KOH2RVA: Day 141

bus-off-cliff-259x300I’m back from Arizona, and a meeting with pastors of other large churches who were interested in this whole “bringing heaven to earth” thing. I got a chance to explain what we were up to in Richmond, and I saw some of them taking notes. But they did want to know a couple of things in particular:

1. Have you seen an increase in attendance?
2. Have you seen an increase in giving?

Because this is how we’ve learned to measure success.

Pastors of large churches are considered successful because their churches are large, and if they want to stay successful they have to think about how to keep them that way. I don’t blame them for asking if our year-long, every-member mission trip has stimulated growth and giving.

But the answer is no.

In the 141 days that we’ve been working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, I’ve actually noticed a significant drop in attendance. And at the end of last year we were nearly $200,000 behind in our giving. If our KOH2RVA mission bus keeps heading in that direction someone may start screaming, “Abort! Abort! We’re headed over a cliff!”

But we’re only 141 days into this mission.  Anything could happen.  We could begin to see a huge surge in attendance and giving.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we do.  But just in case we don’t I’ve been searching the instruction manual for that place where Jesus says success is measured by how many people come to church on Sunday morning and how much money they give.

I can’t find it anywhere.

I’ll keep looking, but so far I’m finding things like loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength; things like loving our neighbors as ourselves; things like caring for “the least of these”—Jesus’ brothers and sisters. That’s how success is measured in the Kingdom, and it shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus told us a long time ago that in God’s Kingdom the yardstick is turned upside-down—the last are first and the least are great.

As that Kingdom comes closer and closer to Richmond, Virginia, we may have to start measuring success in a whole new way.

KOH2RVA: Day 110

ChristmasPresents2In the 5:00 service on Christmas Eve I talked about the “season of giving” and questioned why we give what we give. Is it because we want to, or because we have to? I talked about the worst gift I ever gave (an ugly homemade hat for my brother Scott). I talked about how “generosity begets generosity.” I read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. And then I said this:

I wonder if generosity will beget generosity in this season. I wonder if God’s gift of himself will inspire us to give. And I’m not just talking about money, although that figures in. Money is a symbol of what we value. We pay $20 for something because we think it’s worth $20. How much is God’s love worth to us? What will we give in return for the gift of his son?

I love Vicky Nicholau’s answer. She told me that last year she was in Hanna Zhu’s Sunday school class, where they studied the book, Christmas Is Not Your Birthday. It’s not, is it? It’s Jesus’ birthday. The more Vicky thought about that and the more she wondered what she could give Jesus at Christmas the answer became clear: she could give him herself.

Last summer she was baptized in the James River and this is what she said: that her baptism was a symbol of giving herself to Jesus. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me then that of all the people I see working to bring heaven to earth on our year-long, every-member mission trip, Vicky seems to be the one who is doing it most joyfully. She seems to be giving herself away like that tree—apples, limbs, and trunk. And you get the feeling that if Jesus would come and sit down on her stump when she’s through giving herself away, she would be happy.

What about you? Will generosity beget generosity? Will God’s gift of himself inspire you to give yourself away? And will you give because you want to, or because you have to? There’s a difference, and the one who receives your gift will surely be able to tell.

December 25 is a couple of days behind us at this point, but it’s still not too late to give your gift to God.

Blushing with Pride

I’ve got to hand it to the members and friends of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.

On the first Sunday in October I stood in the pulpit and told them we had a budget deficit of nearly $200,000.  And then I said:

“In a church this size that’s not necessarily a cause for alarm, and frankly, given the state of the economy, it could be much more.  Still, it is a cause for concern, and we need to catch up.  When there’s not enough money people begin to talk about cutting programs or staff, and I don’t think any of us want that.  So, we’re going to take up a special offering on November 6 to catch up on our giving, but please don’t feel that you have to wait for that day to give.  If you’ve fallen behind in your own giving over the summer this might be the perfect day to write a check or click the link on our website that lets you give online

“People often tell me that if everybody would only tithe we would have enough money, and I agree.  If everybody would tithe—that is, if everybody would give 10 percent of their income back to God through the church—we would have more than enough money, even in times like these.  But everybody doesn’t tithe.  In fact I heard recently that in the average church some 40 percent of the congregation gives nothing at all.  To be fair to those people I don’t think it’s because they are greedy, I think it’s because they are afraid—afraid that if they give even ten percent of their income back to God there won’t be enough for them. 

I can sympathize with those people, especially in times like these, but let me remind you that in the Christian faith there is no place for that kind of fear.  We believe that everything we have comes from a good and loving God who has poured out his love upon us with such abundance we can never thank him enough.  To give back ten percent seems like a tiny thing compared to what he’s done for us; it really is only a token of our gratitude.  Not to give it is to say that we don’t really believe God can provide for our needs, and that we trust ourselves more than we trust him to handle our money. 

“That is a faithless and fearful response. 

“So let me ask you to look toward November 6 with more faith and less fear, in fact, let your gift on that day be a gift of fearless love.”

On every Sunday in the month of October I made a similar appeal, being reminded along the way that some people don’t give simply because they have lost their jobs, they have no income, and ten percent of nothing is nothing.  It’s not because they are fearful or faithless.   

That point was well taken.

Still, on November 6 those who could give did.  They came down the aisles and dropped their offerings into baskets at the front of the sanctuary and the rear of the balcony.  I was moved to see young people and old people, wealthy people and poor people, people who are long-time members and people who aren’t members at all shuffling forward to give.  In the end we took up a “Fearless Love” offering of $228,000, which means that in this Sunday’s bulletin we will show a budget surplus of $11,555.

I’m blushing with pride, and I spent a good bit of my time at this week’s annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia talking to other pastors and bragging on a church that rises to a challenge as magnificently as any I have ever known. 

Thank you, First Baptist, for your faithful and fearless love.

Keeping the Tent Big

In one of my recent posts I talked about “Life in the Big Tent,” and mentioned that in the tent we call Richmond’s First Baptist Church there has been some pushing and shoving over the subject of where we send our mission dollars. 

Pushing and shoving?  Really?!

Well, no, of course not.  That would never happen at First Baptist Church.  I was using those words metaphorically.  But at our last deacons’ meeting the Deacon Advisory Council* proposed changes to our shared giving plan that led to some spirited discussion.  Let me be specific:

The current plan—“the First Baptist Partnership Plan”—divides mission dollars between the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, but the division is hardly equal: the SBC receives more than three times as much as the CBF.  The proposed plan—“the Shared Partnership Plan”—divides mission dollars equally between the CBF and the SBC, and it eliminates giving to the North American Mission Board of the SBC altogether. 

Those are big changes, and you can see how our members who are supportive of the Southern Baptist Convention might wonder if they are being pushed out of the tent, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening at all: I think what’s happening is that we are gaining a better understanding of who we are.   

I wasn’t here at the time but several years ago some of our members formed an “Identity Passion Team” to address that very issue: Who are we?  What is our purpose?  Who are our people?  What are our shared values and beliefs?  What has been our journey?  What other Baptist groups do we relate to?  The members of that team drafted an identity statement that was adoped by an overwhelming majority of the church.  What we learned is that out tent has always been big, that while we might have all considered ourselves Southern Baptists at one time, there were a lot of different views among us.  In fact, if you had put us all on one pew you would have seen the full spectrum of theological diversity, from extremely conservative on one end to not very conservative at all on the other.  It didn’t matter so much when we gathered to worship the Lord (whom we all loved), or when we talked about missions (which we all supported).  It only began to matter when the pushing and shoving broke out in our denominational tent and people began to ask us which “side” we were on.

As I mentioned in my last post, we refused to be divided.  We created giving options that allowed us to support the mission causes we felt the most affinity for without giving up the worship and fellowship that made us family.  We’ve maintained that tradition for years.  But this latest revision of our giving plans is an acknowledgment of something that has probably been true all along but “discovered” only recently: we are diverse, and if we are going to honor that diversity we cannot show favoritism.  The proposed “shared” plan divides our mission dollars equally between the SBC and the CBF. 

The proposal to eliminate our giving to the North American Mission Board of the SBC is also a matter of identity.  For many, many years we have recognized the gifts and calling of women–and not only men–in ministry.   Women have been ordained as deacons at First Baptist for decades.  We have an ordained woman on our ministry staff.  We know what a blessing these women have been and we maintain our historic Baptist freedom to ordain whomever we perceive as gifted—male or female—for ministry.  The North American Mission Board, however, is not a local church.  It does not share that same freedom.  And because it hopes to reflect the views of the Baptist majority it does not employ women who have been ordained (unless they are willing to rescind their ordination). 

While individuals in our church are free to check the SBC box on their commitment cards or giving envelopes and direct some of their mission dollars to the North American Mission Board, the majority of our deacons perceive a philosophical difference with NAMB.  They hesitate to include in our shared giving plan an organization that will not hire an ordained woman.  Of course it isn’t up to the Deacons, ultimately; it’s up to the church (just last night we hosted an open discussion at which some members requested that we not exclude NAMB altogether, since it is part of the same organization through which we “support missionaries,” and that we distribute our missionary support proportionally, with the SBC getting a larger share simply because it has more personnel on the field. Each of those requests seemed reasonable and the spirit of the discussion was cordial throughout).   

Copies of the proposed giving plan have been available for perusal for the past few weeks, with a vote scheduled for the quarterly business meeting on January 13, 2010.  If things go as they usually do there won’t be any pushing and shoving at that meeting, either.  There will be a presentation, some discussion, and then every member present will vote his or her conscience.  At the end of the meeting we will all understand a little better…

…who we are. 

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*The Deacon Advisory Council is comprised of the five most recent deacon chairs and vice-chairs at First Baptist Church.

Life in the “Big Tent”

At Richmond’s First Baptist Church we tithe by giving at least 10% of our total budget to missions.  The only question, then, is which missions to support?

It used to be so easy. 

We were Southern Baptists, and we gave our money through the Cooperative Program to support “our” missionaries at home and abroad.  But in 1979 a movement began which was described by some as a “conservative resurgence” within the denomination but by others as “the fundamentalist takeover” of the SBC.  By 1990 moderate Baptists had given up the fight, and in 1991 constituted the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which they described as “a new way of being Baptist.”  CBF began to send its own missionaries, and churches that had never had to ask the question before now wondered: “Which missionaries do we support?”  The split between moderates and conservatives in the SBC had divided not only the denomination, but also its churches.

Richmond’s First Baptist Church refused to be divided. 

Instead it created giving options for its members.  Those who remained loyal to the Southern Baptist Convention and its missionaries could simply check the SBC box on their pledge cards or offering envelopes and rest assured that their missions dollars would go that way.  Those who were excited about the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and a new way of being Baptist could check the CBF box and know that their mission dollars were going to support that new venture.  Those who didn’t have strong feelings one way or another, or who wanted to support both mission causes, could give through the “First Baptist Plan,” knowing their mission dollars would be divided among the SBC and the CBF.

It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it did allow people with different denominational loyalties and leanings to stay in the same church.  The tent was big enough for everyone.

At the deacons’ meeting on Tuesday night we discussed some proposed changes in our giving plans and things got a little uncomfortable.  There was some pushing and shoving going on inside the big tent as everybody tried to make sure there was room enough for them and their views.  When it was my turn to offer some closing thoughts I said (although I hadn’t really planned on making a speech), “I am privileged to be the pastor of a church where some members don’t want to give one thin dime to the SBC, and where other members don’t want to give one thin dime to the CBF, and where still other members don’t know what those letters mean and don’t really care.  It’s important that we provide them with some choices, so that those who want to support the SBC can do it, and those who want to support the CBF can do it, and those who don’t have a preference can put their money in the offering plate knowing that their mission dollars will be well spent.  I do believe this: that missionaries on both sides of this divide are waking up each morning thinking about how they can share the Gospel with people who need to hear it.  I’ve met those missionaries.  I’ve talked with them.  I know where their hearts are.  I don’t think any of us have to worry about our mission dollars being misspent.”

Who knows?  We may need to lengthen the ropes a little more, make the tent a little bigger, to include missionaries and mission causes we have never considered before, and to include people of every persuasion who are passionate about being and sharing the good news of Jesus.

Even if they check the “wrong” box on their offering envelopes.

Like an Ostrich Egg Through a Boa Constrictor

1950s20church20pic1In each of the churches I have served there has been a “legendary” pastor.

In New Castle, Kentucky, it was Bill Hull.  People would talk to me about how things had been back in “Bill Hull days,” when they had 300 people in Sunday school (a lot for that little church) and had to put folding chairs in the aisles to accommodate the crowds on Sunday morning.  I was a seminary student at the time, doing all I could to build up the membership of that church, but we didn’t have anything like 300 people in Sunday school.  The numbers were usually under 100.  I knew Bill Hull.  I admired him.  But every time someone mentioned his name I cringed at the comparison.  They didn’t say it out loud but they must have been thinking: “Bill Hull used to pack them in.  What’s wrong with you?”

At my next church it was Dewey Hobbs.  People used to tell me how things had been back when he was pastor, how they built the new educational wing to accommodate all the people who were coming to Sunday school and how, on Sunday mornings, they used to put folding chairs in the aisles (what is it with these folding chairs?).  I got to know Dewey Hobbs while I was there and liked him a lot.  I could see why people remembered him so fondly.  And yet there was some part of me that was relieved to move on from that place, knowing I wouldn’t have to hear his name every day.

I had been at First Baptist, DC, about ten minutes when someone asked me if I had heard of one of their former pastors, Dr. Ed Pruden.  Yes, I had, but over the next seven-and-a-half years I heard a lot more.  Dr. Pruden was pastor when the church built its magnificent new sanctuary.  He was pastor when Harry Truman used to come to worship.  His portrait hung in the church parlor and the pulpit from which I preached Sunday after Sunday was called the “Pruden Pulpit.” 

There is no doubt that each of these men were gifted and able pastors, but only at my third church did I realize that each of these men had served during the 1950’s, a time when going to church was—for so many people—the “Sunday morning thing to do.”  When someone asked Dr. Pruden how he was able to grow such a large church he replied, “In those days it was a matter of opening the door and getting out of the way.”

It’s not that way any more.

The churchgoing boom coincided almost exactly with the Baby Boom (1946-1964).  Couples wanted their babies to grow up in the church just as they had.  They came by the hundreds, by the thousands, and soon churches were scrambling to find enough nursery space, and then enough Sunday school space for all those babies, all those children!  And because all their parents were coming to church too they needed bigger sanctuaries.  They built them, and for a little while at least those sanctuaries were full, or nearly.

Sometimes when I am driving through the rural South I will see three church buildings along the highway.  One is the original sanctuary, built sometime in the 1920’s; next to it is a much larger sanctuary, built sometime in the 1950’s; and next to that is an educational building, built sometime in the 1970’s.  When you look at the three of them in a row like that you can see how the Baby Boom moved through the church like an ostrich egg through a boa constrictor.  I would guess that the Sunday morning crowd these days could easily fit inside that original sanctuary building.  I would also guess that those people are telling the current pastor how good things were back in the 1950’s.

My guess is that it isn’t the pastors who are the problem, usually.  My sense is that pastors these days are working harder and smarter than ever before.  But the culture has changed in ways we are only beginning to understand, and the forces that once pushed people into the church are now pulling them out.  “I can’t come this Sunday; my son has a soccer game.”  “I can’t come next Sunday; we’re going to the beach.”  “I can’t come at all; I have to work on Sunday.” 

So we sigh, and shake our heads, and look back to the good old days, when churchgoing was the Sunday morning thing to do.  And there are some in our congregations who still hold on to the hope that if we could just find the right pastor, if we could find another Bill Hull, or Dewey Hobbs, or Ed Pruden…

… it would be 1955 again.