Another Look at What Makes You a Christian?

By Cindy Gregorson, Director of Ministries

I have a confession.  I did not go to worship for the past two weeks.  When my mother learned this, she said to me, “The devil was on my back!”  She was teasing me, sort of.  She is from the generation that if you are a Christian you are in worship every Sunday unless you are sick or out of town.  When I was a pastor in a local church, I held out the same expectation for those who claimed membership in that community of faith.  And yet, I was neither sick or out of town.  The first weekend I had been going non-stop for several weeks and just need some time and space for myself.  I wanted a day where I had no expectations to be any place, do anything.  I needed Sabbath.  And so I claimed it.  The second weekend I had not been able to get in my usual exercise in on Friday and Saturday due to other commitments, and so I decided to go to spin class on Sunday morning instead of worship.  Ironically, the instructor never showed.  So maybe my mother has a point!  I did exercise anyway….and is not spending an hour working your body, paying attention to your breathing, clearing your mind, being present to the present, in its own way worship?

I may have missed two weeks of formal worship, but I feel like I worship all the time.  I was in a meeting yesterday morning that began with worship.  I have communion once a month with a team of leaders.  I frequently am offering prayers, publicly and privately.  I am always aware of how I am or am not living for God.  I start each day reading a daily devotion and I listen to Christian music on my way to work.  I work for the church.  I think about God all the time, and I really, really try to pay attention of how I am showing up as a Christian in the world every day. 

Now I know how easily patterns and habits get formed.  One week becomes two, two becomes three, and before you know it, it has been months since you have been at worship in church.  And I do benefit from being a part of a larger community, to hearing a word from God that I might not have chosen to focus on or would open me to new possibilities.  I am often blessed by the music, the prayers, the message offered at the church I attend.  I wrote a previous blog about the value of community forming us for faith and life. I often say I am who I am because of the faith community that loved me, shaped me and called forth gifts from me and sent me out to lead.  What surprised me in this whole episode was how much I really did not want to go to worship, for a variety of reasons, and how hard it was to give myself permission to choose not to be there and feel like that was not a statement about my devotion to God, or my desire to be a faithful Christian.   The tapes running through my head went something like this:  A good Christian would be there.  I am a pastor after all.  If I am choosing not to go to church, what does that say about me? Am I being selfish choosing to meet my needs instead of giving this hour to God? Can I dare confess this “transgression” to my colleagues, my family (and the world on this blog) without getting judged for my choice?  Does it really make me any less of a Christian if I am not in worship every Sunday? 

So in these days as we are re-thinking church, and Christianity, I find myself again pondering what makes you a Christian, and how does the church, the faith community engage us and support us in that journey.  Is being a good church member and being a good Christian one and the same thing?  When I am working with churches, I am always stressing the difference between activity and productivity.  Just because we have people in activities (worship and small groups and hands-on mission) it does not actually mean life change is occurring.  But if we never have people in those activities, we are missing the opportunity for life change to potentially occur.  And what is the difference of the role of the faith community when you are a committed Christian as I am?  Should I be there for the sake of the community, even though my own faith commitment will not be diminished by missing a week or two here or there?  And if Sunday morning is really one of the last times in people’s lives that is open, unstructured, where people have margin to just be…do we need to rethink how and when we gather for worship so people can truly experience Sabbath on Sundays?  I know for me, if I don’t have commitments to other churches, it is the one morning of the week I would have the luxury to sleep in, read the paper, drink coffee, listen to the birds sing, not rush out the door, to just be.  Is that equally needful for my soul and spirit as going to worship?  And my cynical self wonders if the faith community really cares if I show up for worship or not as long as I keep sending in my money.  But that is a whole other topic!!

These are all things I am thinking about and would love to hear how you are wrestling with this and moving it beyond the usual responses of either You don’t have to go to church to be a good Christian, or You can’t be a good Christian without the church.    I don’t see either of those statements being completely, fully true.  There is something deeper, more complex about Christianity and the faith community and how they intersect…and what does that look like for our time.  So share with me what is your reality, and how are you trying to make sense of it all.  I am truly curious especially as we seek to make faith and church real and relevant for today.

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By Cindy Gregorson, Director of Ministry

I am an Easter Christian.  Some people are drawn to Christmas and captured by the sense that God would dare to take human form and dwell in our midst.  Others seek to pattern themselves after the life and teaching of Jesus and find great meaning in the call to love God and love neighbor as Jesus commanded.  Then there are Good Friday Christians who are always moved and overwhelmed by the depth of God’s love for us that Jesus would suffer and die for us.  But me, I am an Easter Christian.  I stake my life on two little words of scripture: But God.  It comes from Ephesians 2 where the apostle Paul starts out talking about how we were dead because of our sins.  We followed the ways of the world, and lost our way.  It led us to a place that was no life.  And then Paul says just when we thought that was a dead end, and there seemed no way out, here is the most beautiful and amazing thing: But God, who is rich mercy, out of the great love with which he has loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-by grace you have been saved…

I don’t know about you, but in my life, I feel like there are so many things that I mess up, don’t get right, and there are so many situations I face that I feel helpless to change.  I need to know that God is alive, active and at work in my life and the world.  That no matter how it appears to me in this moment, there is still the possibility of something more: that I can be transformed and the situation can be changed.  If life is all up to me, getting it right, figuring it out by myself, dealing with each thing I meet in life with only my own resourcefulness and strength, I will always fall short.  That is why I need those two words: but God.  When I don’t see a way forward, but God, who is rich mercy, makes a way in the wilderness.  When I think I have encountered death and nothing else can be done, but God, who rich in mercy, raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  When I feel knocked down, and not sure if I can keep going one more moment, but God, who rich in mercy, gives me grace enough for this moment and the next. 

Our world is full of bad news.  There are hurricanes, tsunamis, civil wars, crushing poverty just to name a few things.  In my own life, I have family members who struggle with addiction, debt, unemployment and aging.  I have friends and colleagues who are facing life-threatening illness and have lost loved ones.  There is so much that we want to be better, different, to fix and in our finite humanness, we are limited in our ability to respond.  One moment I will always remember from my pastoral ministry is the time I received a call from the Sheriff’s Department on the Wednesday of Holy Week to come to the hospital.  A family was there.  Their toddler daughter had just died and they could not reach their pastor.  Could I come?  I prayed with that family and helped them say goodbye to their little girl and walk out of the emergency room leaving her behind.  Sunday morning I remember preaching about what does resurrection really mean if little girls die for no apparent reason?  There has to be more to the story, because if this is all there is to life, it is not enough.  It is not enough to meet us in our sadness, grief and loss.  It is not enough to see us through.  We need a stronger, deeper, truer story than we are born and we die and that is all you can expect from life…that is how it works.

I say no to that.  I say there is more.  We come from God, we return to God, and in between, there is this other reality: but God!  There is a God who is taking our trials and tribulations, and not only sustaining us in the midst of them, but actually transforming them into something more.  I don’t know what happened to that family after we walked out of the emergency room that day.  I never saw them again. I entrusted them to God and their pastor and faith community.   I pray that they discovered the power of Easter.  I know for me, without Easter, Christianity is a nice religion, a comfort in hard times and a good way to live, but with Easter, Christianity is a powerful hope, and not just good news, but great news…God is not done with us.  There is more to this life, more to my life, more to the story.  Just when it looks like you are at a dead end, wait…because God is still at work, and transformation is possible.  I have to believe that.  Otherwise cynicism would take over my life given the realities of the world.  But as an Easter Christian, I keep trying, working, praying, hoping, believing…and I expect to be surprised by the good news of God who is never, ever done with us. 

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Fairness and transparency

By Loren Bergstedt, Congregational Development Assistant

Change is hard for most of us. In this blog, Cindy often reiterates that change in the church is also hard. Over the weekend, I was a participant in a discussion group that is addressing areas of potential change in one ministry. Part of the discussion was sparked by the consideration of the sale of a property. For many people, church property can become a very personal matter. The sale or closing of a church building or church campground can bring sadness and grief.  For some of us, the ministry that happened at that location might have been our first encounter with Jesus. It might be where we recommitted our life to Him or a place unlike any other place where we feel the presence of the Savior.  Yet, although the message of the Gospel is changeless, new realities around us often require our ministry to change as we reach new people in our midst. Yet, this change is not easy. Sometimes we don’t know which way to go and sometimes we disagree with our brothers and sisters.

I was apprehensive about attending the meeting. I knew that the topic was deeply personal to some who would attend and that we would not agree on a solution. Our facilitators spent time drawing the group into a cohesive unit encouraging everyone that we are deep friends who share a common vision for the ministry. It was clear we were to respect each other, communicate with each other, and take responsibility for our own behavior. We were called to focus first on Jesus and loving others; we were called to focus on our shared ministry. It was time to lay aside our assumptions, our own wants, and our feelings of being “right.” Many people had very differing opinions and felt very passionately; yet the environment was sympathetic, caring, and loving because we specifically focused on creating that environment. I can’t help but think that Jesus would have been very proud.

No decisions were made, yet someone made a statement that really touched me. He basically said: I have been doing ministry for many years. I would be willing to let go of something dear to me for the good of the others… if the process was fair and we are transparent.”

Isn’t this what many of us really want in the change process? Yes, there are moments when we get swept up in what we personally want to see happen. But after we clear that away, we often just want the process to be fair; we want all voices at the table (including our own) to be heard.  We are more able to accept decisions that negatively affect us if we believe that all options were truly explored. We like to believe that we can trust that the process is transparent….that decisions aren’t being made underneath the table…that we are not being kept in the dark…that everyone is being honest.

Yet, we also know that ministry in the church isn’t always a democracy.  In both the Old and New Testament God called leaders forth who made decisions for groups of people. Sometimes change is simply more effective when done with a limited number of people. Yet, still we can practice fairness and transparency. Leaders who must initiate change can still listen to the voices around them and be compassionate when the change they bring about will cause a loss for others. They can still practice humility and explore the options put forth by others. And being transparent in the decision making process will actually give strength to their character and leadership. People are more willing to follow someone they believe is being forthright. They also might be more embracing of a change of direction.

When seeking a solution that affected others, when have you been less than fair and less than transparent? How can you do it differently next time?

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By Cindy Gregorson, Director of Ministry

I was asked today what value do I want to pass on to future generations?   Generosity is immediately what came to mind.  I wasn’t thinking about money which is usually how we think about generosity.  I was imagining a generosity of spirit where we assume the best of each other, where we live with an open stance towards each other and the world.  I think why that surfaced so quickly is that I am constantly trying to cultivate it in myself.

 I found myself in one of those conversations recently where there was a difference of opinions.  I kept pushing back on the other person’s ideas: why I disagreed or why that wouldn’t work.  I wanted to prove my point, to be right.  And because I thought I was right (we usually do don’t we, otherwise we would change our mind about something!!) I was not generous in the conversation.  I did not listen as well as I could have.  I did not ask open ended questions.   Luckily, part way through the conversation I realized what I was doing and shifted my behavior by asking a genuinely curious question that invited the other person more fully into the conversation.  Now we were engaging in dialogue and they, I trust, were feeling heard, and ultimately valued.  And surprise, surprise,  we had a better outcome than if I had simply kept steam rolling through. 

I am going into some crucial conversations in the next couple of weeks.  I need to be at my best.  And one of the questions I keep holding is “what would I be doing or saying if I am assuming the best of the other person.”  My personality type is hard wired to make quick judgments, to draw things to closure, to get results no matter what it takes.  I have to constantly work at generosity because it does not come naturally to me.  In my head, it is easy to start categorizing, and defining people.  “They don’t just disagree, they are being obstinate.  They aren’t just cautious, they are resistant.  They aren’t just being responsible, they are being controlling.”  But when I go there, I find it does not help.  I have moved us into an “I am right, you are wrong” scenario where I keep assuming the worst of you.  And all that has done is keep us stuck and at a distance.

I know I am not alone in this. I see it in churches all the time.  We disagree with someone about something, and we immediately assume the worst instead of the best.  The pastor did not come see me in the hospital therefore the pastor must not care about me.  We jumped to a conclusion without checking out our assumptions.  Maybe the pastor didn’t know we were in the hospital.  Maybe the pastor had a crisis of her own that day.  I have seen congregations start labeling and almost demonizing a whole group of people when they have been at odds about the direction a congregation should take.   “They are the old guard who don’t know what it means to follow Jesus and only care about the protecting the building!”  “They are the upstarts who want to change everything around here without any respect for our traditions!”    If we were assuming the best of each other instead of the worst, if we were not so quick to impute bad motives to their actions, how would that change our relationship, our conversations and ultimately our community?

I believe the practice of generosity is so important because we live in a world that is getting more diverse and more crowded every day.  I don’t believe that “right and might” can ultimately solve the complexities of the world we live in.  Neither will isolation and separation.  You can’t get through life without learning how to deal with people.  And even if you can find a place in the middle of nowhere where you can be a hermit, what happens on the other side of the world is still going to affect you.  We are interconnected whether we like it or not. 

So if you ask me why church matters I would say this: when the church is taking seriously what it means to be the church, we are a microcosm of living in a community that is really trying to love one another, forgive one another, understand one another, disagree and still see each other as beloved children of God.  The church, like no other community, is called to be intentional and disciplined in its practice of living together with glad and generous hearts, no matter how much that other person gets on your last nerve!!.   We desperately need those kinds of communities that teach us how to live that way.  And I keep believing that if the church can truly figure out how to be this kind of community at least 75% of the time, then there really is hope for the world.

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Can We Imagine It?

By Cindy Gregorson, Director of Ministry

I was out shoveling yet again today.  I am thinking this is the end of February, surely spring will come again.  But I have to tell you, seeing the landscape blanketed in white, I can hardly imagine green grass, and the weather being hot enough for shorts and tank tops.  And this is from someone who has experienced summer.  I know what it is, and I know surely it will come.  And still I can’t see it from where I currently stand.

I think about this as I consider the time we live in.  Edwin Friedman, author of A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in an Age of Quick Fix, talks about “imaginative gridlock”.  He states that anxious systems are characterized by this thinking.  We are stuck on what we know to be true, and fixated on finding answers to old questions, and that to break out of this we need a sense of adventure and a willingness to live with uncertainty.    When I work with churches, and especially when I am asking them to explore with creativity a new way of being church, often the first thing they ask me is who else is doing this?  Show us the model they request.  And I reply back, I don’t know where else or even if anyone else is doing this.  We are living in pioneering times in the church.  We have to blaze the trail.  I get how hard that is.  I can barely imagine spring while living in the midst of winter, let alone imagine something I have never experienced or known.  How do I go there?

Friedman in his book talks about the Renaissance and the role of exploration in helping to create a new era.  Christopher Columbus did not set out to find the Americas.  It was an accident.  A serendipity.  But the idea of a whole new world out there opened up amazing possibilities that influenced art, architecture, science, politics, religion.  Imaginative gridlock was broken by some people finding the nerve to be adventurous in the face of the known realities.

I read the newspaper about the rallies in Wisconsin. I listen to MPR about the national debt.   People are angry and stuck.  We don’t want our taxes raised.  We don’t want our services cut.  We want our children to have the best education. We want education spending to be reduced.   We want workers to have the right to bargain for just work conditions and equitable pay.  We don’t like big government. We know we cannot keep borrowing against the future.   We keep having the same conversation over and over.  I think we need a new question.  We need something to break us out of our imaginative gridlock. 

A long, long time ago, I was trying out a new video game with my nephew.  It was one of those Ages of the Empire ones.  The tutorial was teaching us how to play.  In what little I know about the game, you have to manage this dual task of collecting wood, food, resources to build your world, but at the same time you need to see what is out in there beyond the world you are building.  I remember that as my nephew and I played our natural tendency was to stockpile resources, but the tutorial kept urging us: keep exploring the map! 

It is so easy to want to hunker down, protect what we have, play it safe.  But interestingly enough, that is never a long term strategy for survival.  We need to find some new ways, and that is going to mean venturing out from what is safe and comfortable, willing to try and learn, becoming rather adventurous, discovering some things on chance…things we would never find if we don’t leave the known world for the unknown.  We need to keep exploring the map. 

So I am curious…how do you cultivate a sense of imagination?  When you are bombarded by what is, overwhelmed with dealing with current reality (it is still snowing as I write this!), how do you get a new perspective, discover a new question to ponder, explore a different path?  What gives you the courage and capacity to do that?  I leave you with these words from Edwin Friedman:

We are on our way to becoming a nation of “skimmers” living off the risks of previous generations and constantly taking from the top without adding significantly to its essence.  Everything we enjoy as part of our advanced civilization including the discovery, exploration and development of our country, came about because previous generations made adventure more important than safety. 

So what are the risks we are willing to take, and can we even imagine a new world?

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We Never Did It That Way Before

By Cindy Gregorson, Director of Ministry

I keep asking myself, “What if we had not inherited this structure, memory, or tradition of being church?”

What if all we had was a transforming experience of Jesus? What if we simply wanted to better understand that experience, to keep it alive, and share it with others? What would we, as the church, be doing?

When I talk with clergy and congregations, it is often about trying to sustain and maintain what we have inherited. There is a building that needs to be cared for. There are expectations to be met. (“Well, pastor, you need to . . .” [fill in the blank].) There is the annual rummage sale or turkey dinner that needs to be “pulled off” one more time. We have committees that need to meet and we need to find people for those committees because the Book of Discipline tells us are supposed to.

And I frequently hear that we are tired, worn out, worried, and anxious about trying to keep all this going, and we are not sure this is what we signed up for when we joined this church or answered the call into ordained ministry.

So we have this angst about whether these are the best things to do. And yet, at the same time, have you ever tried to end one of these traditions; to suggest that we stop doing the annual “whatever”? Oh my! You see the strong attachments to what we have always been doing!

And at the heart of it, I think, is because if we stop doing that, we are not sure what we would be doing. How do we engage people if we don’t have the annual turkey dinner at which so-and-so, who doesn’t come to anything else, works that night? How would we make decisions if we did not have that committee? How could we be a church if we did not meet in this building? Who am I as a pastor if I am not the one to make all the hospital calls?

What if we—changing nothing at this time—asked ourselves, “What if we had none of this stuff that we have to keep, maintain, and sustain, but we wanted to grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ, and invite others to experience what we believe is good and true and life-giving about faith in Jesus Christ?”

What would we be doing?

Funnily enough, for me, however I answer that question, it does not lead to buildings, budgets, committees, or fundraisers.

I would probably start by sitting at a kitchen table, having coffee, and talk about my life and experience of Jesus with others who are trying to make sense out of their lives and experiences with Jesus. I would read scripture and ask, “What does this mean for my life?” I would invite others who are searching to join me around the table. I would connect with other people on the journey for mutual encouragement. I would ask a couple of people to support me, challenge me, equip me, and hold me accountable in living in the way of Jesus.

An old adage is that the seven last words of the church are “we never did it that way before.” That alone speaks to how invested we’ve become in our traditions, patterns, habits, and practices.

What if we reclaimed that adage, but in an open-ended way: “We never it did it that way before, but let’s give it a try and see what happens.” Or “Good, we are doing something new we have never done before!”

“We never did it that way before” is no longer a conversation stopper but an imaginative step into the future, and an affirmation of our openness to experimenting with new ideas.

From everything I read, and what my own experience is telling me, we in the church need to be asking these kinds of questions. We have to ask what it means to be church now, if we are going to be real and relevant to our culture.

I am not against tradition. There are many wonderful things about church that are worth carrying to future generations. But I am not a fan of doing something just because we have always done it, without asking the “purpose and meaning” questions.

We need to ask why we are doing this; how this is helping us; and whether it leads us to be a more faithful, fruitful, effective church. Is there something better we could be or should be doing instead of this? And is it really OK to say we did that for a season, but now we are moving on to what we believe God is calling us to next?

So . . . what would it look like to have that conversation?

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From “Have to” to “Want to”

By Cindy Gregorson, Director of Ministry

So my last blog generated some conversation with lots of interesting perspectives.  There are many places where I could jump in, but let me pick up one thread.  Let me clarify what I mean by my wondering what it will take for church to become the “must do” thing in my nieces’ and nephews’ lives. 

One of my nephews plays hockey.  He loves hockey.  He’s not one of those kids who played from the time he could walk.  He actually came to it later in life, by hockey standards.  He would play backyard pick-up games.  His high school was forming a new hockey program after years without one and he was able to make the team even having never played team hockey before. 

 The schedule for hockey is demanding.  My nephew gives up time over Christmas break to go to practice.  He does not make commitments to other events until he knows his hockey schedule.  He loves to play.  He loves to hang out with his teammates. 

My nephew knows this about himself: he is a person who needs to be engaged in sports.   Baseball is another passion, but I think hockey is his greater love, partly because he didn’t expect to be able to play at this level.  A major factor in his college choice is an opportunity to play either baseball or hockey (or even better, both). While he knows he will never be a recruited athlete, he knows he needs an outlet for playing sports.  Hockey is shaping the key decisions of his life.

Hockey is a “want to” for my nephew.  Sure, it is hard work, physically demanding, takes a toll on his body, and makes for some long nights getting homework done after a game. But for him, it is all worth it.

When I say I wonder what it will take for church to become a “must do” in the lives of my nieces and nephews, I meant that I wish for them to want it as much as my nephew wants hockey in his life.  I want them to have the same experience of a faith community that he does with his teammates, with whom he loves to hang out and accomplish great things that he did not not think possible; with whom he has discovered things about himself he did not know before.  I want church to matter so much to my nieces and nephews that they are willing to be an active part of it even when they are tired and have other choices that could be equally if not more fun.

My nieces and nephews told me that when they no longer “had to” be part of church–when their parents stopped requiring it of them and allowed it to be their choice–they discovered they really didn’t want to, and that is why they stopped attending.   Once upon a time it was considered a “have to” to be a part of a church.  Everyone was; it was just what you did, whether you wanted to or not. 

That concept has disappeared in our culture, and if we in the church are waiting for anyone to return to the church because they will wake up someday and believe it is something they are supposed to do, we will be waiting a long time.  I am not putting the blame on my nieces and nephews for not being a part of the church.  I totally understand it. Church can feel like just one more demand on one’s time, the community feels closed off and one has to work too hard to try to connect and belong, it can be boring, and there is way too little experience of God and way too much institutional business.   I long for a church where somebody actually asks me what I hope for in my life and my relationship with God and then takes the time to listen and invite me to a deeper place.  

Given all that, why do I want this for my nieces and nephews?  For one reason, and one reason only:  What I have discovered in life is that following Jesus is a better way to live.  As much as my nephew loves playing hockey, it will not sustain him throughout his life.  It will not hold him up in the darkest hours of his life.  It will not be there for him if he is not good enough to make the team.   Hockey is fun, it is giving him some life lessons, and it brings joy to his life, but it is temporary.  Jesus, I believe, is the way that leads to life and following Jesus gives me an identity that is strong enough, true enough, deep enough for all of my life. 

So even on the days I don’t want to go church, I have to, because church is what keeps me remembering who I am and whose I am. It is where I get the ability to navigate my way in the world.  And because I have to–for the sake of the life I want to lead and knowing that in Jesus that life is possible–then I want to; I have made it a priority.  This is so important to me that I will order my life around it. 

That is what I mean by church being the “must do” thing in our lives.  I am willing to tolerate a lot that I find irrelevant and irritating about the church because I am committed to following Jesus.  But this is not so with my nieces and nephews.  And if we are interested in them and want them to discover this way of life, then we need to take a good hard look at what we are doing in our churches and ask what do we need to do differently so this will become a “want to” for them.

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They Don’t Care

By Cindy Gregorson, Director of Ministry

I had a homework assignment over the Christmas holidays: to interview the young adults in my family about their experience of the church.  I was able to manage to spend time with three of my five nieces and nephews who are 18 or older.  All three had grown up in the church and each, as soon as they had the choice, stopped attending. Sure, there were things they didn’t like about church. But they did not leave out of anger.  Mostly, they simply got busy doing other things and didn’t find church all that interesting or engaging.  They did not see the need to be a part of a church. They would define themselves as good people seeking to live honest, moral lives.  They believed in God but felt no desire to participate in a church.  When I pressed them about what they thought the church could be doing better or what concerns they had about the church, they had difficulty being specific.  What I realized is this is something they just don’t care about. 

I asked two of them if they have any friends who were active participants in a church.  They could only think of one or two people, and each of them happened to be Roman Catholic.   That surprised me.  It reminded me of how far behind we have left Christendom.   I then asked if one of their good friends was involved in a church and excited about it, and invited them to attend, would they go?  They shrugged their shoulders and said maybe.

I knew this, but now I really know this.  It will be a challenge to engage this generation in church as it has been.  Our best advertizing, the amazing band and music, the dynamic preaching, our great small groups or even our making a difference in the world is not going to attract them.  They feel like they are living life fine without a Christian community. Sunday morning is their last unscheduled time and they are not willing to give that up for something that they don’t really care all that much about.   As for a caring community, they have that a thousand other ways in their constant social networking. 

I was left pondering, what will it take for church to be the “must do” thing in their life?  I don’t have a lot of answers except I know church has to become a lot more radical and exciting than it has been if it is going to engage my nieces and nephews, and they are only going to give us a chance if they perceive it to be worth the bother…and that means it has relevant to their life and people of their age cohort are also there.  Since the average age of a United Methodist is 60…we have our work cut out for us!!

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It Is Not Always What You Think

By Cindy Gregorson, Director of Congregational Development

So we had this major snowstorm on Saturday.  17 inches of snow and 25 mph winds.  Even by Minnesota standards, this was a doozy.  On Sunday, I was scheduled to go to Motley which on a good day is 2 hours and 40 minutes from my home.  People, (read my mom) said are you really going to go?  As the wind was howling, and I looked at the drifts in my driveway, I wondered if I could make it.  But I called the snowplow company that does my driveway and asked them to dig me out by 5:30am which they did.  The neighborhood streets were plowed(a major reason why I live in the suburbs!).  The wind had died down.  Once I made it to the freeway, it was pretty much clear sailing.  Churches all over the Twin Cities were closed because of impassable roads, but I went to Motley and back.  And people (colleagues, friends and yes, my mom) were amazed that I did.

The next morning, I think, after driving to Motley and back the day after a major snowstorm, going to work should be a breeze.  Just in case, I wait until after rush hour to leave home, and I head out, only to experience gridlock.  It took me an hour and 15 minutes to drive 25 miles (with a few detours to try to find a better route that was actually moving.)  But I did not win the award.  Others in our office who lived closer in than me, logged in 2 hour commute times.  Who would have thought?

Isn’t that how it goes?  When you are leading a change process, sometimes what you think will be a major obstacle or hurdle turns out to not to be at all.  And when it doesn’t, you get complacent, believing this change initiative is going to be smooth sailing and everyone has bought in, and then “Bam!” you hit a major roadblock, and there you are stuck, and wondering if you are going to get anywhere at all.  So what are you going to do?

Well, for one thing, I will not expect smooth sailing tomorrow on my way to work.  The snow is still piled high, the cold temperatures will cause black ice.  So I will be a wiser person commuting on those roads and allow for plenty of extra time.  And I will have my plan B and C in mind if I hit instant gridlock on my usual routes.  Sometimes choosing another course opens up possibilities.  If I had stayed on Cedar this morning, I think I might still be there!!

So it is as a leader in the church.  We need to understand all the dynamics at play, and just because we sailed through in one area, doesn’t mean everything else is resolved.  We need to watch for where else we might get stuck, to give ourselves extra time, to plan some alternative actions to break the gridlock, and to simply be patient.  As much as I would like it to be spring tomorrow, winter is here for awhile.  In leading change, it takes time to get to the place where the change is accepted and is the new way of life.  And when we are in the thick of it, it can feel like winter…long, cold, and never ending.  But we are Minnesotans.  We know the art of enduring and persevering.  Regroup if you have to…get off the main drag for a while if that helps, but don’t give up.  If you keep at it, you will get there, sometime.  Really you will.

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Do You Have to Go to Church to Be a Good Christian?

By Cindy Gregorson, Director of Congregational Development

I hear it all the time that people don’t attend worship or participate in a church and yet consider themselves a Christian.  They would say it is what you believe that matters. They believe in Jesus and all that Jesus taught.  They believe there is a God and they believe they are good people and surely God loves them and they don’t need to go to church to be all those things.  And it is true, you don’t need to go to church to believe in God; God loves you whether you go to church or not.   However, I am not certain how good a Christian you can be without the church.  It turns out it does matter who you hang out with and how often. 

Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, state that people who participate in religious communities tend to be better neighbors and citizens.  Their research has shown that, all other factors held constant, church going people volunteer more time, give more money, give more blood, are more likely to vote, to take part in local civic life and to trust others than those who are not religious.  Now here is the surprising part.  It turns out it is not what these people believe that make the difference, it is how often they attend.  Belonging, not believing is crucial.  It seems that the people you meet at church are not only church people, but are generous engaged citizens of the wider community.  When you hang around them, their virtues rub off on you.

I went to worship today.  I didn’t particularly feel like going.  It had been a busy weekend.  I didn’t have any commitments to be anywhere particular.  I could have just slept in and called it good.  God would have loved me no less.  But I went.  And I saw a video of how over 300 people in this congregation served others during their recent urban plunge.  And I saw pictures of the school this congregation had helped to build in Jamaica and I heard a message about how God’s kingdom is not quite here in its fullness but we have a picture of it and we can be a part of helping people experience it.  In short, by attending, I was reminded, encouraged about the kind of person I could be and wanted to be.  The virtues of this particular group of people are shaping me.

Can I be a Christian without attending church? Sure.  Can I be a good Christian without regular participation in a community of faith?  I can be a good person.  My parents raised me well, but then again, they raised me in the church…but I think I am a better person and certainly a better Christian for belonging to a faith community, and making it habit to hang out with people who seek to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with God.  My parents were right after all.  Choose your friends wisely for they will be profound influences on who you become.

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