people of the land, but with the codification of scripture they became people of the book, an innovation that has enabled their religion to survive periods of persecution, hardship and exile.

Modern day American Christians tend to feel as though this is a period of hardship or even persecution. Most churches are shrinking in membership at a time when the United States population is growing. Churches are growing older in average age while the overall US population remains young.  At first glance makes it seems as though the churches that are growing offer stadium seating, surround sound and a variety of other expensive amenities. Most churches cannot compete with that, and few even bother to try. However, appearances can be deceiving. Some non-mega churches are in fact growing. They are growing because they have found a way to focus on telling their stories of faith--both the stories of individuals in the congregation, and the larger story of the faith that we all embrace. 

We are part of a great tradition of testimonies of faith, and we need to put our focus on telling our story more often and in more ways.

How can we tell the story? Each of my blog entries in January will focus on a specific way that churches can tell the story. 

What is your favorite way of telling the story of your faith? Share in the comments below.

This is part of a series. 
Read Part 2, about Offering Hospitality, here.
Part 3, about Telling the Story without Words, here.
Part 4, Talking about Faith, can be found here.