What’s the Most Urgent Problem Facing the Church?

What’s the most urgent problem facing the church? How would you answer that question?

Pope Francis, in a remarkable interview in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, said this:

The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the problem is they don’t even look for them any more. They have been crushed by the present. You tell me: can you live crushed under the weight of the present? Without a memory of the past and without the desire to look ahead to the future by building something, a future, a family? Can you go on like this? This, to me, is the most urgent problem that the Church is facing.

That’s not a bad answer. It’s direct enough for people to relate to it, but objective enough to see how this is not just a problem for a few isolated individuals.

What’s the most urgent problem facing the church? What’s the most urgent problem in Anchorage? In the Sand Lake region? Among our congregation? What’s the most urgent problem facing you?

(This quote is from the second in-depth interview given by the Pope in less than a month. Earlier in September, he spoke to the Jesuit publication America. Both of them are fascinating insights into a person who has great potential to change the Catholic Church for the better.)

Pope Francis Interview

I’m working my way through the interview with Pope Francis appearing today in the Jesuit publication America, but I liked this bit. Important word to people in leadership positions, especially in the church.

John XXIII adopted this attitude with regard to the government of the church, when he repeated the motto, ‘See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.’ John XXIII saw all things, the maximum dimension, but he chose to correct a few, the minimum dimension. You can have large projects and implement them by means of a few of the smallest things. Or you can use weak means that are more effective than strong ones, as Paul also said in his First Letter to the Corinthians.

Francis is talking about the corrections John XXIII oversaw with the Second Vatican Council. So some people might say that’s a pretty big “little” that John XXIII tackled. And if that’s the minimum dimension, it gives you a sense of how big the maximum dimension must be.

(Cross-posted from Pastor Luke’s blog.)

Being God’s Gift

Something we’re trying to do in the Evangelism and Mission team is figure out how Jewel Lake Parish can be God’s gift to the Sand Lake region of Anchorage.

As we figure that out, I’m going to make a note of ways I’ve heard about other churches being “God’s Gift” to their own communities. Here are four:

Williamsport United Methodist Church in Maryland provided one of the pit stops in the annual Bike Virginia Tour:

One of many scheduled stops on the five-day route, the church offered bicyclists refreshments such as homemade doughnuts and chicken soup, bathroom breaks and a place to relax and meet new people. The church also provided a booth that bikers could ride through if they desired prayer. The church was designated the best rest stop on the tour.

St. John’s Covenant church in Portland, Oregon provides meals for the girl’s basketball team.

The girls often endured three-hour bus trips to away games and needed better nourishment than fast-food stops. “Girls’ sports don’t get all the resources and attention as guys’ sports, so we decided to kind of ‘adopt’ the team,” [Pastor Andy] Goebel says, adding that the church members also went to games and tried to get to know the players.

LifePoint church in San Tan Valley, Arizona, offered a “drive-in movie night” to connect with preschoolers to fourth graders and their families.

Children either bring a cardboard box big enough to sit in or use one the church provides to make a car. Last year, some 300 “drivers” customized their cars at a body shop, tire store, license plate center, and department of motor vehicles at the church. Finally, they were admitted to view Cars 2. … The even included affordable concessions and the church’s worship band performing the stong “Life is a Highway.”

Along with a local Christian radio station, the People Church of Princeton, Illinois, offered a “Single Mom’s Day Out” to about 20 women.

Women preregister for the free event and receive breakfast, spa services, car care, a take-home lunch for their family, a gift bag and the opportunity to shop in the church’s Abundant Blessings room — a room of donated new and gently used gifts ranging from baby items to furniture. While the women focused on themselves for the day, church volunteers supervised their 30 children at a different site with snacks and activities.

Cornerstone Church of God offered to repair recreation complex in Meadville, PA.

“The church took on our picnic shelters, which were in very poor condition,” [the complex’s director] says. The team, which included members of a few other congregations, didn’t stop there. Volunteers also pained and landscaped the complex. Throughout Meadville, 50 volunteers left their mark. They repaired a park and parts of the Crawford County Humane Society as well as helped residents reinforce a retaining wall, cut wood, and build gardens.

Harvest Church of Billings, Montana, a dozen-year old church plant with more than 2000 members, doesn’t have a worship center, but they do have a $5 million water park.

[Church planter Vern Streeter] read an article about urban planners excluding churches on the grounds that they don’t provide goods, services, and taxes. … Vowing that “we would be so relevant that even the most ardent critic of Christianity would be bummed if we ceased to exist,” church leaders cultivated relationships with city officials and formed the nonprofit Better Billings Foundation.

The first four are from the March/April issue of Outreach Magazine. The last two are from the September/October issue.

Welcoming Guests

I happened upon an article in Outreach magazine talking about how we can make guests feel welcome at our church. The whole article is worth reading, but consider just the first item, “Provide Welcome Centers.”

Put a Welcome Center at every entrance to the church that a visitor might use on a Sunday. Put joyful individuals (not scary, over-the-top people-grabbers) at those centers to welcome people. At the centers, provide the church newsletter, a CD or DVD of a previous sermon, a list of some of the church projects and a leaflet with a short description of all the Sunday school classes and planned short-term mission trips. If you have youth and other specialty groups, make a leaflet for each one, describing what they do and when and where they meet. An investment in this center will pay off.

Where is the “entrance” to our church? How could we have a welcome center there?

What would we provide there? We have a very modest weekly newsletter and it includes a link to the online sermon archive. But what about leaflets that describe Sunday school classes or short-term mission opportunities, etc.? How can a guest find out what we’re trying to do? How can they find out how they can be a part of it?

Authenticity Matters

I came across a remarkable article on Esquire entitled “Pope Francis is Awesome” (via Real Clear Religion).

I actually agree with the writer about Francis. He is “kind of awesome.” It’s not my place to tell the Catholics how to run their church, but if it were, I’d tell them they could have done a lot worse than name Cardinal Bergoglio as Pope.

But that’s not what I found remarkable. This is much more impressive:

…as an atheist, I don’t really care about any of that. I’m sure it takes guts and brains to try and reform the Church, but whether the Vatican is a strong or a weak institution is of the smallest possible concern to me. What is much more important is how he has used many small gestures to demonstrate the possibilities of compassion.

The writer is an atheist!

When we live out our faith instead of just talking about it, people can’t help but notice. They may not like us, or our church, or organized religion at all. Some of them don’t even like Jesus. But when we act like we mean the things we say, they notice.

What’s something we as followers of Christ claim to believe, but sometimes fail to live out? Can you think of one small thing like that? If you can, make a point of doing it at least once this week. After all, it’s what we believe even if nobody notices!

A Great Time to Be a Pastor

You might be interested in this post by Pastor Luke, blogging at Mess of Pottage: A Great Time to Be a Pastor:

The Church is in crisis. People who don’t see it are kidding themselves, especially pastors. The lay leaders in a congregation ought to know, or certainly ought to suspect. The church as we know it is dying. But in a perverse way, that’s good news. As Samuel Johnson put it, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Short Term Mission Trips

Not long ago, the Anchorage Daily News published an op-ed against short-term mission trips, or “mission tourism.” The writer was concerned about two churches that spent $200K or more on three mission trips to Africa. Other churches sent short-term mission teams to Russia and Mexico.

I have two immediate reactions to that article:

1) I’m not your Holy Spirit. If you feel that God has called to a mission somewhere outside of Alaska, then I might help you in your discernment process. We believe the prompting of Holy Spirit is best discerned in community. That’s why we have committees and commissions. But the Holy Spirit blows where he will, and he has yet to ask me for advice about the best way to reconcile the world to God.

2) Good for anyone who responds to God’s call. How often do we respond to God’s still, small, voice by saying, “No, that kind of thing is for someone else, not me.” (Jim Burgen says his most frequent prayer is “Dear God. No. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”)

The deeper problem with the article is this: the writer was applying a utilitarian analysis to the works of God. What’s the efficient thing to do? What makes sense? We’ve all said it: “Oh, but it’s a waste of money!” “That money could do so much more right here at home!” Could it? Really? Even if it could, what next? Suppose I take the $2K that I would have spent on a trip to Africa and did some good locally. Will there still be any need here? Of course there will! I can bankrupt myself and never make a dent in the problems here or anywhere else.

That’s the point, after all. God is the one with cattle on a thousand hills. God is the one with all the money. We say it, but do we really believe it? Do we believe that God multiplies loaves and fishes? Or do we believe that when we spend the $2K, that’s it, and there’s no more? Too often, we do. That’s why Paul prays we might have our eyes opened. Then we’d remember that God can bless us with the material possessions we need to abound in good works.

That’s essentially what I thought when I first read that op-ed. I should have written it down, or even made a sermon out of it. But time went by and I decided it was old news. Then I came across this article that gives even more reasons to be involved in short-term mission trips, so I wanted to tell you might thoughts and not just link to it.

Finally, if you haven’t heard it, listen to Sara Groves’ song about her friend Esther. Because nobody knows if their short-term mission trip might turn into something a lot bigger than they ever expected.