Sunday, August 1, 2010

August 2010--Pastor Erik

What’s Next For Bethlehem?

All summer our congregation has been participating in a “Season of Listening” in which we have gathered together, shared a meal, and told stories about what’s important in our lives.  If you’ve attended one or more of these events you know that they have been lots of fun, and we’ve gotten to know one another in new (and deeper) ways.  It’s been amazing to hear the life stories of the other people in our congregation and see just how much we have in common as well as what we can learn from one another.  Several people have remarked that they had no idea about the stories of people they had shared a pew with for years and it’s been a great way for all of us to get to know our newer members.  One of our table leaders asked “Why don’t we have these sorts of conversations every week?!”  I certainly hope we can.

Relationship building and story telling are really some of the key elements of this process, and a huge part of the reason we are doing this.  But there is another reason that will come to the forefront in our August gatherings.  As we come into late summer, we’ve got some really important work to do as a community.  For the past four years, our leadership has been struggling to describe our congregations “purpose” and to form a concise statement of the particular role we play in God’s mission in our neighborhood and in the world.  In studies of vibrant congregations, again and again “clarity of mission purpose” is a key factor in the strength and sustainability of the congregation and in ownership and participation by the members. If we are clear what it is we are up to, its easy for each and every one of us to find the particular part God is calling us to play in our common mission.

In previous years, something like “to be a place for Lutheran Christians to gather to hear the Word and receive the Sacraments” may have been enough of a purpose statement (and those things will certainly be part of our purpose).  But the struggles Bethlehem has experienced in the last 20 years (both financial and participation struggles) and especially the last 5 years have shown that on its own a purpose such as this one isn’t able to inspire and motivate the members of our community to the point where we are sustainable, let alone to draw in new people to join us in this purpose.  We are not alone in this.  We’ve heard stories over the summer about other congregations you’ve been a part of that have struggled similarly--and other organizations (from the Grange to PTA to Elks and Eagles) that used to “just work” without that much effort, who have faced similar declines (and closures) in recent years.  

It  is out of the relationships we have built and the stories we have shared this summer that we will do the shared work of figuring out what our purpose is.  The purpose-related questions before us are along these lines: “What is it that we value together?”  “What sort of purpose for our congregation would we be excited to be a part of?” “What gifts has God given this collection of people, and how are we called to use them in mission?”  We can all come up with ideas to “attract” new people, but the reality is if we don’t know why we are excited to be a part of this community of faith, why do we think other people would want to be a part it?  But a clear purpose (in the form of a purpose statement we all know by heart) that motives us to act together is contagious.  People will see how excited we are to be living out God’s call in this community that they will want to join us in our common work.  And everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, has gifts that God needs.  As I say again and again, God has given us everything we need to do what God is calling us to do.  When we figure out just what that is, I expect the results to be extraordinary.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

July 2010--Pastor Erik

A Season of Listening

This week we completed our first of four “Season of Listening” gatherings.  There were 40 people in attendance, plus a gaggle of kids.  We shared a meal together, and gathered in groups of 6 at small tables.  Joel Williamson, one of our soon-to-be newest members guided us through a process of story telling and story listening.  This first session focused on “stories of self”and gave us a chance to get to know one another on a level deeper than we usually tend to. We shared stories about what things in our lives gave us meaning, times when we felt like we were part of something significant, and how churches and other organizations centered on community gathering have impacted our lives (and the lives of our parents and grandparents).   And the stories flowed—powerful stories about what is most important to us and why.   And it wasn't long before the stories started to connect to one another and we saw how our lives intersect with one another in ways we never imagined. We also began to realize the broad experiences that people in our group share—differences that allow us to learn from one other.  And by the end, the general consensus was “Boy, was that fun!”

You may be wondering just what all this has to do with church, especially the conflicts we've been having lately over pews or the hard conversations we've been having about our financial situation and whether or not we'll be able to continue as a congregation.  I know some people attended expecting to dive deep into these issues (or others) and this event wasn't quite what they thought it would be.  And we will get into these issues, but first it's important for us to reconnect deeply as a community—to learn one another's stories and to appreciate one another.  The season of listening is not just listening to opinions and complaints, but listening deeply to one another's lives and drawing strength from one another.  Only then will we have the ability to face those things that seem to threaten to divide us.  Because in the end, the church is not the structure, the building (or furniture), or even the worship—but it is a community of people, who share and care for one another, who know and participate in one another's stories, and who make new stories together.  Through this Season of Listening we're seeking to reconnect, to get to know who we are as a community, and only through this will we be able to make the right sorts of decisions about where we are going, how we will worship together, and what sort of purpose God has in mind for us.

If you missed the first gathering, don't worry, there are three more: July 14, July 28, and August 11.  All these events go from 6-7:30pm and include dinner and childcare.  There is a shape to the four weeks and they build off of one another, so everyone is encouraged to attend all four sessions, but if you can only make it to some, please come. We'll be shifting into “stories of us” (who we are as a congregation and what our shared values are) and then into “stories of now” (who God is calling us to be).  Then in late August or early September we'll have a big celebration to reflect together on what we've heard from this Season of Listening and what we want to do about it.  

If you are interested in helping to plan and lead these events, a group is meeting on Sunday after each Wednesday event to reflect on what we heard and to help shape the future events.  Talk to Pastor Erik, Dennis, or Leona if you'd like to participate in this (or just show up).

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Pastor Erik--June 2010

Worship Space Transformation 2010: What we’ve learned so far

The seasons of Lent and Easter have drawn to a close, and we find ourselves once again in the long “Season after Pentecost” also known as “Ordinary Time.”  This spring has brought many changes to the physical layout of our worship space as we embodied the “wandering in the wilderness” with dramatic art, interactive worship, and changes to our seating. It’s been a time of experimentation and conversation, of challenge and pain, of joy and new beginnings.  Our worship team has never worked harder or taken its task to proclaim the Gospel more seriously.  And it’s been awfully fun.  Along the way we’ve learned some things that I thought I’d share:

1.      The consistent “sameness” and “reverence” of our sanctuary is an extremely important and emotional issue for many in our congregation.  For some, to have any seating other than pews is “not Lutheran.”  For others, the use of a table instead of the large altar means we’ve “removed the presence of God from the sanctuary.”  Some remember friends and family members making the pews by hand, and see the use of chairs not only as a loss of these beloved items, but of a “going backwards” since getting pews was a big milestone for our community.  Several people have made threats to leave or withhold giving if things aren’t put back exactly the way they were, and a few have already chosen to leave our community because we’d do such a thing even temporarily. 
2.      The “stuff” of our worship life is clearly very important, and to loose or change even seemingly minor things such as furniture arrangement can be cause for pain and grieving. As we’ve listened to the stories of those most upset, we’ve seen that these changes have uncovered some fear that our whole existence as a congregation might be slipping away. And this is not unfounded (see the financial info later in this newsletter).
3.      At the same time, many in our congregation are experiencing a whole new dimension to worship and life in Christian community.  We’ve heard comments like “I’ve never been to such a powerful worship experience” and “the art and interaction brought a whole new meaning to the Bible story that I’d never thought of before.”  A first time visitor remarked “I sat down in the chairs, looked around, and thought ‘They’ve arranged it like this for a reason, and I can’t wait to figure out what it all means.’”  Worship planning participation is at an all time high—and nearly everyone in the congregation has had a hand in some element of creating worship through participating in the art, to interactive stations in worship, to being part of the conversation during the sermon time.   The team that led our ministry review in March (which included pastors from our area, our synod, and the ELCA Churchwide organization) called the worship they attended “creative, exciting and powerful. It included ways of speaking that would appeal to new people. The music was appealing, and the artistic talents were evident and beautiful.”
4.      Some in our community are still struggling with the shared leadership and participatory decision making model we have adopted.  Some expect the pastor or worship team leader to “make decisions” about how things ought to be (which everyone else is to follow) and others believe every decision should be taken to vote before the whole congregation.  The “get involved” model and consensus based decisions are tough for some, and take more effort than some are interested in giving for the long haul.  Some in our community struggle to feel heard when the worship team makes decisions that go against what they think ought to be done.  But we’ve done our best to listen, to honor objections and dissenting opinions, and to take all comments seriously. We’ve sought to compromise and adjust where we can, without undermining the process of prayer, Bible study, and discernment that goes into making worship decisions.  Everyone is welcome and encouraged to be part of the worship planning process and team. The team, not simply the leaders, are the ones who are making these decisions so if you’d like some influence, roll up your sleeves, show up to a meeting, and we’d love to have you help out.
5.      Like any experiment, some things didn’t go as planned or weren’t as great as we thought they might be.  The table in the center was a great focus (if you didn’t look at its spindly legs), but I ended up doing a little twirling dance during communion so my back wouldn’t be to some people the whole time.  It was hard to figure out where to walk for communion—and we kept changing the traffic flow (and it didn’t help much!) The art that was so fun to add and build up during Lent, became kind of a cluttered jumble by the end of Easter.  Too much stuff!  The spring colors representing new life that graced our ceiling kind of gave off a more “circus tent” feeling than we’d imagined.  And sitting in the circle, while designed to make us feel like one community together, actually felt segmented and like we were in separate quadrants.  Six weeks of really deep reflective conversation in small groups during the sermon was probably too much—especially since for some in our community ANY reflective conversation in small groups is too much.  And we also learned that while chairs may help things be more flexible, pews are actually a better sort of seating for many in our congregation (young and old—especially if you are short or have back problems).
6.      We are beginning to find the balance of traditional and creative that works for our community.  It’s also a balance of comforting and challenging, and of individual and community experience.  Some in our community see worship and Christian life as purely about maintaining tradition or bringing comfort or being “for me”—so introducing creativity, challenge, and “for us/for others” is a bit of a stretch.  Some are not interested in being stretched in this way, and have chosen to find other communities in which to worship.  The question of how we proclaim the “old, old story” in ways that people (in 5 generations) can connect to isn’t an easy one, and it takes some experimenting to get it right.  But we’re on our way.

Here's what to expect this summer (starting May 30th):

·        We'll be using our “Shorts” liturgy (short service, wear shorts) but upstairs this year.  We think we've got enough AC to keep us comfortable upstairs.
·        We will be facing parking lot side of our sanctuary as a way of expressing God's call to turn from ourselves and towards God's world.  We'll be praying for our neighbors.
·        The center row of seating will be pews, with chairs on the sides, all facing the same direction (towards the pulpit and communion table)
·        Communion will be at the rail (kneeling if you desire) and the art area will have a calming (and uncluttered) Baptismal theme.  The Baptismal font will be part of this, and the Harold Balazs cross will hang in its usual place. 
·        There will be a kids table off to the side so most of our kids can stay with us through the service (but we’ll still have a nursery attendant for the wiggly ones). 
·        We are not planning any extra interactive or conversation-based elements (though don't forget the whole liturgy is meant to be interactive!). 

Join us this Summer for a “Season of Listening”

The Bethlehem Lutheran Transformation Team will be hosting a series of conversations about where we feel like God is calling our community. We will do this in two ways: with groups in members homes and one on one with individuals.  We’re calling this a “Season of Listening” because we want to deeply listen to one another so we can hear the stories and values of everyone in our community. Through this process we’ll look for ways to connect those values in our life together, and encourage one another to truly live out what we value in the world.  All so that we can better hear God’s call for our life and ministry together.

There will be four gatherings in homes throughout the summer, two in June and two in July. There will be several homes throughout town meeting on the same night and all the groups that night will be talking about the same topics—but each week’s gathering will be different.  You will receive an invitation to the first gathering (which will be near where you live) and we hope that everyone will attend all of them, but at least one per month.  In August we will have an event that brings together all that we have heard—and hopefully by then we will have a clearer sense of who we are, what we have, and what significant things God is calling us to do. 

Mark your calendars for: 7:00-8:30pm on June 16th & 30th, and July 14th &28th. More info will be coming soon.

Talk to Pastor Erik or any member of the Transformation Team if you have any questions.

Some Financial Stewardship Information to Ponder and Pray About

Comparing BLC Jan-March 2009 to Jan-March 2010
32 families decreased giving (22 families by more than 50%)
15 families increased giving      
6 families gave in Jan/Feb but gave $0 in March/April

2009: 56 giving families = $37,087
2010: 50 giving families = $30,588  (lost 12 added 6)

That is a difference of $6,529 or $1,632 per month.

That puts on track to have spent $13,225 of our endowment reserves (which are currently around $50,000) by end of the year. This is very close to what we predicted in the budget we passed in January. If we weren't sharing our building we would be on track to spend $33,025 of those funds.

We’ll have some decisions to make this summer about what God is calling us to do with these gifts—so keep your eyes open for discussion meetings.  God shows the way!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Pastor Erik--May 2010

“When are we going to put the pews back in rows and get back to the way things have always been?”  This is a question I've heard from a few folks our congregation with increasing frequency in the past several weeks.  And the answer is more complicated than it might seem.  First, the organization of seating in worship is the responsibility of the Worship Team and so any decisions about pews and chairs happens in that team (you are welcome to join us). The second answer to that question is that we're probably not going to ever “Get back to the way things have always been” even if the Worship Team were to decide put the pews back in rows tomorrow. And here's why.

Just about a year ago, the Bethlehem Church Council took a hard look at our financial situation.  Even though we'd had 49 new members in the previous two years and all manner of life and ministry of our congregation was on the upswing, our financial picture was not “A-OK” like we figured (or hoped) it would be. New members just did not equal financial security.  So last spring we held a series of conversations with the whole congregation about what we might do about that.  The reality was that since our grants from the ELCA were going down (as planned over 3 years) and our giving had not risen at the same rate, that our ministry as we had structured it was becoming unsustainable.  In fact, if we didn't see some changes by Christmas of 2009, we were going to be in some real trouble. 

And so we had conversation together about options, in terms of what God is calling us to do next—Do we keep on as we are, hoping something will happen?  Do we find a way to cut back what we are doing so it doesn't take as many financial resources? Or do we all roll up our sleeves, get more involved (both in finances and hands-on participation), and open ourselves up to whatever God has in mind for us? Nobody said we should just keep on as we are, two or three people voted for the “cut back” option, but the rest of us (many enthusiastically) thought that God was calling us to roll up our sleeves and get Bethlehem to the next level so that our ministry could be sustainable.  Almost immediately, God placed an amazing opportunity in front of us to share space and partner with Bethany Presbyterian and Emmanuel Metropolitan Community Churches, and our council whole-heartedly embraced this opportunity.  This was a much needed boost to our budget, even if it was not really enough to make us sustainable (and is only guaranteed for two years).  

Despite the strong and hopeful affirmation of God's call for new directions for our congregation and this exciting new partnership, in the weeks and months that followed it seemed as though many people in our congregation were actually living the first option (that nobody voted for)—let's just keep on as we have been and hope that something happens to keep us going.  Giving and attendance dropped, we were having trouble filling volunteer slots that a few months before were full (ushering, reading, bringing cookies, etc), and many of our newer members drifted away (and a few were pushed away).  And many seemed to sense a grumbling dissatisfaction lurking just below the surface.  Our leadership struggled, and then grew frustrated with where we seemed to be—its as if people said “Lets go for it!” but really meant “You go ahead and go for it!” without wanting to get more involved.  As we moved into fall, that Christmas 2009 “end point” seemed increasingly likely, and in fact without the income from Bethany and Emmanuel we wouldn't have had the financial resources to go on past then. 

So our council leadership had some difficult discussions over the fall about whether Bethlehem was financially sustainable at all. We shared these concerns through our stewardship season, basing our budget on actual pledges and estimates from the congregation rather than on “what we need will come in somehow” as we have for many, many years.  And in December we had some conversations with the whole congregation when the 2010 budget income numbers weren't matching the outgo numbers. And despite much conversation, our community wasn't able to come up with a solution. So then we began to ask:  What is going to change in the next year or two (when we might loose our space sharing income) that will make us more sustainable? 

Keeping on as we have been puts us on the clearest path—continuing the 20 year financial decline that we're currently in past the point where we can't afford a full time pastor and a building. We're on the verge of that right now, and have been for at least 5 years. As our three year grant ends, what will we do to make it through?  It was clear to the council leadership that Bethlehem of January 2011 was going to look very different than Bethlehem of 2010—either because we've radically transformed, or because we've closed.  The options we presented to the congregation at the annual meeting were: Do we spend the next 12 months of our life together closing down and giving thanks for over 50 years of ministry at Bethlehem? Or do we spend the year laying it all on the line and embracing some really radical change to see where God might take us? 

At the annual meeting we unanimously passed resolutions about how we would go forward in which we committed  “to become the 'leading edge' of what the ELCA church of 2046 might be” and “to experiment with what that future might be as part of our continuing ministry together, thus becoming an exciting example right here in the heart of our own Synod.”  We also passed by a 2/3 majority authority to use our $50,000 long term reserves (aka “endowment”) over the next year to make that happen.  It was clear that the will of Bethlehem was not to close down in 2010, but to “go for broke” and see what God has in mind for us. 

“So”, you might ask, “what does all of this have to do with pews?”  Part of what I (and others) believe the Lutheran church of the future will look like is one that takes tradition seriously, but also is willing to engage that tradition creatively for the proclaiming of the Gospel.  I also believe that churches are not called to preserve the past, but to engage in the gifts that are currently present--and to use the gifts of everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, to make that a reality.  As Kelly Fryer summarizes is “Be who you are, see what you have, do what matters.”  As we've taken stock of who we are (a community leaning into the future) we recognized that one of the things we have is a higher than average collection of artists—painters, graphic designers, musicians, singers, visual artists, and all manner of people with gifts for creative worship.  And we think that we're called to use those gifts for something that matters.

And over the past 5 years we've been trying to use these gifts without pushing too far past the sort of Lutheran worship that was common in the middle part of the 20th century.  But in doing so we haven't allowed our creative folk to use their full potential.  When the Worship Team gathered with the freedom the congregation called us to in our commitment to “experiment with what the future might be” and what it might be to be the “leading edge,” we started talking about what traditional intergenerational Lutheran worship might look like in the future.  Two people on our team had been to conference in which they explored the power of not just the words and music, but also the arrangement of the worship space, in speaking the “message.” (and I learned about this in seminary as well).  Flexibility and congregational participation were key themes.  And so we started thinking about moving some of the pews sideways for Lent and coming up with some creative interactive bits, and perhaps moving the pews into a circle for Easter when we would focus on interacting together in community. When we started experimenting with the pews, we found them to be too tippy when not attached to the floor and so we decided to use chairs for this experiment. 

This is not as radical as it may sound or feel to us for whom it is unfamiliar. In 1979 the manual that went with the Lutheran Book of Worship (green hymnal) said this:  “Worship space ought to be as flexible as one can make it.  Pews are often a hindrance to the movement of a people, and they lock a congregation into a fixed pattern of seating and action.  Newer churches often use wooden chairs instead, which can be moved into various arrangements as the several services of a congregation may direct.” (Manual on the Liturgy, pg 149).  In fact, it says of the LBW hymnal itself: “That book is a step in the unending process of liturgical revision and reform as the church seeks continually to shape its worship in responsible historic and relevant ways, reflecting the best of contemporary scholarship about where the church has been, where it is now, and where it is to go in years to come.” (pg 6) Traditional Lutheran worship is not just one set thing, its always evolving and adapting to new times and places while keeping connected to where it has been. And as we move into the future we'll have to be even more intentional about doing this.

Here we are 30 years later still trying to live into the recommendations of the worship experts of the last generation.  If we are going to be serious about being the “leading edge” of the Lutheran church we've got to be willing to experiment (and learn from our mistakes) if we are going to figure out what that looks like.  “Getting back to the way things were” is just not in the future we discerned together that God has for us. 

Does this mean we will never have pews again?  No, not at all. During this experiment we realized that pews have some real benefits to chairs especially for those with back or neck problems, people who are shorter that 5 feet tall, those who need something solid to grip while standing, and anyone using crayons during worship (they fall through the cracks in the chairs).  It turns out pews are ideal seating for the very young and our very old (and anyone who likes to cuddle during worship).  But we wouldn't have learned that if we hadn't tried this out and heard from the people who had feedback about what they like and don't like about what we are doing.  So our Worship Team conversation for what to do next will certainly include “How could we continue to have flexible seating, but incorporate pews for those who prefer or need them?”  There are more creative answers out there than “put everything back” and we'll keep experimenting until we find one that works for our community.  And, if we together discern through this process of prayer, Bible study, and reflection (and in light of our guiding principles and shared commitments) that the best way to proclaim the Gospel in this time and place is to put things back, and that God is calling us to do that, then we certainly will. 

The questions at the first worship team meeting in April about worship this summer (which had 14 people in attendance—a new Bethlehem record!) were: “Is there a way to use more pews and still be flexible? Is there a way to find a middle ground and compromise?  Can we find a solution that works for all 5 generations that are part of this congregation and doesn’t simply yield to the needs or preferences of one or the other?” I think the answer to these questions are “Yes, with the help of God” and as we continue to engage with one another, through ordinary people like us, God will show us the way to where he is calling us to go.

If you would like to be a part of these sorts of decisions, I encourage you to get active in our Worship Team. We spend time in prayer, read the Bible lessons for the upcoming Sundays, and seek together for the message God is calling us to proclaim. Then we figure out how to use the gifts we have to make that message live during worship so that our community together can experience it.  It’s an awful lot of fun, and we can use as many people as we can get in this process.  I also believe that the Lutheran church of the future will be a lot more participatory—no longer will pastor's and professionals call all the shots and the lay people like worker bees will simply follow orders.  No, we Lutherans believe that all Christians are called and given gifts for ministry, and we live out those callings in community. So if you have opinions on the pews or on anything else that is going on in our congregation, get involved, pitch in, and be part of the conversation.  We need everyone’s voice, and God needs everyone’s hands. 

Pastor Erik

Monday, March 1, 2010

Pastor Erik--March 2010

A friend of mine recently recommended a book to me called “Community: The Structure of Belonging” and shared this quote as a summary of what the book was about:

“The future is created one room at a time, one gathering at a time. And we start with the room we are in.”

She shared this with me the same week we rearranged our “room” (the sanctuary) for the season of Lent and before our first gathering in that room.  It struck me as I thought about the path that we recently embraced at our annual meeting where we committed to becoming the “leading edge of the Lutheran church” as it might be in the year 2046 (the date some have predicted as the end of the ELCA if current trends continue).  What if what we are up to at Bethlehem is not just the rearranging of furniture? What if we are really creating the future of the Lutheran church—starting in our little room?  Could God, through us, be bringing about something bigger than us? 

There is a concept in theology called “prolepsis” that helps me think about how all this might work. It was developed largely by a theologian named Wolfhart Panneberg, whose writing I find nearly impossible to decipher, but was made clear by my teacher Ted Peters in his book “God: The World’s Future.”  The basic argument goes something like this: most of us think of time in a “one way street” sort of way. God created the world (in the past) and it is a straight line from there—which eventually will end in one way or another.  People argue about whether and how God might intervene in time, or what the end might look like, but the basic idea is that God created something that keeps on going.  In this way of looking at the world, Jesus came to get us back on track when we’d gotten off of the generally right direction we had been on. In this sort of view of the world you build something (say, the church) and then try to keep it going as long as possible.  If you build something right, and maintain it properly, it ought to keep on going forever.

Prolepsis looks at time a bit differently.  In this way of looking at things, the first thing that God did was to create the future—the end or “fullness” of time.  Rather than pushing us from the past, God is calling us from the future and pulling us towards his dream for us and the world. It’s not that the world is getting worse and worse until God finally pulls the plug (which is how many Christians see history) but rather, God is guiding us into the future he has in mind for us. In this way of looking at the world, Jesus is not a corrective in the flow of time to get us back on track, but really is a bit of the future fullness right in our midst (a foretaste of the feast to come).  Jesus came to show us what God’s future looks like so that we could quit resisting it and allow ourselves to be drawn ever more closely to it.  The church, in this way of understanding time, is meant to catch on to God’s future and begin to live it here and now—as we help each other live more fully into God’s reality. 

I spend a great deal of time in prayer and thought about what the Lutheran church of 2046 might look like. I know that many of you plan to be frolicking with the angels by then, but I’ll turn 68 that year and I wonder about the church that will (or will not) be around for my children’s children.  We live in a time where it looks like many Christian communities (including this one) could well die off once the 65+ age group is no more. Nearly 47% of Bethlehem’s membership falls into that category, and many of us are actually in the 75+ age bracket.  And we are not alone. Churches—Lutheran and otherwise—across Spokane and across the country are dealing with similar demographics and have not found ways to really connect to the folks who are under 40. Ten years ago we were wondering how to connect to folks under 30, twenty years ago under 20.  That means in ten years we’ll be wondering how to reach people under 50, and in twenty years under 60.  If we keep on doing what we’ve been doing, it looks as though there won’t be a church for my grandchildren. In a linear way of looking at the world we’ve failed to keep the church going—do we want to be remembered as the generation that let the Christian faith die with us?

But I find great hope in a proleptic way of looking at the future.  Perhaps the reason things haven’t been working out so well for us is that God is calling us to a whole new future as the church.  Perhaps God has a dream for this congregation, for Lutherans, for the Christian faith that we haven’t even imagined.  What if God was calling us to live out that future now—by allowing ourselves to be caught up in God’s dream for us and the world? And what if we could get a sense of what that future might look like and begin to live it out now?  What would that mean for the way we worship? For the way we teach our children? For the way we live out the Gospel in the world?  What sort of room might we be called to build in God’s future?  What sort of gathering?  What part do you play in God’s future-centered dream for our church? For the world?  Could God, through us, be creating the future? What are you waiting for? Let’s live it out together now.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Pastor Erik-- February 2010

At the annual meeting a few weeks ago, we heard a statistic about declining demographics in the ELCA nationally that identified the date 2046 as the day the ELCA “turns out the lights” unless major change and renewal take place. During that same meeting we adopted a resolution “that we at Bethlehem Lutheran Church commit to become the “leading edge” of what the ELCA church of 2046 might be should it survive, and we will experiment with what that future might be as part of our continuing ministry together, thus becoming an exciting example right here in the heart of our own Synod.

One of the questions our worship team has been has been asking for quite a while is “What will Lutheran liturgical worship look like a generation from now?” Lutheran scholars and teachers of worship and liturgy teach that worship is more than simply repeating a particular ancient pattern, but all that we do and say (in worship particularly) is meant to proclaim Christ. Worship is meant not only for us to passively receive Good News for ourselves, but to engage a community of faith in our calling to proclaiming Christ in word and deed in the world. Our worship team believes that Lutheran liturgy in the future will emphasize creativity, flexibility, and interactivity—while staying connected to the liturgical patterns that have helped the people of God encounter Christ in worship for nearly 2000 years. As part of this new commitment to becoming the “leading edge” of the Lutheran church, we will be beginning to experiment with some new ways of proclaiming Christ in worship.

During the season of Lent (which begins with Ash Wednesday on Feburary 17) we will be on a wilderness journey in our worship gatherings. Like God’s people who left behind the difficult (yet reassuringly stable) life slavery in Egypt, we will be leaving behind some things as well. Our comfortable way of encountering God on Sunday mornings will be disrupted a bit symbolized by the moving of furniture—the altar, the pulpit, the font, the pews—but we will center ourselves around the presence of God at the heart of our lives even as we journey into the unknown. In their wilderness wanderings, God’s people were reminded that God journeys with them, and in the wilderness God brings us together to support one another. During Lent we will encounter God in different ways, through movement, through conversation, through the worship space itself. And yet, at the core will be the ancient pattern of the liturgy, and some “touchstones” that remind us that we are not cut off from God’s action with us and with God’s people in the past. Here’s some of what you can expect:

Our worship gatherings in Lent will continue to follow the basic four part pattern of ancient liturgy: Gathering, Word, Meal, Sending. Within each section will be something to ground us, to keep us centered, to bear the wisdom of tradition into our lives today. In the Gathering we will gather as Christians have for nearly 2000 years “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” and we will sing a hymn from our list of “Old Favorites” to remind us that we carry with us the faith that has brought us this far on our journey. During the Word we will hear the ancient texts of the Scripture proclaimed and we will confess our faith as Christians have for nearly 2000 years with the Apostles Creed. During the Meal as Christians have done for nearly 2000 years we will proclaim Christ in, with, and under the bread and the wine with the words of institution Jesus spoke at the last supper (“In the night in which he was betrayed…”) and will pray together the prayer he taught his disciples, which we call the Lord’s Prayer. And during the sending we will receive the blessing that God’s people have received since the wanderings in the dessert (“The Lord bless you and keep you…”) and will be sent forth as Christians have for nearly 2000 years, to embody the Good News of Jesus in the world.

In and among this framework we will be experimenting with some different and creative ways to embody and proclaim the message God has for us through these 5 weeks. The first several sections of pews will be removed and the altar table brought into the middle of the sanctuary as a symbol of the disruption and discomfort that comes as we may a new journey into the unknown of the wilderness. And yet, on this table now at the center of our gathering, the Bible, the baptismal font, and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper will remind us of God’s presence in the midst of our wanderings. Around the altar table we will gather in chairs facing one another, to remind us that we are not on this journey alone. During the Gathering section we will speak together about the journey we are on through a responsive litany. During the Word we will encounter God through our neighbor as we interact in various ways with one another. During the Meal we will participate in the proclamation in various ways with symbolic actions and movements. During the Sending we will be sent forth in a number of creative ways with the charge to not let the encounter with God end as we leave our gathering place, but to carry it with us into the rest of the world and into the rest of our lives.

This season of Lent will be a time of stretching as we lean into the future God has in store for us. It will challenge us, disrupt us, and perhaps disturb us. But we will again and again be reminded that God has promised to journey with us even into the most frightening of wilderness experiences. Like the ancient people wandering in the desert dreaming of the Promised Land, we will continue to confess “God shows the way!”

Because we know this journey will be a challenging one for many of us, we will be also starting a monthly afternoon service called “Rock of Ages,” that will follow the form of Lutheran liturgy this community has been more used to. We will sing only our “Old Favorite” hymns, won’t be using the more creative and interactive elements, and will commune with wafers and individual cups. The first of these services will be February 28th at 1pm.

Friday, January 1, 2010

2009 Annual Pastors report

2009 has been a momentous year for the Community of Bethlehem Lutheran Church. We are in the third year of a process of Transformation supported by our Synod and the Evangelical Outreach and Congregational Mission branch of the ELCA. Our year began with some dramatic property changes: the removing of the two large trees that stood in front of our building, which we both mourned and celebrated. This was part of living into the purpose statement we developed for our property: “To make clear that everyone is welcome and help everyone encounter God in this place.” With renewed openness and vision, we saw our property continue to transform over the year: a new sign, plans for landscaping redesign, our beautiful statue of Jesus teaching children done by Spokane Artist Ken Spiering, and a whole host of changes to the inside of our building. Whatever our neighbors may know or not know about us, it’s clear that things are changing at Bethlehem Lutheran.

In the spring we started to face the reality of our budget challenges. Though in the previous two years we’d received 49 new members and with it a ton of new energy for mission and ministry, our financial situation had not been keeping pace with that growth. Our leadership realized that our path was not sustainable, and that something major needed to change by Christmas of this year if we were going to “keep on keeping on” with the way we have been doing ministry. What that might be, none of us were sure, but in our conversations as a congregation we claimed our guiding principle “God shows the Way” and said we were ready for whatever God had in store for us.

And God did show the way, that very same week, when we were approached by Bethany Presbyterian about the possibility of sharing space with them for two years while they figured out where God was calling them to re-root after having to leave their building which is in the path of the North South Freeway plan. And the “negotiations” over the summer seemed blessed by God as well—and it seemed like a partnership that was meant to be. This fall we began the adjustments to our new partnership, which came to include Emmanuel Metropolitan Community Church as well, because as long time renters at Bethany, they too were homeless. We switched our worship time to 9am, gave over some space to be used for the offices of the other churches, and began to adjust to an increasingly active building (which we are also using to host many of the AA groups from Bethany as well.) We celebrated with a joint Reformation Day service, so large (over 275 people in attendance) that we held it in a tent on the lawn—something that wouldn’t have been possible before as the altar was placed right on the spot one of the trees had once been.

And yet, despite the newfound blessings and the energy of our partnerships and new ministries, our congregational life seems to be more and more difficult to maintain. The influx of money from our new partners is an amazing blessing, but still not what we need to pay for our ministry as we have come to structure it. We end this year with a budget forecast more in trouble than three years ago when we began this transformational journey. Our grant funding from our ministry partners is ending, and the economy has not helped us out at all. We’ve been trying to “do more with less” (at least since 1990, when our income was nearly identical to today) and haven’t found a way to be sustainable as we are. In addition to our financial concerns, volunteerism is down, hope seems to be fading, and our fear increasing. Many of us have begun to seriously wonder, will Bethlehem Lutheran still be around a year from now?

I have a renewed sense of hope and vision that God is up to something among us. And I believe that if we embrace it, it will be a blessing not just to us, but to so many--to other Lutherans, to other Christians, to people who are outside of churches, to God's world. The question before us is: Are we ready to boldly go where God is calling us? This is a question we each need to ask ourselves and that our community as a whole needs to be clear on. And its not a question that can be answered "Maybe" or "Let's see what happens"--we've tried that approach for three years as we've prepared for this journey, and the last few months have shown us what it looks like to say "yes" but mean "maybe". It's exhausting and counter productive--and leads us closer to having no choice but "no"--to not act is to act, to not choose is to choose. Now is the time to get going, to claim "Yes" or to claim "No" as individuals and as a community. And I truly believe that if we can claim "Yes" to embrace the difficult and uncertain future trusting only in God to bring us through, that God will bless our efforts beyond anything we can imagine.

I'm getting more and more glimpses of this every day as I see the people just outside waiting to see if we are serious before they jump in with both feet. It's like the question I heard somewhere about the way churches do "evangelism": "Why do we think people who aren't here yet will be more committed to this than we are?" The willingness to "go for it" and acting despite our fear will be contagious and I believe will release a well of creativity that has been kept just below the surface. Like the trees, the "way we've always done things" has become a sacred cow, an idol, and is are keeping us from having the freedom to do what we feel called to do. It’s time now to create some space for God to do a new thing among us.

Will people all of a sudden flock to our Sunday worship service because we rearranged the furniture (literally or figuratively)? Absolutely not. But are people interested in being a part of a faith community that is deeply rooted in the ancient faith that began with Jesus, but isn't so tied to old ways of doing things that it is afraid to act boldly and embody that faith today? Absolutely. I talk to people all the time in coffee shops and pubs that remember fondly the deep peace and the sense of God's presence they got from the liturgy in churches they used to be a part of, but have left faith communities who refused to actually embody the presence of God the liturgy is meant to bring into our experience. Communities that were more concerned with preserving and repeating what had been done before that it cost them the life of their community now and into the future. Instead of reinvigorating the "community" element, our congregations have invested an ever increasing amount of time and energy into keeping the "church" from crumbling around them. The "church" may live on, but without the vibrant "community" that is its soul. To use Bonhoeffer’s distinction, we’ve become Kirche (church structure/building) without its Gemeinde (church-community). And the call I hear over and over from people outside the church and from an increasing number of people inside the church (especially the under 35 crowd) is all about the Gemiende and we should build a Kirche that is able to create the space (physical and spiritual space) for that to happen.

I know that we are afraid to loose some of our dear members, especially those older ones who will experience "going for it" as pulling the rug out from under them. I am no longer afraid of this, I believe it will happen and it is part of the call of God for this community to change--and part of that change is saying goodbye to people we love who can't or aren't willing to join us on this journey. And that is a time for sadness, for mourning, and for caring for our brothers and sisters. But I want to encourage us to also remember that Bethlehem Lutheran is not "The Church". Let's remember the bigger picture, that God is blessing Spokane through over 15 ELCA churches--many of whom are struggling much as we are and would be blessed beyond measure to find Lutheran Christians committed to the liturgy as American Lutherans have done it for 75 years, who adore the stability of worship space and format that doesn't change, who are willing to give sacrificially to keep that way of being Lutheran Christians alive as long as possible. Perhaps that is the calling of other Lutheran communities--but I can't see that as our calling. And if you are feeling like Bethlehem is on a journey you don’t feel called to be a part of, let us mourn with you, and bless you on your journey to the places God is calling you.

God has blessed us with a moment where it is possible to embrace something totally new, to see if we can't be a part of figuring out what the Lutheran church will look like 30 years from now, to try to figure out how to honor our heritage and traditions in a way that deeply connects to the generations that will be part of God's mission when we are dead and gone, to do as generations before us have done for nearly 2000 years: pass along the faith of our fathers as a blessing to our children and our children's children. Will God be upset if some of our members moved to an ELCA church across town? Or to another Christian denomination? Will God be upset if we close down operations here and disperse our members and financial resources to profoundly bless the other things God is up to in Spokane and in the world? I can't see why he would be. I do think God will be upset if we are too afraid to loose what we have (even as it slips away from us) to embrace the gift God has laid before us.

I almost want to say to us, (quoting our Synod's Guiding Principles) "No Fear, Transformation!" but I don't think that's quite right. Because I don't want us to deny that we are afraid. I think we need to name our fears, to bring them to the light of day, to talk about them and support one another through them--but finally to not give into them. Let's not let our fears overpower us (this is the power of evil) but to trust so deeply in God to be with us in the midst of our fears, and to lead us from darkness into light. I say we look at our fear in a very Lutheran way, as "Law" and "Gospel". Let us allow our fear be the "law" that shows us finally that we can't rely on our own strength, but instead let the law (our fear) turn us to trust even more deeply in Christ--and the "Gospel" is again (and again, and again) that powerful reminder that God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit has already done for us what we can never do for ourselves. We have spent the last three years re-rooting ourselves in scripture, in prayer, in community, in seeing what God is up to in the world, and in preparing to go into that future that God has in mind for this community. And God has given us everything we need to step boldly into that future--to not be afraid but trust that where he is calling us is where we are meant to be. And more and more that call for Bethlehem seems to be "Loosing our lives for Christ's sake, and for the sake of the Gospel" so that we can find life abundant.

As I see it, the decision before us is: Do we loose our life by spending the next year closing down and celebrating God's ministry through Bethlehem for 55 years? Or do we loose our life by being willing to risk the response to the call of God we have been hearing? I hope we are willing to embrace that loosing of our life by laying it all on the line for the possibility God is giving us glimpses of. But if we aren't, let's be clear on that too so that we can honor the gifts and ministries and history of this community, and can release the resources we have so that this bold transformation can happen somewhere else.

2010 will be a year of great Transformation for us, whichever path we choose. I believe God has called us to be the people to make this journey, and that now is the time he has given us to make it. It’s an adventure into the great unknown, but a leap of faith we can make confidently, knowing that God has been with his people through bigger challenges than this, and will be with us now. God shows the way, and calls us to follow. Ready?

+Pastor Erik