KOH2RVA: Day 145

handshakeThanks for your good feedback on yesterday’s mission/institution analogy quiz. I got some excellent responses. The one I was thinking about during my run this morning was Douglas Johnson’s, which I remembered as: “Mission is to institution as electrical current is to electrical cord.” That wasn’t it, exactly, but it was enough to remind me how important the mission is to the institution. Without an electrical current an electrical cord is useless (except maybe to tie a mattress and box springs onto the top of your car). Without an electrical cord the electrical current can’t flow.

So, the church needs an institution that can carry the mission, and the question every church may need to ask is: “Do we have one?” Do we have a mission, that is, and do we have an institution that can carry it?

After our meeting on Tuesday one staff member asked, “So…congregational care…is that part of the mission or part of the institution?” I answered quickly, “It’s part of the mission. It’s that part where Jesus says, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ It’s one of the clear commands of Christ.” And even as I said it I remembered the experience I had on Sunday.

I didn’t preach last Sunday. Knowing that I would be flying in from Arizona late the night before I had asked Bart Dalton, our minister to students, to preach in my place (Bart did an outstanding job, by the way, and if you haven’t heard his sermon yet click HERE when you have time to give it a listen). But I woke up in time to make it to the 8:30 service and found a place on the pew just before Ralph Starling’s welcome. Ralph always asks us to stand and say hello to the people around us, and I was pleased to find Jerry Michael on my pew. I’ve written about Jerry before. He’s the one who comes to the 8:30 service and then goes home to cook breakfast for his “Microchurch,” which includes his whole family and a few others he invites. They watch the 11:00 service on television and Jerry does his best to help them “be church” to each other.

So, I greeted Jerry, and told him how nice it was to just sit in church for a change and worship with everyone else. It was nice. I loved it. And I loved the message I got from Jerry that afternoon:

Hi Jim,

Today I felt even closer to FBC than ever. I was sitting and reading the bulletin before service when I heard “Hello Jerry!” My initial thought was who knows me here…especially by name. I can name many from seeing them on TV but who knows me? To my delight it was you, Jim. When Ralph did the stand up and greet people thing I started to cringe as usual but then I thought…Jim is in my pew. I know someone to say hi to. Furthermore, Bart’s sermon spoke to me. He said all are welcome, all have a blessing they can pass on. I felt at home today at FBC.

I first chose to physically attend FBC to give thanks and praise to our Lord for everything he has blessed me with. I had an epiphany last summer. God healed me and I thought I can do better to praise him than TV church and our micro church. That’s why I come every Sunday. I’m working on getting the micro church to just show up one Sunday. When they do there will be no room for you in my pew, you’ll have to take the pulpit that Sunday.

God Bless You Jim!

Your friend,


Is making people feel welcome at church a way of loving one another, of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia?

You bet it is.

KOH2RVA: Day 144

View from a Sports CarOn Tuesday I asked our staff to think about the relationship between “mission” and “institution.”

I was still working on the question of how we measure success and it occurred to me that institutional success might look different than missional success. In other words, you could have a church full of people and offering plates full of money without ever doing the things Jesus told you to do. The institution would be successful, but the mission would not.

On the other hand, you could have a church so radically committed to the mission that its members never came to church or put their money in the plates. They would all be out there on the mission field, bringing heaven to earth. The mission would be successful but the institution would not.

Ideally, there would be a balance between institutional and missional success: the church would be full of people who came gladly, gave generously, and then went out onto the mission field to do what Jesus told them to do.

So I said to the staff, “See if you can fill in the blanks: ‘Mission is to institution as _____________ is to _____________.’” And then I let them think about it. Let me ask you to think about it for a minute before reading any further. What is the proper relationship between the mission and the institution?

(sound of ticking clock)

Got it? OK. Please post your answer below by clicking on the word “comments.” And then consider some of these responses:

“Mission is to institution as education is to school.”

“Mission is to institution as transportation is to car.”

“Mission is to institution as baking is to oven.”

“Mission is to institution as fun is to games.”

So, can you imagine a big, beautiful school where nobody ever learned anything? Or a shiny new car that simply sat in the garage? Or a $10,000 oven that never baked a cake? Or a game that felt like more work than fun?

Ideally, there would be a perfectly balanced relationship between the mission and the institution. So you would have a big, beautiful school where lots of learning went on. A shiny new car that would get you where you were going. A $10,000 oven that baked the best cakes in town. A game that left you panting and sweating and laughing out loud.

And, ideally, a church full of happy, healthy people, who came together to worship, love, and learn, and then went out to turn the world upside down.

Wheelbarrows Full of Money

This economic crisis just doesn’t seem to let up, does it?

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down for the seventh straight day yesterday, the worst slide since 2008.  In the conversations I overhear at the hardware store people speak in hushed tones about how hard it’s been and wonder when things are going to get better. On the evening news analysts speculate that the jobless rate is down only because many people have simply stopped looking for jobs that aren’t there.  And on the back of the worship bulletin I see that even Richmond’s mighty First Baptist Church is not immune: we’re showing a deficit that’s nearly five percent of our annual budget. 

As pastor (which some people think of as “CEO”), I’m concerned.  I’m concerned mostly about those people who have had to cut back on their giving because they’ve suffered a reduction in income.  I wonder what kind of conversations they’re having around the dinner table, and what worries keep them up at night.  But I’m also concerned about this institution we call First Baptist Church.  Like many of our members we may have to make some hard decisions about where the money goes when there’s less of it, and I wonder how our mission and ministry will suffer because of it.  

I’m not concerned about the church of Jesus Christ.  I believe that it will thrive no matter what becomes of our earthly institutions.  If European churches empty out and American churches go broke, revival will break out in China, or Ghana, or Chile.  This movement lives because Christ lives.  Nonetheless, if it’s going to thrive somewhere, why not here?  Why not water the roots of the church right where we are?  

I’ve been wondering what would happen if the people of Richmond’s First Baptist Church doubled up on their attention to the institution and made sure it was ready to carry out the mission of Christ.  What if the buildings were immaculate, gleaming, and smelling of fresh paint?  What if the lawns were manicured and the hedges freshly trimmed?  What if there was plenty of free parking, and shuttles running smoothly from a covered garage?  What if our worship services were broadcast across the greater metropolitan area?  What if the staff was capable, well-compensated, and eager to do its work?  What if the ushers came down the aisle pushing wheelbarrows full of money?  What if lives were touched and changed by our ministries?  And what if the people were so full of Christ’s spirit that the Kingdom of Heaven came to Richmond, Virginia, every day of the week?  It sounds good, doesn’t it?  And the truth of it is that most of those things are already in place: the only difference between that picture and what actually exists is the wheelbarrows full of money and the Kingdom coming day after day.  

I don’t know if we will ever have wheelbarrows full of money, but I believe that even when we have empty pockets we can fill our souls with the abundant spirit of Christ.  If we do that, then maybe even before the economy recovers revival will break out,

And the Kingdom will come.

Photo illustration by Daniel Hurst, acclaimimages.com

Meeting the Needs of the Latte Class

starbucks-latteI went to a workshop in Houston last week called “Being Missional in Your Church Context: Meeting the Real Needs of Your Neighbors.”

Houston?  In July?  Really?

Yes, really.

When it was time to introduce myself I told the group I was from Richmond, Virginia, and that when I walk to church on Sunday mornings I sometimes pass people sitting on their front porches, reading the New York Times and sipping lattes.*  “I’m sure they have needs,” I said, “I’m just not sure how to identify them” (I mean, really, do you want to interrupt someone’s newspaper reading to say, “Hey, got any needs?”).

The workshop leaders didn’t get around to that question right away, but they did say some good things which I jotted down in my notes.  Here’s just a sampling:

Dick Hamm mentioned that people over 65 tend to experience God through the institution of the church, and that the object—for them—is to get people to join.  People under 65 tend to experience God outside the institution.  For them mission is about relationship, and mission work is usually short-term and hands-on.

Gary Nelson said that in Canada, where he lives, a lot of people were going to church in the fifties.  The decline started in the sixties, and now only 12 to 16 percent of the population attends church with any regularity.  He talked about this as the “come-to” model (some would call it the attractional model) and asked what happens when people don’t come to church?  How do you engage?

He talked about “institutionalism” in the church, and said that it uses up a lot of energy and resources.  “How do we free people up from the institution so they can engage in mission?” he asked, and followed it with some thoughts about governance.  He said church committees were created in the 40’s and 50’s** and that since then millions of church members have served on committees.  He asked how much of our members’ time is taken up with church governance, and joked that in some places “it takes a village” to govern a church.   If we could spend less time governing the institution, could we spend more time engaged in mission?

Finally, George Bullard addressed the question about how to identify the needs of our neighbors: “Talk to bartenders,” he said, “bankers, real-estate agents, social workers, counselors at the neighborhood school.  Talk to anybody who spends time with your neighbors, listening to their questions and concerns.”

So, I may need to walk down to Starbucks this afternoon and talk to one of the baristas there about my neighbors.  “Who are these people?  What are their needs?”  And while I’m there, gathering information, I may just have to order a latte.

*for the uninitiated, a latte (pronounced lah-TAY) is a kind of a tall, frothy coffee beverage made with espresso and steamed milk.  It’s delicious.
**I’m taking his word for it, but it makes me wonder to what extent the church in America mirrored the nation’s efforts to win World War II.  Wasn’t it all about new departments and agencies and strategies in those days?  Did we think our success in war could translate into success in mission?  Did it?


pentecost1From the impressive pulpit of my former church in DC I once announced: “I have no interest in institutional self-preservation!”

Because it wasn’t only the pulpit that was impressive: the sanctuary in which it stood was breathtaking, with tall stone columns rising to a vaulted ceiling some sixty feet above and everywhere, all around, gorgeous stained-glass windows letting in rays of sun-drenched, color-saturated light.  When the sanctuary was completed in 1955 the membership of the church was nearly 3,000.  When I came to the church in the Summer of 2000 the membership was down to 750, with about half that number still living in the area and about half that number making it to worship each Sunday.  When I came they talked about how wonderful it would be to fill that 1,000-seat sanctuary again and I agreed.  It would be wonderful.  What I didn’t realize at the time is that it was, in some ways, necessary.  We needed to get people into the pews, and dollars into the offering plates, so we could afford to heat and cool and clean and secure that magnificent building.

It was some time after that realization that I stood in the pulpit and said, “I have no interest in institutional self-preservation.”

What I meant was this: that Jesus didn’t call me to heat and cool and clean and secure magnificent buildings.  He called me to preach the gospel, and to move his people to fulfill his mission.  As a result, I didn’t always have as much appreciation for the institution as I might have. 

Since then I’ve come to believe that while the institution is not our mission, there is an institutional way to fulfill that mission.  Having a building, and a budget, and a full-time staff makes some things possible that would be nearly impossible otherwise.  Worship is one of those things, but it’s only one: Sunday school classes, showers for the homeless, divorce recovery workshops, volunteer mission trips, ministry to the deaf, marriage enrichment retreats, programs for children and youth, all of these can be ways of “bringing heaven to earth,” but in every case it is people who are the focus and not the institution itself.   

I tried to illustrate this for someone only yesterday.  I held up one hand and moved the other one toward it, as if it were the mission of Christ moving toward the church.  It got at far as my raised palm but no farther.  “You see?” I said.  “It’s not enough for the mission to come to the church; it has to go through the church.”  When that happens—when the mission of Christ swooshes through the building and touches the world—I think you can stop worrying how you will fill the pews or the plates; a church like that will thrive.

Click on this link for First Baptist Church and watch the “swoosh” that moves across the picture at the top of the screen.   Then click on the words “spiritual growth” in the green bar and select “Kingdom pictures.”  I think as you look at those photos you will begin to get a good idea of all the ways First Baptist is working to fulfill the mission of Christ.