KOH2RVA: Day 131

empty churchAt a conference at Georgetown College last week I led a breakout session called “What to do when your church is dying.” I said a lot of things in 90 minutes, but the essence can be found in this brief summary I typed up for Baptists Today not long ago. So, if your church is dying, or you know someone whose is, take the time to read the few paragraphs below. I hope it will give you a fresh vision of what the church can be and do in a time when so many congregations are struggling just to survive.

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When I started my work as a pastor 25 years ago the church in America was in decline, the leadership of the church was in a state of panic, and their strategy was the so-called Church Growth Movement. I went to New Castle Baptist Church in Kentucky assuming that my job was to get as many people as possible into the building for worship on Sunday morning, and then to get as many of those as I could to come forward at the end of the service so that they could make a profession of faith in Christ, or rededicate their lives to him, or move their membership from another church to that one. But I was still in seminary at that time, and in the New Testament class I was taking I kept hearing about the “Kingdom of God.” It seemed to be the only thing Jesus wanted to talk about. In fact, some 120 times in the Gospels, in one way or another, he refers to that Kingdom. I began to get the idea that this is what Jesus really came to do: to establish the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven.

This is what I think the church of Jesus Christ ought to be doing—bringing heaven to earth—and the Lord’s Prayer is a perfect reminder. It’s the kind of prayer a soldier might pray before going onto the battlefield, the kind of prayer a missionary might pray before going onto the mission field. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” it says. “Thy kingdom come! Thy will be done!” but then (don’t miss this part) “on earth as it is in heaven.” And then we ask God to give us our daily bread, because we’re going to need our strength. We ask him to forgive us our sins, because they would only drag us down. We ask him to lead us not into temptation, because we can’t afford to be distracted–this mission is too important. And then, just in case we begin to have some success and think it’s because of our efforts, the prayer reminds us that the kingdom, and the power, and the glory belong to God forever and ever.

Amen.

Can you see how bringing heaven to earth is completely different from propping up the institutional church? I don’t think it’s easier, not at all. Without God’s help it would be impossible. But it is so much more…liberating. When the members of First Baptist Church ask me how to do it I say, “Just look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven and then roll up your sleeves and go to work.” And what I find is that they all see through their own eyes. One person will see a need to teach poor children in the city of Richmond how to read, and go to work there. Another person will see a need to share the gospel with people who don’t know Jesus, and go to work there. Another person will see a need to provide decent, affordable housing, and go to work there. Some people will visit with those in the nursing homes, others will make time to have coffee with a friend in need, still others will teach little children in Sunday school. As a result, church begins to happen everywhere, all the time, and not only in our building at 11:00 on Sunday. In fact, I have said to my congregation, “Let’s stop counting how many people happen to be in church on Sunday morning and instead start counting how many times church happens between one Sunday and the next.”

That’s liberating, isn’t it?

Several years ago I found a quote in a book by Walter Brueggemann that has given shape to my ministry ever since. Brueggemann is a renowned Old Testament scholar, but he is also a committed Christian, who is devoted to the church. He said, “The central task of ministry is the formation of a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that has the courage and the freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality.” I love that quote, not only because it gives shape to my own ministry, but because it reminds me so much of Jesus’ ministry. Do you remember how he started? He called some disciples, or, in other words, he formed a community. And then he started teaching them about the Kingdom of God, saying, “the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, a treasure, a pearl.” He did his best to inspire in them an alternative, liberated imagination. And then, through his own example, he showed them the courage and freedom to act—to preach the Gospel, to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons—even to turn over tables in the Temple. He did it to bring in the Kingdom, because when he looked at the world around him he saw not only what was but what could be. He had a different vision, and a different perception, of reality.

That’s the kind of work he calls us to: not the anxious preservation of an earthly institution, but the fearless, faithful, joyful work of bringing heaven to earth. I think that’s why he spent his time forming a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that had the courage and freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality. And that’s why, at the end of every staff meeting at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, we stand and join hands around the room and say the Lord’s prayer, but instead of saying, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we say, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in Richmond as it is in heaven.”

That’s our mission.

KOH2RVA: Day 32

I talked with someone on Monday who said he was bothered by the Lord’s Prayer.

Actually, it wasn’t the prayer that bothered him; it was the way we had changed the prayer. It had been my suggestion to pray the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday during this year-long, every-member mission trip we’re on, and to say, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, in Richmond as it is in heaven.” It’s the prayer we’ve been saying in staff meetings for four years. It’s a way to focus our attention—and our mission—on this place we call home.

But it bothered this man to hear it that way. It bothered him, first of all, because we were changing the words of the Lord’s Prayer—words Jesus himself had spoken. He didn’t think we should do that. We should leave it the way it is. But the other thing that bothered him is that we were praying for God’s kingdom to come in Richmond and he lived in Deltaville. He said it made him feel left out.

And that’s what got me.

I don’t think it bothers Jesus when we pray that God’s kingdom will come in Richmond as it is in heaven. Jesus loves Richmond. He wants the kingdom to come here. But Jesus also loves Deltaville. He wants the kingdom to come there, too. Maybe that’s why he taught his disciples to pray the way he did, because he didn’t want anybody on earth to feel left out of God’s love, God’s will, God’s kingdom.

That doesn’t mean we’re changing the name of our mission trip to KOH2THEWORLD. It helps to start where we are and work outward. I think that’s why Jesus told his disciples that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and all of Samaria, and to the ends of the world. He had the world in mind from the beginning, but in the beginning he told his disciples to start where they were.

I could say the same to my friend from Deltaville. I could ask him to pray—fervently—that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will would be done in Deltaville as it is in heaven. And not only to pray for it, but to work for it, to roll up his sleeves and make it so. If every Christian, everywhere, would do that, I believe God’s kingdom would come, and God’s will would be done…

On earth, as it is in heaven.

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Photo: sunset over Deltaville

KOH2RVA: Day 13

Yesterday was my day off, and so I didn’t do much to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. But God must have known that, and so, while I rested on the twelfth day he rolled up his sleeves and went to work, making one of the most beautiful days he has ever made–78 degrees and sunshine.

While my own efforts often seem small and ineffective, what God did yesterday touched every part of Metropolitan Richmond. It blessed both rich and poor, both young and old. Yesterday the most ragged and miserable citizen of our great city could tilt his face toward the sky and feel God’s love, could stick out his tongue and get a taste of heaven.

As I say sometimes about the Lord’s prayer, it ends the way it does in case we begin to have some success, in case heaven does come a little closer to earth and we imagine it’s because of something we have done. That’s when we need to remember: “Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.”

Amen.

200 New Churches in the Next Year?

Yesterday I stood in front of a television camera and recorded this announcement to go out with our Sunday broadcast from Richmond’s First Baptist Church:

Often when I’m out and about I bump into someone who says they watch our worship services on TV.  Sometimes they tell me that they go to the early service at their own church and then hurry home to watch, and although I’m honored, I secretly wonder if that’s not overdoing it a little (smile).  But sometimes they tell me First Baptist is their only church, and although they never actually come to our building, they watch every week.  If you are one of those people, then this message is for you.

I want to invite you to take part in something we’re calling “Microchurch,” a bold new initiative of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  Here’s how it works.  Before next Sunday, think of one or two friends who might be able to come watch the broadcast with you.  Invite them to bring food—something simple and easy—so that after the service is over you can sit down and eat Sunday lunch together.  After lunch take time to share your concerns with one another, and then ask someone to lift those concerns up to God in prayer.  Finally, take up an offering, and talk about how you might use it to put God’s love into action right where you are—in your subdivision, your retirement center, your apartment complex, or your neighborhood.  If you need suggestions, give us a call at 355-8637, ext. 203, and when you do maybe you can tell us how it went for you.  If it works, try it again the next week, and then the week after that.  Make it a regular habit.  Give it a name.  And remember, it doesn’t have to be big to be church.  Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am also” (Mt. 18:20).

Our hope is to start 200 new Microchurches in the next year, and I’d like to ask for your help.  I’m not asking for your money, just your participation.  I believe that when Jesus asked his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come, and that his will would be done, on earth as it is in heaven, he really meant it.  But it’s going to take all of us to bring heaven to earth, and not just the people who come to worship in our building.  I understand that some 20,000 people watch our services on Sunday morning.  If only one percent of those people would accept this challenge we would have those 200 Microchurches I’m talking about, and we might have them not by next year, but by next week.  As those churches start working with us to put God’s love into action I believe heaven will come a little closer to earth, and that those of you who join us in our mission will become part of the answer to the Lord’s prayer. 

How about it?  Think of one or two people you could invite to your home next Sunday, ask them to bring some food, something simple and easy, watch the service together and talk about it over lunch, share your concerns with one another and say a prayer, and then take up an offering and talk about how you might use it to put God’s love into action.  Again, if you need suggestions, call 355-8637, ext. 203, and when you do tell us how it went.  It may seem like a small thing to you—your Microchurch—but it could be the start of something big.  

Really big.

Now Available!

I’ve published a book on the issuu.com web site.  It’s called “When the Sand Castle Crumbles,” and it’s for pastors and members of churches that were thriving in the fifties but are now struggling to survive.  It’s free, it’s online, and you can read the whole thing in less than an hour. 

The book grew out of five sermons I delivered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church during the 2010 Lenten Luncheon series, as I shared my thoughts about why so many churches in America seem to be dying and what can be done about it.  My hope then (and now) is that these words would be an encouragement to those churches, and help them re-imagine their mission.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

When my daughter, Ellie, was a little girl we built a magnificent sand castle at the beach.  It had turrets and towers, and little flags sticking up on top.  We were standing there admiring it when the first wave lapped up against the foundation.  “Daddy!” she screamed.  “Do something!”  So I did.  I started digging a moat around the castle and Ellie helped me pile up a big floodwall in front.   But there was a whole ocean out there and the tide was coming in.  In the end we watched helplessly as the waves washed our sand castle away.

“Now what?” Ellie asked, glumly.

I looked out over the clear blue ocean, felt the warm water swirling around my ankles.   

“Let’s go swimming,” I said. 

That story is a metaphor of what’s happening to the church in America today.  The beautiful edifices we constructed during the “Christian Century” have been emptying out over the past few decades.  Those of us in leadership positions are doing everything we can to shore up the foundations, dig moats around the church, and build floodwalls to save it.  But maybe that’s not the answer.  Maybe at a time when the tides of change threaten to destroy the church it’s time to go swimming, time to dive into a culture that no longer loves the church and learn a few new strokes.

To read the book, just click the link below.  When you get to the web site, click on the “full screen” option at the top left for easy viewing, and then use those little arrows down at the bottom right corner of your keyboard to turn the pages. 

When the Sand Castle Crumbles by Jim Somerville

Feel free to forward the link to others, especially those who might need a little encouragement.  And, as always, thanks for reading!

Jim

“In Richmond, as it is in Heaven”

richmond-vaI’m on a staff mission trip this week, right here in the City of Richmond. 

We had first talked about going to New Orleans, to assist in the endless, ongoing recovery efforts following Hurricane Katrina, but then—because of the economy—we talked about going somewhere a little closer and more affordable, like West Virginia.  Finally we decided to stay right here in Richmond, believing there is plenty of mission work to be done in our own city. 

We were right about that.

This “mission trip” ties in perfectly with one of our regular rituals.  You may not know this, but at the close of each staff meeting we stand around the table, join hands, and say the Lord’s Prayer.  But when we get to that part that says, “on earth, as it is in heaven,” we say, “in Richmond, as it is in heaven.”  It’s what I’ve been saying to the staff from the beginning, that I believe Jesus was trying to establish God’s kingdom on earth and that he called some disciples to help him do that.  When they asked him to teach them to pray he said, “Pray that God’s kingdom would come, that God’s will would be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  And so I see it as our role—as a church and as a staff—to help Jesus bring heaven to earth.  That’s why we pray at the end of our staff meetings, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, in Richmond, as it is in heaven.”

This week we are putting hands to our prayers. 

Associate Pastor Steve Blanchard has organized the week so that we spend some time working at the church, some time working in the neighborhood, some time working in the poorer parts of the city, and some time working with refugees from the other side of the world.  It really is a “Jerusalem-Judea-Samaria-and-to-the-ends-of-the-earth” kind of experience.  So far it has involved a good bit of cleaning, painting, and heavy lifting, but it has also involved opportunities for the staff to work together in ways we rarely do. 

I’ve moved furniture with Ron Maxwell, one of our custodians; swept floors with Reinaldo Vega, who maintains our facilities; and run an errand with Vanessa Carter, one of our cooks.  The errand with Vanessa was especially enjoyable, not only because she is so much fun to be around, but because we were returning a piece of furniture that she and Doris (our other cook) had picked up by mistake.  They were cleaning out a storage unit, and got so carried away with the project they loaded a set of shelves from the unit next door.  It turns out those shelves belonged to a sculptor who was working in that unit, and who was none too happy when he found out someone had “stolen” his shelves.  So I offered to go along with Vanessa to take back the shelves and offer an apology. 

How often do I get to ride around Richmond in a pickup truck with Vanessa?  Not often.  She drove, and if you had seen the two of us you would have wondered what we were up to, with her driving and me talking (as usual) and gesturing with both hands as the shelves bounced around in the back of the truck.  We returned the shelves with apologies and had a chance to talk to the sculptor about his work—beautiful pieces made of plaster in various stages of completion, some of them drying on (you guessed it) shelves.  By the time we left he was laughing heartily and wishing us well and I got the feeling that even in that mission of apology, a little heaven had come to earth.

I’m glad we stayed in Richmond this week.  Even though we will miss out on some of the camaraderie that comes from riding hundreds of miles in a church van, eating bologna-and-cheese sandwiches, and sleeping on the floor in a church basement, we will focus our attention on the city God has given us as our year-round mission field, and by the end of the week we will have a better understanding of what it will take to be an answer to the Lord’s Prayer.

The Kingdom

raysThe choir of Richmond’s First Baptist Church knocked me out of my pew last night.  Their spring concert—“The Kingdom”—was an answer to the Lord’s Prayer, because last night God’s kingdom came, God’s will was done, on earth as it is in heaven (or maybe it just seemed that way to me, having been knocked out of my pew by the beauty and power of music).

I was asked to interpret the theme of the concert at two different points in the concert, and so I wrote something called “The Kingdom in Two Short Acts,” with Jesus as Act I and the Church as Act II.  Let me share Act I with you today and if there is any interest in Act II I’ll publish it at a later date. 

All my best to you,

Jim

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The Kingdom: Act I

The first words out of Jesus’ mouth in the first Gospel ever written are these: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news!” (Mark 1:15).  The good news was that God’s Kingdom had come near, and immediately people wanted to know more.  What is God’s Kingdom?  When is it coming?  Where is it now?  And for much of the remainder of Mark’s Gospel, and most of Matthew’s and Luke’s, Jesus tries to explain.

The Kingdom is like a sower who went out to sow some seed.  It’s like the shepherd who went out to look for his lost sheep.  It’s like the treasure you stumble upon in the field, or the precious pearl you find at the flea market.  It’s like the king who throws a party for outcasts, or the dad who kills the fatted calf for his no-good son.  It’s that place where Samaritans pay your hospital bills and sinners go home from the temple justified.  It’s where those who worked an hour get the same as those who worked all day and where the beggar at the rich man’s gate ends up in the bosom of Abraham.  It is, finally, that place where the last are first, the least are great, and the lost are found forever. 

So, everyone wanted to know: where is this kingdom?  And the answer was almost too simple: the kingdom is wherever God is king.  It could be a country, or a city, or a church like this one, or the house where you live.  The kingdom could be in your own heart if God could be king there.  And this seemed to be Jesus’ plan—that the kingdom would come one heart at a time, as one person after another stepped down from the throne and let God sit there instead.  When his disciples asked him to teach them to pray he said, “Pray for this: pray that God’s kingdom would come, that God’s will would be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Because wherever God’s will is done God’s kingdom has come on earth.

Frederick Buechner says that “Insofar as here and there, and now and then, God’s kingly will is being done in various odd ways among us even at this moment, the Kingdom has come already.  Insofar as all the odd ways we do God’s will at this moment are at best half-baked and halfhearted, the Kingdom is still a long way off—a hell of a long way off, to be more precise and theological. 

“As a poet, Jesus is maybe at his best in describing the feeling you get when you glimpse the thing itself—the kingship of the King official at last and all the world his coronation.  It’s like finding a million dollars in a field, he says, or a jewel worth a king’s ransom.  It’s like finding something you hated to lose and thought you would never find again—an old keepsake, a stray sheep, a missing child.  When the Kingdom really comes, it’s as if the thing you lost and thought you’d never find again is yourself” (from Wishful Thinking).