Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Boutique or Department Store?

We were wondering who we were as a congregation.  We had been a large church with a cadre of local and national leaders, people of wealth and power and prominence.  That had shaped our identity through the 1950’s.  We could no longer could claim many people who regularly got their names in the newspaper. 

We had been one of the first churches in the community to integrate in the early 1960’s.  Our church sign read:  “An Integrated Church for an Integrated Community;” at that time this was noteworthy.  In the early 1990’s this went without saying among most of the churches in the community.

We knew who we had been; we were not sure who were now.  We appointed a “Committee on Church Renewal.”  We could have named it “Committee on Sorting Out Who Are We.”  During one tedious session when our conversation seemed to be going in circles, a woman said:  “We are a boutique church.  We provide things you cannot get anywhere else.”  It was a revelatory moment. 

Throughout our more than 100 years of ministry, we had been a “department store” church; we had something for everyone.  We no longer had something for everyone who walked through the door, but we had some things it was hard to find other places.

We were an overwhelmingly African American congregation with a one hour worship service.  We had a warm heartfelt faith coupled with a good dose of personal piety but could tolerate, even celebrate, a diversity of convictions and beliefs.  We were a thinking yet feeling family.  Women were full partners in ministry, but we had great appreciation for women who felt more comfortable in traditional roles.  We had a wide range of fashion on Sunday mornings, from hats to slacks, from suits to t-shirts.  We supported the education of our young people with vigor, and we had special appreciation for and gave attention to parents raising their children in a one-parent household. 

This image of a boutique church helped us to focus on those people who would find what they were looking for among us, and it helped us to realize that there were folks who would find what they were looking for at another church.  Twenty-five years later, it is likely that different image would better fit the church today.  Identities change; they must remain fresh.

The Second Baptist Church of Germantown (Philadelphia) will celebrate its 150th anniversary in October; I will be there.  Many of the people will not recognize me, and I will not recognize them; this is a sign of health.  The church has changed in the last two decades.  God is always calling congregations to become someone they did not used to be.

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:19)
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State

Thursday, August 18, 2016

I Was There When You Were Born

The birth of our first son was not easy for me.  My wife was in labor in for 14 hours, and this was rather hard on me.  I was quite anxious for this child to be born, yet he was in no hurry.  At one point we called my parents from the hospital; and when I began to tell my dad where we were, I broke down crying.  My wife, lying in the bed between contractions, took the phone from me and assured my father that I was fine—just a little emotional.  Soon after that, the baby was delivered, and so was I in a way.  Within a minute of the birth, the doctor handed my new son to me, and I held this new life.  His newborn visage is forever imprinted on my memory.

The birth of my second son was much easier for me.  He was in a bigger hurry to enter the world, and I was better prepared for the whole drama.  I think I could have delivered him myself had that been necessary.  Again, immediately after his birth, I held him and looked into his red and wrinkly face.  That image is forever etched in my memory.

My sons are older now.  One recently graduated from college, and the other is well on his way.  They are both taller than I am, their voices deeper; they have become young adults.  Yet there is still this bond between us, this unbreakable connection that transcends all time and transition and distance.  I suspect it will always be there.  They will start careers, maybe marry and have children of their own, perhaps move half way around the world; but I suspect this bond will remain unbroken.

Why is that?  I think it is because I was there when they were born.  Within moments of the initial infilling of their lungs with oxygen, I held them and took them in.  They and I have passed through many other experiences together along the way, but none of those experiences have the power of that first encounter.  This makes my love for them truly unconditional.  My devotion to them will never come into play.

This helps me grasp a bit more securely God’s great love for us.  God was there when we were born.  At that moment God took us in.  The prophet Isaiah writes:
But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
    my Lord has forgotten me.”
   Can a woman forget her nursing child,
    or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.
   See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
    your walls are continually before me. (49:14-16)
There is a bond between God and each of us that transcends and endures all the circumstances of our lives, even our failures, our sins, and our mistakes.  God was there when we were born, and we are irreversibly, unconditionally God’s beloved children.  That will never change.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Children and Churches and Change

Parenthood is about letting go.  From the time a child learns to crawl, they are leaving their parents behind.  When they start walking, initially they walk toward you with open arms; soon they are walking away from you to some new experience.  I remember the first time I dropped Luke and then Ben off at school and they forget to give me a hug goodbye; their world was expanding.  Then there were their first overnight school trips in Belgium.  It seemed the next month they were driving away in a car as new drivers.  Leaving them at collage as freshmen was another letting go.  There is a sense of loss at each juncture but also a sense of satisfaction.  In letting them go, I was really letting them grow.  At each threshold they returned to me richer more fascinating people.

Our faith is grounded in the idea of letting go to make room for growth.  Warren Schutz observes (Temporary Shepherds-A Congregational Handbook for Ministry, p. 121) that the Christian faith is built upon the following pattern:
  • Change: The inevitable movement of life’s forces
  • Transition: The process by which we must deal with the inevitable changes of life
  • Transformation: The new shape that occurs after transition, toward which change is aimed.
Schultz writes that God sought to change the consequences of sin into forgiveness.  The process of transition was the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Transformation is what happens in our lives as a result of that process.  The Gospel is all about leaving things behind to embrace new and deeper things. It is a mystery of our faith that in losing we find.  “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will find it [Mark 8:35].”

Our congregations are sometimes resistant to change and leaving behind familiar things.  Yet the core story of our faith is about life, then death, then new life through resurrection.  The arc of this narrative is the foundation of our faith.

To deny change and reject transition is to close the door on transformation.  Followers of the living, dying, rising Christ—of all people—are well equipped to move through this cycle with hope and anticipation about the next new thing God will do.  We believe that God is in the change.
     See, I am doing a new thing!
        Now it springs up; do you
          not perceive it?
        I am making a way in the
          and steams in the
             wasteland. (Isaiah 43:19)
We are all about the new stuff God is doing.  Inevitably that means leaving some of the old stuff behind:  letting go to letting grow.

Jim Kelsey-Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Monday, August 1, 2016

On Car Trips and Churches

Cars are central to the American identity.  There are actually more cars per capita in Italy than there are in America.  But the car is not a core symbol of Italian identity like it is of American identity. The “family vacation” and the “road trip” have an iconic status in America.  Many of our movies and novels and TV shows are built upon the architecture of a car trip.  Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock spent 116 episodes in a corvette along Route 66, the road itself a symbol of Americana.

As Americans, we have the sense that we are always on the way to somewhere else, even if we are remaining in the same location.  This ties into the mythical—as in organizing and meaning- giving—role that progress plays in the American mentality.

The book of Hebrews paints the life of faith as a journey (chapter 11).  The writer describes a trip that never reaches its destination in this life. People of faith are forever “longing for a better country.”  They are “aliens and strangers on earth.”  As a nation of immigrants who left other places to find a better life, this resonates with us.

George Bullard, in his book Pursuing the Full Kingdom Potential of Your Congregation, compares church life to a car trip (pp. 77 ff.)  Bullard lists vision, relationships, progress, and management as the four organizing principles of church life; these four principles form the DNA of a congregation.  Bullard then defines the role that each of these four principles plays in the car trip of a church.

Vision drives the car.  It fuels the forward progress. 

Relationships navigate along the journey from the passenger side of the front seat.  They flavor the quality of the journey.  It is important to understand how Bullard defines relationships.  He does not mean how well we get along with each other or how much we like each other.  He means the relational processes by which persons are brought to faith in Jesus Christ; become connected to the local church; are assimilated into the life of that church; and have opportunities to grow, serve, and utilize their gifts.

Programs sit behind Relationships in a supporting role.  They provide the opportunities and activities through which the best possible relationship can be foster with God, one another, and the community in which the church is located.

Management sits behind Vision.   It provides Vision with the infrastructure it needs to guide the car along its journey.

What happens when Vison falls asleep at the wheel or gets left behind at the gas station?  Management takes the wheel.  Bullard observes that this is what happened when Moses (the visionary) was up on the mountain too long.  Aaron (the manager) took over and a golden calf was constructed.  (In case you are not familiar with the story, this chapter of the saga does not end well.)

When management (such as finance, building repairs, reporting, control, and hierarchies) take precedent over vision (such as asking why we are here or what does God have for us to do or who is our neighbor or how can we join in with what God is doing), then we end up with golden calves.

George Bullard will be with our Region on Friday, November 4, for our pre-biennial day of training.  He will help us learn how to keep Vision in the driver’s seat.  If Vision has fallen asleep or got left at the gas station and Management is at the wheel, Bullard will helps us get Vision back in the driver’s seat.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State