Hope For a Hopeless Church

By Zac Harmon-McLaughlin

Reblogged from missionalleaders.org

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Every time I log onto Facebook or Twitter or any social media outlet, my news feed will undoubtedly show an article or two. I get articles such as, “10 Reasons Millennials Are Leaving Your Church” or “Why I Left Church” or “Brunch is My New Worship.” Do you know what I’m talking about? Have you experienced this?

If this weren’t enough reason to cause fear or anxiety about the state of faith, many churches are struggling financially. This includes my own, Community of Christ. I know that for most of us declining numbers cause fear and concern about our future. When we see a decline of people in the pews and a decline of contributors, somehow we think the “church” is dying.

I want to tell you why this is not true. I want to tell you how I am seeing faith explode in the everyday. I want to tell you that numbers do not dictate God’s wonderful and profound movement. I want to share with you HOPE. I want to share with you the vision and shifting identity of the missional church.

A few weeks ago I sat with a friend for lunch. We had met a few months earlier when he first walked into our congregation. We shared about our passions and faith. He told me he wanted to be baptized! I was amazed and excited. See, I was in doubt, worrying whether my faith was relevant. But in that moment I understood that my faith is not controlled by Sunday morning traditions or experiences. My faith is enlivened by the tangible development of relationships that create and empower an authentic Community of Christ. The church is not dying—it is growing! It is moving through vulnerability and courage to share and extend a hand of extravagant hospitality.

I am humbled by the presence of spirit and vision in a congregation I am working with. This is a congregation, perhaps like yours, that has few in the pews on Sunday morning. Month after month, they host a dinner for people who may not be able to afford dinner out. They gather a community of over 100 to break bread with one another. As I watch this event unfolding I see the reality of Christ being present. There is hugging, smiling, sharing of stories, laughing, and handshakes. Most important, they are forming community. Church is happening before my eyes. There are no hymns or sermons, but there are prayers and the breaking of bread.

They also host a biweekly gathering for youth from the neighborhood to explore the sacredness of creation. This ministry culminates with a week long camp in the summer. Over 100 youth and 30 youth volunteers celebrate God’s creation. This is where mission begins. Right here with encounter!

Another congregation I serve offers a monthly food pantry for their small rural community. I share with them in this experience. It took two days of work to make it happen. I heard from person after person the importance of Community of Christ for them and their community. They shared how the Community of Christ was a blessing for them in their life. Person after person shared how they look forward to seeing one another. They don’t use these words but: they are creating a community where Christ thrives! This is what Community of Christ enduring principles and mission initiatives look like!

When did we stop believing in the scripture from Matthew 18:20? – “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” When did the success or spiritual capacity of a congregation become tied to the number of people attending on Sunday morning or budget?

Being missional is responding to our discipleship not with an agenda for creating mega churches or extravagant programs, but rather living into the movements of God around and through us in our communities and contexts. The missional church is not a church concerned with numbers or budget. The missional church, courageously, moves forward with a powerful stubborn hope in a culture full of doubt, anxiety, and fear communicated in articles on our news feed. We are reminded, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” (Isaiah 41:10)

Henri Nouwen reminds us in his book, Reaching Out, “Therefore, as the people of God, we are called ekklesia (from the Greek kaleo=call; andek=out), the community called out of the old world into the new.” I could go on and on with story after story, experience after experience, of the church growing and becoming. The truth is I don’t need to. When we pay attention and open our eyes, we have our own stories of hope and possibility. The church is not without hope and the church is not dying. The church is shifting, which is an indication that we are becoming.

May we become ekklesia. May we go into a world groaning with suffering, division, hunger, and fear and proclaim a movement that promotes communities of joy, hope, love and peace. May we become who Christ has called us to be and embrace the mission of Jesus Christ in a world challenged by apathy and a loss of hope. May we have stubborn hope and passionately, courageously, and vulnerably respond through everyday encounters with the living God. I certainly understand the complexities and difficulties, but I am not concerned with numbers or budget. I am empowered and inspired by Christ’s mission and encouraged by HOPE.

“The most important question for a missional church is not about long-term survival. It is about how we passionately pursue Christ’s mission in a suffering world that groans for the liberating truths of the gospel (Doctrine and Covenants 155: 7).” – Steve Veazey – April 2011

What Lies Beneath the Surface…

by Ben Smith, and the Innovative Ministries Team

As it happens, words are powerful.

As a teenager, my Dad worked for a window making company where he was in control of manufacturing and distribution. It was his responsibility to make sure that when an order came in, that the window was made on time and on budget, with full quality assurance. There were times when the factory was pumping out thousands of windows a week, producing saw dust 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This was great in the boom time. Housing prices were good, people were buying, and people were building. That was until the bubble burst. With its metaphorical rubber casing flying across the community, that bubble represented more than simply a slowing in the housing economy- it meant lives were torn apart. My Dad would come home and talk about his strategies of balancing the budget, using acronyms to de-sensitize the situation and perhaps distance himself from the reality of his management responsibilities: “How many “FTEs” should we reduce to ensure the books are balanced? How can we improve efficiencies to maintain positive cash flow?” It sounded relentless. Ruthless. Sometimes it even seemed heartless. Little did I know what was happening inside his heart.

Wiceberg 2here I come from, it is common to ask questions of a culture that you belong to, even though it’s so close to your heart that it seems one and the same. Asking questions of government leaders and management of organizations, stating facts, and contributing to discussions online and in person are ways we show we are engaged, and are ways in which we believe the community can be improved. While some can be apathetic towards what’s happening around us, I believe compassionate questions that address current issues encourage dialogue and discussion. I question, challenge and suggest new ideas openly because I care and I want to encourage others to respond, share their thoughts, and do the same. Maybe it’s my way of being the change you want to see in the world? Regardless of that, these questions always come out of a place of concern and wanting to help.

So I asked my Dad one day, “How can you do this?” His response still brings the hairs on my arms to a point. “How can I do this?” he said, “I do this so that one day this organization can employ the sons of the man I just retrenched, and so that this company can survive this point in history. I do this knowing that one day these actions will result in a stronger community in the long term”.

From the outside, what seemed to look like a sport or an easy decision, he hated. Having the responsibility to maintain the organization and as many jobs as he could through innovation and change, still ended in having to advise someone that they wouldn’t have a job the following week. So whilst from the outside it seemed as though he was the harsh decision maker, really, the decisions he made were never made lightly. In fact, the opposite was true. The future of the organization meant that unpopular decisions were sometimes needed.

Our thoughts and prayers are with our community leaders around the world as they bear the burdens of management. We can only imagine how many sleepless nights are being endured, and how many tears have been shed in order to ensure the mission of the church is taken into the future. We are standing by your side, trusting you, walking with you, and are humbled by your dedication to this faith movement we all care so much about. We want to know: How can we help?

 

 

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Emily & Andrew’s Peace Corps Adventures: Every Nica Cloud has a Silver Lining

Doña Nubia, Daniel, myself, and Maria Los Angeles

by Andrew Nilsen
Re-blogged from: May We Suggest

I’ve been fortunate in my life to have opportunities to travel to many countries. Invariably I hear, and even find myself participating in, some form of this conversation:

Local: “How do you like our country?”

Tourist: “I love it! The people are so nice!”

The tourist in this instance is almost always alluding to how much nicer the people are in X country than they are in their home country. I’ve always been a bit skeptical of these conversations because not only have I heard this from U.S. citizens traveling in other countries, but also from tourists visiting the States. Is it true that people are just magically nicer in every country but our own? Or is there something in traveling that pushes us out of our cocoon of familiarity and into interaction with strangers that makes us realize that, on the whole, humans are a whole lot better than we give them credit for?

That being said, the people here in Nicaragua are super nice. So much so that I’ve developed a new favorite hobby: getting caught out in rainstorms.

Although I’m sure it wasn’t a factor in choosing which part of the year to hold training, the rainy season in Nicaragua has been great for cultural integration. I have found the barriers to interaction between strangers to be so much thinner here than in the United States. A drizzle is excuse enough to be invited into a house, or huddle together under the awning of a business, and in the shared experience of escaping from the rain conversation blossoms. This was how I came to experience the most beautiful moment of my service yet: becoming friends with Doña Nubia and her family.

Back on September 11th two of my fellow trainees (Conor & Daniel) and I were on our way to the soccer field in town to use sports as a means to integrate into the community. When we reached the field the locals were disbanding due to the ominous clouds forming in the sky that we happened to overlook on our walk over. With the rainy season in full swing, we knew that we’d better not mess around and find some cover quickly. Although the coffee shop/cyber café was only a few blocks away, the clouds moved faster. Before we knew it we were caught in the middle of a torrential downpour. We found some trees to stand under, but they weren’t doing us much good. I looked up at the nearest house to see a little grandmother waving us into her house from her patio. Daniel, Conor, and I looked at each other for a second, wondering what to do, before we climbed up the steps to the patio, not exactly sure what we were getting ourselves into.

Forty-five minutes later we had become friends with Doña Nubia, her daughter Maria Los Angeles, and her niece Johana. We shared about where we were from, why we were in Nicaragua, and of all the delicious Nica foods we had tried already. In turn they told us of other national dishes that we must still try, taught us that the best vigoron and chicharones in the country come from the markets and bus stops of Grenada, invited us to come back to chat and drink coffee whenever we wanted, and exchanged phone numbers so they could invite us over and cook us delicious Nicaraguan food! I was deeply touched by this priceless display of Nicaragua hospitality and warmth, and felt such gratitude for the opportunity to be working for an organization where this kind of genuine human connection is what we are actively encouraged cultivate.

Over the seven weeks in my training town I returned several times to Doña Nubia’s house to delight in conversation. Through chats with her and her family I learned about the history of their family, the history of Nicaragua, their view on the current political landscape (specifically regarding the Grand Canal project), and the struggles and hopes they have for their country. I introduced them to Emily, and they showered her with compliments and asked her to tell them the truth about what kind of a guy I am. They called us a “beautiful, incredible couple”, and assured us that we would have gorgeous babies. They admonished me to continue learning about the Nica culture, but that I’d better not become machista, because if I stopped treating Emily with respect they’d come after me! I learned to time my visits for when Johana & Maria Los Angeles returned from their pastry baking class, and therefore became their most enthusiastic taste-tester and supporter. Although our busy training schedules didn’t end up allowing for us to share a meal with them, when Daniel and I said goodbye to the family on Thursday evening they made us promise that we’d visit when we returned to our training town, and assured that we had a place to stay at their house if we ever visited overnight.

The month of November marks the official end of the rainy season here in Nicaragua. I may not have the excuse of a thunderstorm to push me into conversation with potential friends, but from my experiences in my training town I’ve learned that they excuses may not even be necessary in Nicaragua. The people here are just that nice 🙂

Change your Life. Change the World.

 

Change your life. Change the world. Make a difference – in who you are and what impact you leave in your footsteps.

There are changes happening all around. New ministries emerging. New visions of Community of Christ. New images. Even a new website.

Check out the new CofChrist.org website.

Have a look around. It may take a bit to get used to – but we think you’ll find it to be more up to date and simpler to find what you need!

 

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2 Piñatas + 6 Games of Ping-Pong + 8 Meals = Un Buen Día – Emily & Andrew’s Peace Corps Adventures

by Andrew Nilsen
Re-blogged from: May We Suggest

I’ve never seen such gigantic pots in my life.  In fact, I’ve only seen one pot comes close, which is at my father in-law’s cabin down in Cave in Rock, IL.  Today I witnessed two enormous pots full of food for fiestas with familia.  What a way to be welcomed into the family!

img_35291Today was my first full day living at my training site.  As TEFL teacher trainers, Emily and I are placed in separate small towns (pueblos) approximately 15 minutes away from each other in the Masaya department.  Peace Corps Nicaragua assigns married couples to separate training families primarily to help with language acquisition, which makes a lot of sense in our situation given that I have much more Spanish experience than Emily.  We will meet up twice this week for all-staff trainings, and will be able to spend the following weekends together, but for the time being we are focused on bonding with our host families.

Doña Juana has adopted me for the next twelve weeks of training, which means I now have older siblings!  My brother Osman (40 y/o) and sister Taniana (31 y/o) both are living at home.  They are very kind, welcoming, generous people.  In fact, I think Osman is sleeping in front of the TV in the living room, because I think they gave me his room.  I look forward to posting more updates about them in the following weeks.

This morning, after a light breakfast of bread and coffee, I hopped in Osman’s car to go to the finca para comer.  To be honest, I wasn’t 100% sure what he meant by finca, but since we were going there to eat I was pretty stoked.  We drove about 10 minutes out of town, and turned right down a dirt driveway lined with plantain trees.  Turns out that was Osman meant by “Vamos a la finca para comer” was that we were going to his (our?) cousin Ricardo’s beautiful piece of land out in the country for an all-day food and family fest to celebrate the birthday of another one of our cousins.  Over the next six hours I ate a bowl of pork sopa consumido, received a botany/fruits of Nicargua taste-testing tour of la finca from Ricardo, ate freshly fried pork chicharrones with corn tortillas, won five out of six hotly contested ping-pong matches against Ricardo and his son, ate a gigantic plate of Nicaraguan style chop suey with pork, watched little cousins destroy a bunny piñata, and ate birthday cake.

If you were sensing a pork theme, that is because the family purchased and prepared two whole pigs to feed the birthday bunch.  We were a big crew, and even the biggest pot I’ve seen in my life only barely contained enough chop suey to feed us all.  The wonderful afternoon of family and conversation ended with me promising Ricardo and his wife that I would bring Emily to visit la finca before we finish our training.  I think our chances are good, since they throw a party there every time there is a birthday in the family.

After la finca, Osman drove Doña Juana and I to a one-year-old birthday party for a family friend.  Although the setting for this was much more humble, there was still the same immense pot full of food to feed the 30+ people who gathered around the dirt yard of the corrugated steel hut/house.  We were fed vigoron, a national dish of Nicaragua with (you guessed it) pork served over a bed of yucca, topped with a cabbage slaw.  While we were eating cake outside and watched more small Nicaraguan children obliterate pretty cardboard animals, Doña Juana, my new mom, turned to me and said “See, we don’t just eat gallo pinto for every meal.  We ate all day, and didn’t have rice or beans once!”

It’s only been one day, and already Doña Juana is exhibiting maternal psychic abilities by assuaging my unvoiced foodie fears.  However, I’d gladly trade gastronomic monotony any day for the feeling that I am a part of a family.  After today I get the feeling that I may not have to make that choice.

 

From this Side of the Room

perspective1I have grown up going to Camp Bountiful; this fall will start my 25th year. Throughout the years many people have come and gone. There have also been wide arrays of experiences and memories that will last a lifetime.

This summers’ experiences stick out for a number of reasons, mostly because I got to experience a different perspective of camp.

Since I started working full-time nearly seven years ago, I have dedicated nearly every minute of allotted vacation time to attending camps. In some years I commuted an hour each way from the camp to my job, just so I could take part in the evening activities of that particular camp. When I commuted I did not mind the two hour drive because I knew I was a trip or a mile closer to going back.

Over the years I have been privileged enough to form friendships with some of the campers and staff that will last a life time. With some of my friends living four hours away and some only minutes. Some of those friendships have been with people that live close to me in southern Ohio. So I started picking up and taking them to some of the events we both intended to attend. Most of those rides included trips to Camp Bountiful.

I would take two campers from my area and we would play music and talk the entire way up and back. This year one of those campers got to be on staff at a camp I was not attending. This person does not have a driver’s license so they asked if I would take them to and from the camp.

I agreed to the trip knowing it would be difficult because I could not stay.

There have been many camps and many unique experiences that I could write volumes on. But this was a perspective I had not experienced prior to this year – dropping someone off for camp and going back home on the same day.

I got him to camp unloaded his stuff and hung around for a while greeting and hanging out with old friends. Throughout the following week I texted a few times to make sure they were having a good time at camp. All indications showed that they were.

The following Saturday came and I went to camp early so I could have time to fellowship with some friends. When I got to camp they were in the midst of breakfast and cleanup of the camp before everyone went their separate ways.

During that brief time it dawned on me, these people have spent the last week together, the last thing they wanted to see or pay attention was someone like me. I represented something none wanted to face. Their time as a community was coming to an end.

After realizing this, I went outside and sat at a table until it was time to pack up and leave. It was a different perspective because prior to that, I had not been the outsider of a camp looking in.

Earlier this month (September), I was asked to help out in the kitchen at Women’s Retreat. It’s a tradition at Bountiful that men cook during Women’s Retreat and women cook at Men’s Retreat. I agreed and was assigned dishwashing for the weekend. I had only seen this perspective of camp once or twice and failed both times. Cleaning the dishes for the cooks and participants was certainly an adventure. Every time I would finish with a meal I would go to the sleeping quarters and nap until it was time to do it again.

Although the work of the weekend was rough, it was worth it knowing I could be of service.

Though this summer was unique in its own right, I would not have traded it for the world and would do it again and again. I am looking forward to the next 25 years at Camp Bountiful.

Blessed to be a Blessing – Emily & Andrew’s Peace Corps Adventures

handsby Emily Allen Nilsen
Re-blogged from: May We Suggest

Blessing.

This word has meant different things to me over the course of my  life thus far. It once brought to mind the image of an all-powerful God who was moving pieces of my life around like a life-sized game of muggle-chess (yes, that is a Harry Potter reference). I used to believe blessings came from God and you were lucky if He chose to bless you.  I no longer see it that way.

As I got older, theological questions began to cloud my once clear picture and understanding of God. Why would God choose to bless me and NOT bless others? If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all loving, how can extremely terrible things like natural disasters or genocide happen? Was God too busy “blessing” little ole me to do anything about those BIG issues. These questions and more plagued my heart and soul as I struggled to make sense of it all.

For a while, I wondered if I didn’t even believe in God, as least not in the same “God” I had before. I knew I believed in something; some collective, creative, connective power, but was that God if God meant all the images I had been taught for so long? I never felt comfortable saying I didn’t believe, because that wasn’t completely true, but I also couldn’t claim the concepts I once knew and stood by. I remember thinking that old saying “ignorance is bliss,” has so much truth in it. I wanted, on some level, to go back to my old ways of thinking. It was so much easier to just believe that God was in control, that God had a plan for my life.  If only I could take away the questions I wrestled with, the doubts that drowned me in darkness.

But I couldn’t go back.

I had been changed – by untimely deaths of friends and loved ones, by injustice that existed and still exists, by pain, by the cruelty in the world. I’d been forced to think – by hard academics/religious classes at Graceland (my alma mater), by friends going through similar faith crisis, by the questions that wouldn’t go away and shattered my pretty-ordered-God-in-a-box-world.

Even today, I’m not sure where exactly things changed. There was never a moment of clarity or insight, just a slow steady crawl to new understanding. There are truths I feel and recognize in my deepest soul; there is something more, there is some connecting spirit, we are many but we are one. Slowly, I began to claim God again. Not the same God as before, but I choose to still use the word “God” because I have no other word for “it.”

I believe in hope.  I believe in love.  I believe in the power we have to love and affect those around us.  I believe our thoughts and intentions are far more powerful than we have any idea about.  I believe the universe is a connected web of intentions, and relationships, and feelings rather like the neurons in our brains.  I believe that connective force that can transcend time and distance is what we have poorly understood as God, so we thought God should be more like us – human, white, male, and petty, choosing to bless some and not others.

The word blessing now means something very different to me as well.  Blessing is an active tapping into that loving, wise energy.  Blessing is about rooting oneself into that force and allowing one’s heart to expand.  It can be felt by individuals or groups, in times of sorrow, in times of joy.  Being blessed isn’t a passive state where God plays games with your life.  Blessing is listening to the callings and promptings, listening to the wisdom that exists in the lives all around us.  Blessings invoke ancient power within our own lives and souls, connecting us to each other and the Earth.

I now believe that blessings are far more about love.

This past Sunday was the last time Andrew and I would be with our local congregation for a few years.  On that day, we gathered with our friends and family to receive a blessing for our Peace Corps service.  It was an opportunity and invitation to accept love and support from our community.  It was an invitation to go deeper and to prepare emotionally to embrace the challenges and blessings our Peace Corps service has to offer.  It was incredible to feel such hope and such love.  Not many young adults participate in organized religion in the Portland area, but we feel the intergenerational relationships we have made the past 4 years, sharing with that community, have changed our lives for the better. We have their stories, their lessons, their support.

Regardless if you are Christian or not, or participate in any religion at all, it is my sincere hope that at some point in your life you feel the level of support Andrew and I felt last Sunday for transitioning to this new stage of life.  While it is difficult to say goodbye to people who have become our friends and extended family, we will carry their blessings forward.  Thank you, Tuality Community of Christ for being companions on our journey.

May we be open to the blessings today that our loved ones helped us find and feel.  May we listen with open hearts to the callings and promptings around us.  May we feel the love and support from this past Sunday so strongly that it can help sustain us and support us through our Peace Corps service.  May we be blessed.