You tell ’em, Reggie!

I enjoy going to preaching conferences, but the kind of preaching conference I enjoy the most is the kind where someone tells me that the way I’m doing it already is the right way. 

I had that same pleasurable rush of confirmation at the annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia this week.  Reggie McNeal was the featured speaker, and as he talked about the missional church I heard him saying some of the same things I’ve been saying for the last several years, but in a way that was funny and disarming.  You’d be laughing out loud about something he said and then suddenly, umph, he’d slip the truth between your ribs like a knife blade.

Let me share with you some of those pointed truths:

  • Church is not “it” but “us.”
  • Our job is to bless the world, just as God told Abraham (“In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” Genesis 12:3).
  • We used to think it didn’t count unless we clubbed it, dragged it across the finish line, and threw it into a church pew.  We’ve got to relax about this thing—just bless people.
  • Leaders tend to look at what they’re working on. In John 4 Jesus was looking at the fields that were “white unto harvest.”  What about you?  Are you looking at the church or are you looking at the world?
  • Go to Wal-Mart and watch people for an hour.  Say, “Lord, help me see what you see.”
  • The church does not have a mission, the mission has a church.
  • We are all on a mission trip.
  • We are not members, we are missionaries.
  • If I can’t bring church to my neighbors, my neighbors are not going to get it.  Put your focus on people, not church.
  • Use your building to bless the community.
  • Get involved in your local schools.
  • As the bride of Christ, can we allow what captures his heart to capture ours?  Can we allow what breaks his heart to break ours?
  • The missional church follows the path of brokenness.  Whatever breaks your heart is how God wants to use you.

Click HERE for a video that will give you a good taste of what I heard at BGAV.  It’s funny, mind-boggling, and (umph!) true.

Now Available!

I’ve published a book on the 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!


“I Love the City”

FE_PR_richmond-vaI was invited to a retreat at Richmond Hill recently where area pastors were going to be talking about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.  Well, how could I resist?  That’s what I’ve been talking about since I got to Richmond!

So we gathered for worship in that beautiful old chapel, and then had a delicious meal in the refectory, and then moved on into a meeting room that looks out over the city, a place where people have been praying for Richmond since 1866 and still do.  Pastoral Director Ben Campbell got us started with prayer and then invited each of us to share our vision for ministry.

There were about twelve of us around the table, from Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Christian, and Pentecostal churches.  We took our time, talking about the work we do and the neighborhoods in which we do it.  But as we talked it became clear that our primary concern was for the churches we have been called to serve, about how to make them bigger, stronger, happier, healthier.  When we finally got back around to Ben he said, simply, “I love the city more than I love the churches.”

I suppose I should have expected that.  Ben is not the pastor of a local church; he’s the director of a spiritual community that has as its mission praying for the city of Richmond.  But something about the way he said it made me realize that we pastors have a tendency to focus on what is happening within the walls of the church rather than what is happening in the neighborhood, the city, the nation, or the world.  We could easily end up with glittering edifices perched on top of garbage dumps. 

But not Ben.

I pictured Ben driving around Richmond jotting down notes about the people and things his community needs to pray for:  sanitation workers, educational institutions, police officers, and prisoners.  He has lifted his sights above the concerns of a single church to take in the concerns of the whole city.

But here’s the thing: God’s sights are even higher.  Not only does he love and care for Richmond, he loves and cares for the world.  That’s his mission, and he’s looking for churches that will help him do that.  So, at Richmond’s First Baptist Church we’ve been asking not, “Does the church have a mission?” but “Does the mission have a church?”  In other words, does God’s mission have a church?  Will First Baptist, Richmond, help him love the world? 

Well, we want to, of course.  We want to do whatever God asks.  But it will require lifting our sights a little higher.  Instead of seeing only the beautiful buildings and grounds of First Baptist Church we will have to start seeing the whole city, even the parts that aren’t so beautiful.  And then we’ll have to lift our sights even higher, to see the world God loves and to think about how we might share his love with that world.  That’s not easy for us, or for anyone.  It goes against the grain of our human nature.  But it does seem to be essential to the divine nature, and part of what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples. 

In him the love of God dropped into the world like a stone into a pond, and began to ripple outward.  As we follow his example may that same love ripple outward from the church to the neighborhood to the city to the state to the nation and, finally, fully,

to the world God loves.

Get Off the Bus!

bwaOne of the ways I’m trying to help people understand this whole “missional church” concept is by talking about the mission trip our youth took to Slovakia last summer.

When we finally got off the plane in Poland, exhausted from an overnight flight, we got on two big, beautiful tour buses and made our way to Ruzomberok, Slovakia, some four hours away.  Most of us slept along the way, and when we got to our hotel in Ruzomberok we were able to stay awake just long enough to eat some dinner before trudging upstairs, brushing our teeth, and falling into bed.

We slept with the windows open, breathing fresh, mountain air, and most of us woke up feeling deliciously rested and wonderfully alive.  We had a big breakfast in the dining room where there was plenty of food and plenty of hot coffee.  By eight o’clock we were ready to go to the job site—an orphange in town that had acquired a house next door and needed someone to clean it out and fix it up.  We had our morning devotions, said a prayer, and then got onto the buses, rolled into town, and pulled up in front of the orphanage.  Every person on the bus had been assigned to a work crew, and each crew had a leader.  Within minutes of our arrival the demolition crew was demolishing an old barn, the painting crew was painting an old fence, the grounds crew was pulling weeds from an overgrown flower bed, and the fencing crew was sizing up the job of building a new fence.

We worked all morning, right up until lunch, and then we went back to work that afternoon.  For the better part of four days these youth and their adult chaperones worked as if their lives depended on getting that house into good shape for those orphans.

I couldn’t have been any prouder.

That experience serves as a useful metaphor for understanding the missional church, because instead of thinking of church as that place where we come to worship and study and enjoy Christian fellowship we begin to think of church as those people who roll up their sleeves and take part in God’s mission to the world.  There will be times when we simply need rest (as we did after our long journey).  There will be times when we need nourishment, both physical and spiritual (as we did the next morning).  There will be times when we need to organize ourselves around the tasks at hand (as we did before getting off the bus).  And there will be times when we need to put our hands to the work, and make a real difference in the world (as we did at that orphanage).

In and around all that activity are those rich opportunities for fellowship—for getting to know each other and coming to love each other.  On that trip we laughed, we cried, we sang, we danced, and by the end of the trip we had not only done good work and worshiped the living God, but forged unbreakable bonds with one another.

Now, that’s what the church ought to be, and it ought to be true that it doesn’t only happen on once-in-a-lifetime mission trips.  It ought to be part of our everyday experience as the church of Jesus Christ.  So, maybe we could begin to understand that we are on a mission trip, right now.  The bus that we have been riding has brought us to Richmond, Virginia.  And having rested, and eaten, and said our prayers, it’s time to get off the bus, and get to work.

Who’s with me?

Bonus Feature!  See video of the Slovakia mission trip by clicking HERE.