Future Church: Food trucks and Revolving Doors

Tomorrow evening, I will be meeting with the Executive Council of the Diocese of Milwaukee to discuss with them the results of the diocesan strategic planning process which I served as co-convenor. I’m also thinking a great deal about the future shape of ministry and mission at Grace as we continue to discuss our master plan process and begin to take the first steps toward implementing the architects’ plans.

Two pieces I read (and watched) today have helped to clarify my thinking, or raise new questions as I prepare for tomorrow’s meeting. The first is from Day1.org, a brief video on “Food Truck Faith” or what churches can learn from the success of food trucks. Rev. Lori Birkholz says that food trucks do one thing very well and that churches should seek to emulate them, rather than megachurches which seek to be all things to all people:

One of the characteristics of food trucks is that they go where the people are, out on to the streets and public squares of the city where people congregate. In many cities, they are tightly regulated because of fierce opposition from traditional restaurants (sound familiar). They rely on low overhead and high demand to succeed. But they are by definition transitory and may not develop long-term relationships with their clientele (although I’ve got my favorites in Madison).

But church membership is itself becoming more transitory. A piece today lays out some of the implications of a mobile society for churches. Cynthia Weems writes about “The Church’s Revolving Door:

My initial assessments draw some conclusions about how the current church operating system must change. First, we can no longer anticipate that people with long years of church membership will be the only ones in leadership positions. If the current model continues, there may be no one left who qualifies!

In a new model, leaders will constantly be lifted up, rather than joining committees that remain intact for several years. Projects may be managed by a more mobile group of people who are willing to meet, problem-solve and strategize for the time they have to give to that task.

Both pieces describe the changing relationships with churches, raise important questions, and offer intriguing possibilities for further exploration. For example, what might a ministry that takes food trucks as its model look like? Birkholz points out that often food trucks congregate together–they do in Madison on the Capitol Square, the Library Mall, and on specific evenings in other neighborhoods. Food truck ministry would be ministry that takes the gospel to the people, rather than expecting people to come in, but it would also be narrowly focused on what it does well, whether that be worship, or bible study, or outreach, and leave much of the rest for others to do. It would also be very closely attuned to the needs and desires of its target audience.

Are there drawbacks to this model? Sure, but over and over again as I read congregational development materials, one of the central pieces of advice is to focus on the few things a congregation does well and passionately, and leave the rest aside.

The transitory nature of church membership is a reality here in downtown Madison and I could list as many or more individuals or families who have come and gone in my four years at Grace. We do need to think carefully about how this reality changes leadership patterns and leadership development. At the same time, I’m mindful of recent studies that suggest Americans are less mobile now than they have been in the recent past. I often wonder whether we contribute to that mobility by failing to provide nurturing soil in which people can begin to grow deeper roots. Certainly approaching members or potential members as if they were in line at a food truck is probably not the best way to develop deep, long-term relationships.

What is church membership?

It seems no one knows.

A new study from Grey Matter Research indicates that 33 percent of worshipers surveyed believe their church does not offer any sort of membership, while 19 percent said they were not sure. This means that less than half of respondents know about membership offerings in their church. More here.

Given our focus on membership and attendance statistics in tracking congregational vitality and growth, this statistic is worrisome. But then again, in the Episcopal Church, we’re not quite clear on membership–is it baptism, confirmation, communicant in good standing?

My guess is that most members of health and fitness clubs are certain both of their membership and of what benefits they get from membership. Is it a clear message or is it because they have to pay in order to become a member?

In any case, here’s what we say at Grace about membership:

How do I become a member of Grace Church? Grace is a parish of the Diocese of Milwaukee, of the Episcopal Church. Becoming a member is both very easy and relatively difficult. Easy, in that your baptism, regular attendance at worship, and financial contributions will make you a member in our eyes, at least for the official records. You may become a member simply by letting the office know that you would like to join; if you know the date and place of your baptism we will record it. If you have been a member of another Episcopal congregation, it is helpful both for them and us to request a letter of transfer. Just let us know the name and location of the church, and we will do the paperwork.

That’s the technical side of membership but membership is much more than a certificate, a letter, or a line in a church register. It is a commitment to be a part of the body of Christ in this place, to share with one another in worship, prayer, study, and service to others, to seek to incarnate Christ’s love here and in the world. It also involves a commitment to support the work of Grace with your prayers and your financial gifts. There are no litmus tests or doctrinal tests to be a member of Grace. We welcome everyone, wherever you are on your spiritual journey, to walk with us for a few months, a few years, or the rest of your lives.

That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? Oh, and if you’re interested in membership, or learning more about Grace and the Episcopal Church, we’ll be having classes in October.

The importance of place

We are working on our parish mission statement. I pointed out at a recent vestry meeting that the current version, and the drafts we are working on are disembodied, general, not particular. When we have conversations about Grace’s mission, inevitably we talk about our location, on the Capitol Square of Madison, but our location hasn’t been articulated as part of our mission. The sense of place we have has not been clearly defined for ourselves and others.

Jeremiah Sierra had a brief reflection today that addresses the “sense of place.” He talks about his sense of sacred space, memories of the scent of his church in childhood, and the nomadic existence of the church he now attends, which meets in a Zen Center in Brooklyn. He concludes:

It’s useful for every community to periodically reflect on its relationship to its place (and not simply by asking whether it is time for another capital campaign): What kind of space best serves your community? Can you use your building to nurture other worthwhile organizations? Could your community survive without its building? How is your community welcoming others into its sanctuary or parish hall?


Read it all here.

Craig Bartholomew has some similar things to say is working on a theology of place. Here’s an interview with him.

Among his comments:

What we are experiencing in our world is a wide sense of displacement, which does not lead to human flourishing. Outside Christian circles, the literature on the crisis of place is huge, but within Christianity, it’s only starting to get attention.

Contemporary life roots against this deep implacement through the speed of culture, technology, the automobile, and the state of economics. The middle class is always on the go through places and are not generally deeply rooted in a particular place.


And this:

The diagnosis is that we have lost a robust doctrine of creation. Place is rooted in the doctrine of creation. If we recover that doctrine of creation and see the wonderful redemption in Christ as God recovering his purposes for his whole creation, then suddenly all these issues—like city, home, gardening, and farming—are spiritual and thus not second-rate.

Of the several hundred thousand churches in the United States, many are property owners. Just imagine if each of these churches attended closely to their property as a place and develop it in healthy—not necessarily expensive—ways. This would make a major contribution to the commons of our culture and bear plausible witness to Christ. Just as the creation constantly declares God’s goodness and power (Psalm 19), so too our places would continually bear witness to this extraordinary God who has come to us in Christ.

Bartholomew connects the importance of place to the doctrine of creation. But it’s also a matter of the Incarnation. How do we incarnate the body of Christ in this particular place, at this time? One of the important challenges to Christianity in the present context is the rise of social media and technology which can create virtual community across wide distances. Yet ours is an embodied faith, an embodied religion, and there must be a way to express our faith concretely, and to experience the sacraments in their materiality.

More on young adults and the church

Brandon J. O’Brien explores the religious views of 20-somethings in three posts at Out of Ur. Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.

O’Brien was teaching a World Religions course in a community college and gave his students writing assignments that explored their religious commitments, beliefs, and practices. He was sobered by what he read. Among his conclusions:

Very few of my students could identify any way religion might impact their daily lives, specifically their future personal and professional goals. Even the students who consider themselves committed Christians failed to recognize what difference their faith made, say, in their marriages or careers. They could point to superficial things—like wanting to be married in their church, which meant they had to marry a fellow Christian—but couldn’t go much deeper than that.

Skye Jethani read this posts and reflected, producing: Back to (a Theology of) Work We Go….

Interesting reflections on outreach to young adults, beginning with this premise:

Our religious lives, our communion with God and formation as his people, primarily plays out in two spheres of our lives–family and work. Our closest relationships (marriage, children, parents) are where we experience the joys and pains of life most acutely. They are where we practice, or fail to practice, love, patience, forgiveness, kindness, etc. So it would make sense that we utilize family relationships as a key context for discipleship–learning and applying the teachings of Christ.

The church has focused its efforts on the family, leaving vocation and work to the side. What does this mean for young adults who are delaying marriage? That we have nothing to say to what is the primary sphere in which they live and search for meaning:

We have not been trained or conditioned to consider a person’s vocation as a central part of their lives or spiritual formation. It is not a venue most churches value or equip their members for. But work is where most adults (young and old) spend most of their time and what occupies most of their identity. Without the ability to connect faith to either family or work, there is little remaining to engage young adults other than entertaining gatherings or a celebrity in the pulpit.

David Kinnaman of the Barna Group offers six reasons why young people leave the church. An interview with him on NPR.

I’ve got no clue on how to solve the problem, how to reach out to young adults, but it seems to me, that authenticity is key. We’ve got to be able to speak to them in a language they understand and relate to, and offer them relationships that are life-giving and transforming. What strikes me at Grace is that we don’t have trouble attracting young adults to our services. We have some difficulty getting them connected, but very often they do, even when we don’t make it particularly easy. Above all, we have to be open and welcoming, and allow them to set the terms for our relationship, not impose expectations on them.


Welcoming the stranger

I wrote the following in our Monday email:

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35)

In the great parable of the Last Judgment that Jesus relates in Matthew 25:31-46, when the king separates righteous from the unrighteous, he proclaims to those who are saved that  “just as you did it to one of the least of these… you did it to me.” Among the actions cited is welcoming the stranger.

Each Sunday, we encounter the stranger as we come to worship God. Each Sunday, at each of our services, there are strangers. Sometimes, they are visitors from afar, traveling to Madison for business or pleasure, and choosing to spend their Sunday morning with us. Sometimes, they are local residents who are “church-shopping.” Occasionally, there is someone who has come this day because of some deep spiritual longing that yearns to be met. Some of those strangers are not newcomers. They have attended services before, several times, for several years, perhaps even for several decades. We may recognize their faces, we may have seen them dozens of times, but we don’t know their names let alone anything else about them.

In this, Grace is like most churches. In fact, in many respects, we do better than many churches. We offer visitors delightful visitors’ bags; some of us are aware of visitors and make sure to introduce themselves; in nice weather, I like to stand on the sidewalk before services, to welcome everyone who comes, and to greet passers-by as well. But we could do better.

A couple of months ago, I met a visiting priest, who responded to the email I send to everyone who signs our guestbook with a description of his experience. No one welcomed him. At the peace, he received perfunctory handshakes from those around him, and after the service, I was the only person who greeted him and asked him his name. How many others have had similar experiences? How many people have come to Grace, looking to connect not only with God but with other people, and went home disappointed?

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Do you know that person who is sitting in the pew in front of you? Have you seen them before? Have you seen them dozens of times and still don’t know their name? Introduce yourself. Invite them to coffee hour. Welcome them.

Welcoming newcomers is one of the things we focused on in our Vestry retreat this past Saturday and we agreed that it will be one of the areas that will receive attention at Grace in the coming year. How can we be more welcoming as a congregation? How can our physical space be made more welcoming? How can we help newcomers become active in the life of our congregation and active in our ministries? We will explore these questions and others. We hope you will share your ideas with us and learn with us how to make Grace a truly welcoming congregation.

The Great Awakening: if only

Over the weekend, a gathering was held in Chicago sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago and Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. It was entitled, rather boldly, the Great Awakening.

The Episcopal Cafe, as it should, posted info about this in order to engage conversation. Here’s the comment I wrote:

I don’t want to sound snarky, really. I have enormous respect for Bishop Lee, Diana Butler Bass, and Brian McLaren. But I’m at the point in my life and ministry where I would like to see conversations about the future of the church, the future of Christianity, the future of communities of faith, to involve people who are actually involved in the day-to-day struggle of creating community in this post-Christian culture. I would like to see a conference where the pundits and analysts had to engage those of us who are trying to deal with the realities of elderly, homebound people who expect regular pastoral care, homeless people who spend the night in our shelter, the ongoing life of our parish, and young adults who are so stretched they lack the energy to attend Sunday morning services.

The Great Awakening? Please, spare me.

Look forward, not back: A United Methodist Pastor on history and the future

I’m making a very simple point here: Let’s stop comparing our present to our past. Our context is different from those other places and eras. Discipleship in the 21st century may have nothing to do with church attendance, or baptisms, or recorded professions of faith. It may have nothing to do with buildings, denominations or clergy.

So let’s quit trying to rebuild, recapture, redo old-time Methodism, whatever it was. Stop worrying about “death tsunamis” and “declining attendance” and “shrinking budgets.”

The serious disciple of Jesus only has one real question to answer: What does it mean to follow Jesus here and now?

via  The United Methodist Portal.

The necessity of change

Change as spiritual:

If change and growth are not programmed into your spirituality, if there are not serious warnings about the blinding nature of fear and fanaticism, your religion will always end up worshiping the status quo and protecting your present ego position and personal advantage–as if it were God! Although Jesus’ first preached message is clearly “change!” (as in Mark 1:15 and Matthew 4:17), where he told his listeners to ‘repent,’ which literally means to ‘change your mind,’ it did not strongly influence Christian history. This resistance to change is so common, in fact, that it is almost what we expect from religious peope, who tend to love the past more than the future or the present.

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward (H/t Shannon Ferguson Kelly)

Carol Howard Merritt on 5 cultural shifts that will affect the way we do church.

Derek Penwell reflects on how churches are organized, specifically committees, and the effects of cultural change on that traditional organizational model. The title of his post? “Killing Church Committees.”

Structure, Anti-Structure, Communitas: The Future of the Episcopal Church

No, this is not a post on Victor Turner. Rather, it is a brief reflection on the need for change in institutional churches, particularly my own, the Episcopal Church.

Mark Harris has been asking hard questions about re-structuring the Episcopal Church in response to budget shortfalls and other issues. In one post, he asks whether it is time for a special General Convention. Earlier, he offered some imaginative possibilities for the future of the Episcopal Church here and here. Insofar as his questions arise out of budgetary considerations, it seems to me, he is reacting rather than imagining new possibilities. . The question should be, what sort of church do we need to be at this moment in history? Our institutions were designed and built in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and do not seem nimble enough to change for the twenty-first.

Scott Gunn has also posted on this issue here and here. The latter post is an attempt to think about the current response to the need for change in terms of grief, which might be helpful on one level, but seems also to obscure things in some ways.

It seems to me that Gregory Jones’ comments about “sustainable institutions” might be helpful here

Less noticed, perhaps, is our longing for God, and for elegance, in the design of our institutions. The question is not whether we will organize ourselves; it is whether we will do so well or badly. We yearn for institutions — including those in the social sector — that will function with what Matthew E. May, in his book “In Pursuit of Elegance,” calls “effortless effectiveness”: an ability to achieve maximum effect with minimal effort.

We marvel at corporations, such as Apple, that offer such effectiveness. Apple combines identity and innovation, efficiency and creativity, functionality and beauty. Such organizations attend to the design of the physical spaces they occupy, to be sure, but elegant design is more than that. It involves attending to the design of people’s time and development, the design of ideas, the design of services, the design of networks and the design of budgets.

In fact, what Jones is describing is precisely the same sort of thing that Harris is imagining in his posts about the future Episcopal Church.

Social Media–Assorted links and comment

The New Media Project, from Union Theological Seminary, has great commentary on the use and implications of social media for religious organizations. Here are some of the recent provocative essays:

“As people ‘of the Book,’ are we instead cultivating a Tweet and sound bite religion as opposed to one of narrative and story?”

Reklis began the conversation by writing:

I want to start thinking about the theology of this future we are living. That is, I want to start thinking about what we can say theologically about the human subjects we are becoming in the face of transformative social media.

I’m inclined not to diatribe about new technology. It’s here to stay, we can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Even monasteries, designed for retreat from the world, use websites and social media. But the existence of digital technology means we have to work harder to cultivate an interior life that notices. We have to learn again how to converse, to argue, to talk rather than to text.

While the evermore interconnected nature of our world doesn’t change the nature of God, it provides new models that can enrich our understanding. An abstract theological concept such as, “God is everywhere,” is somehow easier to visualize now that it feels as if we can be everywhere at once, if only virtually. The idea that we’re all part of the worldwide body of Christ is easier to grasp in an era in which we are joined in a nexus of communication that brings people together whether they’re across the street or in the mountains of northern India.

Rice points to something important. It’s easy to see the practical implications of social media–the increased power to communicate, the ability to create and maintain relationships across vast distances, but the deeper meaning of relating through facebook and other social media is more elusive. Reslik points in the same direction by asking about what kinds of human beings are we becoming by making use of technology. Rice takes it another step to ask, what is the church, the body of Christ, becoming?

Those of us who are incarnational in our theology may be somewhat suspect of relationships built and maintained through cyberspace rather than through the hard work of being together in community as the body of Christ and sharing the body of Christ.

From Forbes: “Top Ten Social Media Myths.”