October 2011


You may have heard the old quote that three things matter when it comes to real estate – location, location and location.  Although likely in the past few years many are wondering if anything matters when it comes to the value of real estate!

This blog contribution is not to pique your interest in real estate investment.  Those three words also capture why our Seminary Board chooses to meet on campus in Marion, IN for some of its’ meetings, while some meetings take place in other locations.

We’re grateful to be rooted on the main campus at IWU, and it is exciting to see houses being moved, streets vacated and the property cleared for our new Seminary facility to be constructed beginning next Spring.  And we’re thankful for the opportunity to serve the Midwestern United States where we reside.  But we wouldn’t want a “Midwest mindset” to thwart our vision to serve our whole nation and world.  That’s why we have Board representatives from across North America, and also why we hold some of our meetings in locations other than the Midwest.

In the fall of 2010 our Board was hosted by 12Stone Church in Atlanta, GA.  Being “on location” in one of the world’s great cities, rooted in the South but drawing people from all over the world, we could visualize the challenges and opportunities of major urban areas.

Just last month, we were “on location” in New York.  One of our Board members is Major George Hood, National Community Relations & Development Secretary of the Salvation Army (SA).  He arranged for us to be hosted by SA Educational Center in Suffern, NY.  The first day our Board visited the Harlem Temple Corps Center in New York City, and we were briefed on the amazing work they do as a local church and compassion ministry as we toured the facility and saw them in action.  It once again awakened us to the realities of serving the great urban areas of the world.

Location matters.  The church you serve is located in a specific community with its own unique demographics and culture.  The New Testament is full of epistles named for the location of their intended audiences – Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, and Thessalonica.  Effective ministry will be contextualized for its location.

But those New Testament letters were filled with reminders the Church of Jesus Christ transcends any one location.  The power to witness propelled them beyond Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.  Offerings were collected in one location to serve the needs of another.  A church was affirmed when its faith was so vibrant that it spread beyond its immediate location – “The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia – your faith in God has become known everywhere.” (I Thessalonians 1:8)

The Board of Wesley Seminary at IWU seeks to envision our educational ministry faithfully serving ministry leaders in the Midwest, yet being part of a global network of intensive sites and technological connections that enables us to reach to the ends of the earth.  The nomadic nature of our meeting locations in these formative years of our Seminary enlarges and broadens our vision.  It is one way we can intentionally seek to escape being limited by location, but instead leverage location in recognition that, in the words of John Wesley, “the world is our parish.”

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 How do you define spiritual formation? (Colleen Derr)

That’s not an easy question to answer.  On the surface, it may appear obvious – it is the process of becoming like Christ.  However, there are many interpretations of the terms and a broad scope of what the phrase can include. Dallas Willard (2006)[1] suggested:

We need to recognize that spiritual formation…is not necessarily a Christian spiritual formation. Spiritualities abound on all sides, and we are fast coming to the point where we have a spirituality of practically everything…All other ‘spiritualities’ present themselves as equal. (p. 71)

If you do, however, hold to a definition that is in line with what Paul describes in Romans 12:1-3 and 2 Corinthians 3:18, then I challenge you to think past how you define it personally and consider how you practice it corporately.

In our practice, do we define spiritual formation as a program’s outcome or do we embrace an ”ecology” of faith formation?

How do we know if our practice suggests we see spiritual formation as a program’s outcome?

  • We measure success by numbers in attendance;
  • The curriculum determines the outcome;
  • We ask questions that require a demonstration of remembering and understanding;
  • We challenge our people to attend, give, and serve;
  • We maintain an approach to spiritual formation that has worked for years; and
  • We focus on what we do when we’re together.

These are all good things but are they good enough to truly result in transformation as described by Paul?

On the other hand, how do we know if we define spiritual formation through our practice of an ecology of faith?

Sondra Higgins Matthaei[2] (2000), in her work Making Disciples: Faith Formation in the Wesleyan Tradition, suggested that as “ecology” addresses the interconnected relationships within nature, an ”ecology of faith formation” embraces the “interconnected, interdependent, and interacting complex of relationships, structures, and practices” within our churches.  In other words, we recognize that spiritual formation (faith formation) occurs in an interconnected system that includes corporate programs but also includes personal and corporate relationships, practices, rituals, and celebrations that happen in the church and outside of it.  Spiritual formation is greater than the results of our programs.

If we see spiritual formation as an ecology, our practice would:

  • Measure success by life change, becoming more like Christ;
  • Engage an outcome that flowed from the vision;
  • Encourage questions that move our people to deeper level thinking, reflection, analysis, and application;
  • Challenge our people to spiritual growth and a deeper commitment that results in giving, compassion, and serving;
  • Look for ways to create greater impact and adjust the methods to meet the new challenges and needs without compromising The Message; and
  • Focus on “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NIV).

Dallas Willard (2006) also suggested, “Everyone receives spiritual formation, just as everyone gets an education. The only question is whether it is a good one or a bad one” (p. 69).  Program defined spiritual formation isn’t “bad” it just isn’t good enough to move our people on to the kind of radical transformation Paul speaks of, Christ expects, and they are capable of through the work of the Holy Spirit.  That kind of spiritual formation understands and embraces the interconnected personal and relational systems, relationships, programs, rituals, and celebrations at work forming our people into the likeness of Christ.

What does your practice say about your definition of spiritual formation?


[1] Willard, D. (2006). The great omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s essential teachings on discipleship. San Francisco, CA: Harper.

[2] Matthaei proposes how the church today should establish a system of faith formation based on the writings and practices of John and Charles Wesley.

It must grieve our heavenly Father to see people stop attending church.  The parables of the lost sheep…the lost coin…the lost son in Luke 15 illustrate the emotions of distress, sorrow, pain that come with losing something of great value.  God must feel those same emotions when people leave a community of faith.

As caretakers of Christ’s Church, I believe we should seek to be the best possible stewards of the people over whom we have been given spiritual charge.  Most churches can do a better job of integrating newcomers into the family so that those new members grow as faithful practitioners of God’s message of hope and love.

The Research

I was involved in a fascinating study of people who stopped attending church.  One curious thing we found was that of all the people who drop out of church, 82% leave in the first year of their membership!  The first 12 months are apparently a very critical time in the life of both the new member and the congregation.

Upon further study, however, we learned that it is not a random pattern in which people leave during the first year.  There are two definite “spikes” when an inordinate number of new members stop attending. The pattern looks something like this:

Our curiosity, of course, was aroused. We interviewed 36 people who had stopped attending their church after six months; then another 36 who had stopped attending after a year. “What happened?” we wanted to know. “Could you tell us your story?”

Later, we listened to the recordings of these conversations for common themes…and found some!  New members, it turns out, are asking questions.  Often they are not even aware of their concerns at that moment.  But upon later analysis, the issues became readily apparent…

The questions your new members are asking in the first six months

1. “Can I make friends in this church?”  One study found that new members who stay in church make an average of seven new friends in the first year, those who drop out make less than two.

2. “Is there a place I can fit in?”  The more people your new member finds in the church who are “like me,” the more that person is likely to stay.  Common age, marital status, family status, special needs, interests, concerns all help newcomers feel comfortable in their new surroundings.  Birds of a feather flock together.

3. “Does this church really want me?”  After the warm words of welcome and reception into membership, do you actively invite your new members to participate in the roles and ministries of your church?

If new members conclude that the answer to these questions is “no,” many leave after five to six months.  If their answer is “yes,” they stay around…for another six months.  But they’re still asking questions.

The questions your new members are asking in the second six months

1. “Are my new friends as good as my old ones?”  The issue is not so much a matter of quantity of friends, now, as it is one of quality.  New believers, in particular, feel increasingly uncomfortable with their old behavior, old habits, and old friends.  That’s good.  But they’re also unconsciously assessing the value and depth of their new relationships in your church.

2. “Does the group meet my needs?”  They may have found a young single’s group, a senior adult group, or a Sunday School class with people like them (see the first 6-months question).  But 7 – 12 months later, they’re asking whether the benefit of involvement is worth the cost of time, inconvenience, social discomfort in this new setting.

3. “Is my contribution important?”  The question now is not one of involvement, but of significance. Do they feel like they’re doing kingdom work…or just busy work?  “I wanted to have an impact on people’s lives,” one drop-out told us. “But all they asked me to do was set up chairs for the all-church dinner.”

So, how can churches—your church—do a better job of integrating newcomers?  My answer is this: “Do everything you can to ensure that your new members give a resounding ‘YES!!’ to these six questions.  If they do, you will see them actively involved in your church for years to come.

NOTE:  I will be teaching an 8-week online course this spring entitled, Newcomer Integration (CONG 525), if you would like to learn more about the fascinating dynamics of welcoming and assimilating newcomers into the local church.  (Enrollment is limited.)

The Apostle Paul writes, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity” (Colossians 4:5). Special occasion sermons are one of the ways we preachers “make the most of every opportunity” to proclaim good news to “outsiders.” Weddings and funerals are worthy of the preacher’s time and energy because inevitably non-Christian family members and friends of the couple or the deceased will show up for such events. There will be people present who don’t know or accept that Christ loves them. Some of these may never attend a Sunday morning church service. So, as often as I can, I say yes to these special occasion preaching opportunities.  And I pray and work harder than usual in developing these sermons because they have the potential to reveal the power and love of Christ to those who may have never experienced or embraced this love. While every wedding and funeral sermon is different due to the situational factors surrounding the marriage or death, there are a few guidelines for these special occasion sermons that can be generalized to most contexts.

Simple but Profound

The special occasion sermon should be accessible to all kinds of people, since all kinds of people will likely be in attendance. A 10 point doctrinal treatise on the meaning of “original sin” will lose people. “Simple” does not mean simplistic or trite. Some of us have heard and maybe even preached funeral messages that overly simplified the pain and angst of death and grief. This is
not what I mean by “simple.” By simple, I mean presenting a clear and focused message about marriage or death in light of the love and hope we find in Christ.

The simple message should be profound as well. Since most people in attendance will have been to many weddings and funerals over the course of their lives, I want what I say and how I say it to be creative not typical. One way to do this is by using biblical texts that are not usually included during these special occasions and by pointing out realities of marriage and death that are often
overlooked or ignored.

Short and Sweet

Unless you are officiating the funeral of a long-time saint of the church, keep the special occasion sermon short. “Short” means different things to different people, so I should probably explore the parameters. A special occasion sermon should, in most cases, last no more than 15 minutes. The rationale is that many people in attendance are unchurched and, therefore, not used to listening to a talking head for any length of time without channel surfing. Even a 15 minute message might be a stretch for some. You want “outsiders” to hear your message and seriously consider attending the church you serve. Keep it short or they may never step foot in your church.

Keep it sweet too. By “sweet” I am not suggesting that you sugar-coat the challenges of marriage and death. A message is sweet when it is appealing, interesting, and engaging without being so clever that you show-off and overshadow the couple, the deceased, or, worse, God. The special occasion sermon is not the time to preach your favorite hellfire and brimstone in-your-face-kind of
message. One of the premier goals of the special occasion sermon is to not only guide the couple or honor the deceased, but to move people in attendance at least one step closer to the God who made, knows, and loves them.

Christian not Clinical

The special occasion sermon should incarnate Christ. The love of Christ flowing into and through the couple is the necessary ingredient for a love-filled and lasting marriage. The hope found in Christ can do more for those experiencing the grief of death than hours of expensive therapy. To the point, when it comes to the special occasion sermon the preacher should present Christ and not a therapy session. This is not to say that counseling does not have value, indeed it does. Therapy can help married couples overcome obstacles and the grieving get over their grief. People can get therapy from a therapist, but from the preacher they must get Christ. In our efforts to guide people in their marriage and grief recovery, we must present sermons that present Christ.

Something happens to people when they encounter Christ through the words of the preacher. Let’s not allow our message to deteriorate into a self-help speech that is less than a proclamation of Christ.Simply put, weddings and funerals are special opportunities that allow a pastor to address the deepest needs of people by proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Most pastors would agree. These occasions bring many people to a Christian service who would normally never step foot in church or who haven’t been in church in many years. You have a God-sized opportunity to share the reason for the hope you have in Christ
with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

EXERCISES

1.Let’s develop a well of biblical texts from which to draw for special occasion sermons. List five themes of a wedding homily that can address the couple getting married and proclaim the good news of Christ to those in attendance (i.e., love, forgiveness, commitment). Now, list at least one biblical text that might guide, inform, or inspire each of the wedding homily themes.

2. List five themes of a funeral homily that can address the grief of a loved one’s passing and proclaim the good news of Christ to those in attendance (i.e., hope, heaven, grief). Now, list at least one biblical text that might guide, inform, or inspire each of the funeral homily themes.

Lenny Luchetti