I must love church work. Though I make my living ministering to a variety of congregations across the country, every Sunday finds me in the same pulpit. A Baptist by tradition and persuasion, I log many hours in Presbyterian, Episcopal, United Methodist, and Pentecostal fellowships and all points in between. It’s a bit of a crazy life. Sometimes I catch myself humming Amy Grant’s catchy tune, “Hats” (“Why do I have to wear so many things on my head?”)1
My business hat is running a consulting firm that assists nonprofits in fundraising, leadership training, strategic planning, and conflict resolution.2 Many of our clients are faith-based organizations. Most of those are local congregations needing help with stewardship drives, strategic planning, planned giving, and capital campaigns.
My other hat is a mitre, of sorts. I’m the senior minister of a four-hundred-member progressive Baptist congregation in a county seat town thirty minutes east of Charlotte, North Carolina.3 This delightfully unusual family of faith called me to join their journey fully aware of my itinerant missionary work with other churches. They apparently thought it helpful to have a minister with a finger on the pulse of so many other vital organisms of the faith. Now my other finger is on their pulse, which keeps me grounded to the daily rhythm of congregational life at the end of Main Street, U.S.A.
Lately both pulses have been racing with the adrenalin shock of successive jolts to our national and regional economic systems. We’ve seen companies crumble and others vanish outright. Flagship banks have folded. Small businesses are going under. Stock values are in the cellar. Layoffs are multiplying. Fear is evident in many faces.
It’s been a roller coaster. In my town we endured long lines for $4.60 gasoline last September and now pump in puzzlement fuel costing a third as much. Most of the retirees in my congregation have lost upwards of 45 percent of their retirement savings. Some are looking for work at ages seventy-five and eighty. William Wordsworth’s prophetic sonnet of two centuries ago perfectly presaged our current materialistic predicament:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! 4
And this recession has come to church. Tithes and offerings lag at many congregations, forcing them to postpone or cancel ministries and missions previously considered vital. In my church this reduction in giving isn’t evidence of pettiness or unfaith; it’s the simple fact that you cannot tithe what you do not have.
This is going to be our new reality for awhile. We are bracing ourselves for a Season of Less.
It seems to me that God is calling us to think creatively about this fine mess we’re in, and to do it with boldness and confidence. Indeed, the saving grace of most crises is their concomitant requirement for creativity. I’m convinced that when people of faith muster the courage to get off the floor and think at all, when we are intentional about finding our way when so many of our neighbors are losing theirs, we can recognize in the midst of crises like these wonderful new opportunities for faithful ministry.
We begin by asking the first question for churches in times of crisis: “Where is God in all this?” The faithful pursuit of a satisfying answer to that question is among our best and most righteous work when the world is too much with us.
I’ve been humbled by the theological depth of my own congregants’ responses to that question. “Perhaps this is God’s judgment on our greed and materialism.” “This is a wake-up call, reminding us of the difference between what is fleeting and what endures.” “I hear God calling us away from ‘church work’ to the work of the church.” And the one which ticks like a time bomb in the basement of my soul: “The more we invest our time, energy, and money in gospel work, the less we’ll need to worry about our own survival as a church.” Which being translated is, if we circle the wagons, we’ll die; but if we strike out on mission to someplace important, we’ll live.
In my experience, thinking theologically during crises is almost never done first, and rarely done at all. But we are a faith community. Thinking intentionally about God’s work among us is what we do. When we do it first, and well, our response to difficulty becomes a faith response, and not merely a programmatic one.
Thinking theologically leads us to the prayer closet before the boardroom. Asking where God is inevitably beckons us to a holy conversation with . . . God.
Most of what I’ve learned about prayer of late has been taught to me by my clients and dear friends, the Sisters of St. Margaret. The sisters are an Episcopal religious order of women called to glorify God and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ through their daily work and common life.5 I call them spiritual “first responders” because their initial reaction to crisis and hardship is to pray. Then they go to work, rolling up their sleeves and doing what they can to be the presence of Christ to those in need. They are wonderfully pragmatic about prayer: they just think it makes good sense, if you’re going to seek God’s strength to deal with hardship and difficulty, to talk with God first. What a concept!
I know of no congregation facing critical issues that, having come through the storm, said in the aftermath, “We spent too much time praying.”
Thinking theologically also leads us to Holy Scripture, our textbook for answering the question, “Where is God in all this?” I recently led a group of thirty-five adults through a three-week Advent study of the infancy narratives. We took the time to dig beneath the flannel-board Christmas of legend and lore and actually reconnect with the biblical story. We wept with Rachel and huddled in fear with Mary and Joseph. We blushed with the shame of outdoor childbirth and unannounced visitors. We wised up with the manifestos of Zechariah and Mary, and departed with an uneasy peace following the painful prophecy of Simeon. Along the way, we reconnected with the daily practice of thinking about God in our daily lives, asking primary questions—doing theology. The study of Scripture will always have that effect, if we do it right. It reconnects us with salvation history.
Arguably the best running back in NFL history, Emmitt Smith was in the twilight of his career with the Dallas Cowboys when he was called on to mentor a young phenom filled with athletic promise. The first time the newbie scored a touchdown he went wild, dancing across the end zone, calling maximum attention to himself. After the demonstration was over and the young man had come to the sidelines, Smith pulled him aside and growled in his ear: “Rookie, act like ya been here before.”
We have been here before. Our own traditions have been shaped by crisis and turmoil, by faith born in hardship. Responding to difficulty is part of who we are. If the current economic crisis in our land sends us back to Scripture in search of how our spiritual forebears responded to crisis, we will be not far from the Kingdom. For the whole drama of redemption is one saga after another of God leading God’s people through wilderness and bramble and fire, through war and peace, through feast and famine, through faith and apostasy, through darkness and light. God’s people have been here before. And, time after time, God proved faithful.
Thinking theologically also elicits sensitive and informed preaching that speaks to deep human needs with deeper truths. Superficial sermons crafted to tickle the ears, shaped into “T
op Ten” lists with catchy alliterations and billboard-worthy titles, skim the surface of a gospel written to people who were dying. Preaching to people in crisis is more than giving them a spiritual lollipop to lick. It is water to the thirsty, meat to the starving, life to the dying.
In his retirement years in Louisville, prince of preachers George Buttrick was invited by the Baptist seminary to teach a few homiletics classes adjunctively. One of the young theologs from Mississippi raised his hand early in the semester and asked, “Dr. Buttrick, just how many points should a good sermon have?” Buttrick gave that wry smile and replied, “Well, my young friend, I should think at least one.”
Here’s the first and only rule about preaching to people in crisis: have something to say. Say it clearly and compassionately, without artifice, in the prayerful hope that God might take your words and give them life. Feed your flock like a shepherd.
Crisis can be a liberating moment because it carries with it permission to change. Urgency supplants complacency every time. I love doing strategic planning with churches and other faith-based groups, but never so much as when their backs are to the wall. When the floor is getting slippery from the bursting of old wineskins, they find the courage to dream new dreams of faith and develop new tactics for accomplishing the dreams they’ve already got.
Crisis and hardship grant permission to ask primary questions. If the theological question is, “Where is God in all this?” the strategic questions are:
- Who are we? Why do we exist?
- What do we believe and highly value?
- Where are we headed in the midst of this crisis?
- How do we intend to get there?
It’s exhilarating to ask these questions again as though for the first time. The fermentation that happens when a group of believers gathers to ponder and wrestle with these questions is powerfully expansive. It can also be life-giving. Just as nations often find their collective voice in response to an enemy, churches can find their true center when their common life is threatened. They discover what matters. As one of my congregants put it, they trade church work for the work of the church. And, for the first time in generations, they get to define anew how they will incarnate the work of the church.
These days I see churches claiming permission to pour the new wine of the gospel into some new wineskins. They are opting for mission and ministry over the maintenance of status quo. They are reinvigorating worship. They are asking primary questions. They are, pardon the cliché, thinking outside the box, not with gimmicky tactics or marketing ploys but wholly new imaginings of how they should live together as followers of Christ.
Some are choosing to be freed from denominational imprisonment for a new, liberating ownership of their own initiatives. Others are intentionally crafting a congregational life tailored to a postmodern world, asking questions like, “How would we want our church to be if we were starting it new, today?” The churches that make it will be those who find the courage to be redeemed from a calcifying past. As Gustav Mahler said, tradition is passing on the fire, not worshiping the ashes.
This recession is also forcing churches to get serious about stewardship and the looming crisis in giving, which threatens to topple congregations like a tidal wave. I’m talking about the “aging out” of our best stewards, and the awful truth that it takes more and more new families to replace the financial support of these elder stalwarts who never got the word that tithing was an option. The minister at a neighboring church recently told me over coffee, “John, I buried $150,000 last year.” I feel his pain. I’ve got at least ten faithful givers in my church who are in their nineties. That tsunami is heading all our ways. The good news is, we now have the opportunity to learn from our nonprofit brothers and sisters, who could not survive with the funding model of anonymous giving and lackluster recognition practiced by most American congregations. Many of us have reached the point of embracing an intentional, clear-eyed approach to funding our mission and ministry. We perform the stewardship of leadership. We (gasp!) look at the giving records. And we make it a point to regularly thank those whose sacrificial gifts are keeping the doors open. (I’m always amused at the feeble arguments advanced by those who don’t want their ministers knowing how little they give. “It will affect how you relate to us,” they exclaim, forgetting that most of us know far more personal information about our parishioners than their giving patterns, and still manage to care for them with compassion and sensitivity.)
The recession may also prompt strategic congregations to take a fresh look at staffing, which in many churches still follows a model unchanged for generations. The technological revolution is allowing churches to do more with fewer employees. The ubiquity of cell phones and e-mail, for example, has rendered many full-time receptionist and clerical assistant positions obsolete. Creative use of part-time staff is the wave of the future.
The pastoral question raised by healthy churches responding to community hardship is, “In which of these persons in need do we see the living Christ?”
My esteemed teacher and friend, Wayne Oates, always wanted us to know that the ministry of the Word involved “rightly dividing” two scripts: the written Word of God and what Anton Boisen called the “living human documents” of our shared faith. It is in our pastoral work in crisis that we live out our truest theologies and most
Already these times are shaking the foundations of the churches I serve. People in need are washing up on our shores like a floating population of refugees. But what an opportunity for the church of the Savior to get involved in the daily work of salvation!
Years ago I landed in a church ruled by a “Board of Deacons” mostly interested in power and authority. They were more “board” than they were “deacons.” There wasn’t much caregiving going on. So we worked around them, creating a series of Christian Care Groups aimed at people in crisis and staffed by volunteers with particular gifts or experience in each area. If someone got laid off, he or she got a call from a fellow believer who had survived unemployment faithfully. When death called, the grief group responded. We had care groups for people experiencing divorce, major surgery, financial need, and transportation issues. Today we’d add groups for victims of domestic violence, people working through gender identity issues, and family survivors of suicide.
Carlyle Marney was once asked by a young minister if his church’s inconspicuous location was the reason it wasn’t growing. Marney replied, “Son, start doing the work of Jesus, and you won’t have any problem with people finding you.”
Marney was right. People in crisis still come to churches for help. Rather than viewing them as a nuisance to be avoided or a problem to be handled, faithful churches will welcome them as an opportunity to welcome the living Christ. David Crocker’s Operation Inasmuch6 is taking many formerly passive churches by storm, leading them into a new, hands-on, year-round involvement with their own neighborhoods and communities. Many churches are rethinking their former fascination with expensive mission trips out of town and channeling their congregational energies into their own backyards. They are getting acquainted with jails and prisons in their hometowns, with homeless shelters, and shelters for battered persons. They are reaching out to the residents of halfway houses. They are getting to kn
ow the illegal immigrants and migrant workers populating their cities. They are caring for people in crisis, in Jesus’s name.
So many of Jesus’s teachings sail over the heads of the cocky and self-assured. Good economic times tend to blind people to spiritual need. But let the foundations of our materialistic culture begin to shake, or an outbreak of war or violence threaten our security, and people start looking for something like a Rock on which to stand. Let a crisis come, and they cling to Christ like drowning souls to a life preserver.
One of my client churches, an historic congregation in Washington, D.C., is surrounded by homeless men and women. The congregation has invited them in, offering food, and hot showers, and clean clothes. Not all the members are thrilled, as you might imagine. The homeless men sleep in the bushes and use the manicured lawn for a bathroom. A few months ago the pastor was a bit late for our planning meeting. When she came in, breathless, she said to me quietly, “Sorry, I was on poop patrol.” Part of her daily commitment to her neighbors of the street is cleaning their excrement off the church lawn, rendering it less offensive to her parishioners, to be sure, but also making it more welcoming to “the least of these.”
She is doing God’s work. And she is modeling for her flock what shepherds do when their sheep are in need.
Crises ought to bring out the best in Jesus people. They provide us an opportunity to think more clearly about God, work more strategically in Christ’s service, and care more deeply for those with the greatest need. It is why we are here. As James instructed his young flock in Jerusalem:
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing (1:2–3).
NOTES1. Amy Grant and Chris Eaton, “Hats.” 1991 ©Age to Age Music, Inc. (ASCAP)/Clouseau Music Ltd. (PRS), adm. by Reunion Music Group, Inc.
2. For more information, see www.hewettconsulting.com.
3. The First Baptist Church, Monroe, North Carolina (www.monroefirstbaptist.org).
4. William Wordsworth, “The World is Too Much with Us,” The Complete Poetical Works (London: Macmillan and Co., 1888); Bartleby.com, Inc., 2008.
5. Learn more about the Sisters of St. Margaret at www.ssmbos.com.
6. For more information, see www.operationinasmuch.com.
Questions for Reflection
- How can we avoid the temptation to interpret the current economic recession nationally rather than personally—that is, as a wake-up call for the country rather than an opportunity to be renewed spiritually as individuals?
- Is my church structured, organized, and funded for maintenance of the status quo or mission?
- Which ministry programs in my church have lost their effectiveness and are being maintained out of sentimental devotion to the past? If we were to start over from scratch in 2009, what would we jettison? What would we create or recreate for this present day?
- What biblical events are useful for interpreting the present economic uncertainty? How can God’s faithfulness to Israel inform our preaching to frightened parishioners? How can Jesus’s teaching about worrying over possessions encourage believers who are losing what they have?
- Is my church prepared to care for those injured or otherwise damaged by this economic crisis? What sort of disaster relief are we prepared to offer?