Keep Your Church Alive

A friend recently lent me a fascinating and reader-friendly book entitled Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive by Thom S. Rainer. Without her recommendation, I would never have picked up this book because the title clearly emphasizes churches that die out. She advised focusing on the subtitle, which, of course, is the opposite emphasis—how to prevent the dieout.

This 2014 book, by the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, grew out of a desire to understand why so many churches that were once vibrant congregations have in recent years seriously declined and ultimately closed their doors and sold off their properties.

Whether your church is seeing a decline in its numbers of worshippers as the Sundays go by, or is still in the upswing of its church life cycle, this is a book that offers valuable insight into what keeps a church alive. Even though the choir and music ministers are still working hard and serving up beautiful music, even though the pastor still works hard on his/her sermon each week, there may be shifts occurring that don’t bode well for the future.

Rainer writes: “The decline is in the vibrant ministries that once existed. The decline is in the prayer lives of the members who remain. The decline is in the outward focus of the church. The decline is in the connection with the community. The decline is in the hopes and dreams of those who remain.”

That’s a lot of decline, but the problem is that each shift may be subtle and quite easy to overlook, even when it’s building on previous overlooked changes.

“More than any one item,” writes Rainer, “these dying churches focused on their own needs instead of others. They looked inwardly instead of outwardly. Their highest priorities were the way they’ve always done it, and that which made them the most comfortable.”

Two fundamentals of critical importance are meaningful prayer (both individual and corporate), and actively caring for the surrounding community. No matter whether the church is on the upswing or the downswing, these two fundamentals make all the difference in whether the church is Christ-centered, likely to remain strong, and able to continue long-term to provide a healthy place of worship.

           

Manna

It may be impossible to think of manna without thinking of the story in Exodus of God providing daily provision to the Israelites in the wilderness. Manna was that strange substance that fed them and all they had to do was pick it up off the ground. But each person had a daily portion, to be gathered on the day of its use. The only day of the week they could gather a double portion without the oversupply “going bad” was in preparation for the Sabbath.

I have come to think of “everyday spirituality” as a kind of manna. It seems to be part of our human nature that life works best for us when we renew our spiritual provisions every day. We are best served, best fed, by pursuing on an everyday basis the spiritual practices that keep us in touch with the Divine. Skipping days works only to our own detriment. The gathering is easy because we are offered a wide range of spiritual practices, and the blessings that come as a result are renewed for us every day. And unlike the Israelites, we are free to gather as much as we want. There are no limits to this daily provision.

           

God Speaks to Each of Us

“God Speaks to Each of Us” is a poem by the European mystical poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke.

Though the entire poem is worthy of time spent with it, there are two lines I dwell upon most.

The first is: “Don’t let yourself lose me.” Remember that these are meant to be God’s words spoken to each newly made person. It is the responsibility of each of us to see that we don’t lose God, that we don’t lose sight of Him or turn away from Him, no matter what comes to us in life. This is the principal reason for pursuing spiritual practices as an everyday matter. We all need to be reminded daily, even hourly, of Whose we are and why we are here.

The second line that especially draws me is the final one: “Give me your hand.” Yes, it is our own responsibility to keep God centermost in our lives, but we don’t have to work at that without God’s help. The guidance of God is always available to us. But it is our choice whether or not to reach out for it.

           

Contemplation

After so many years of regular meditation, I can no longer imagine my life without it. On really busy mornings, it is the last thing I am likely to cut in order to get out the door on time. I have written before in these postings that of all the spiritual practices, this one has been the most vital and life-sustaining for me.

So, I was very interested in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of Living Peace, a publication written and distributed by the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, because the theme of the issue is “contemplative stance.” Contemplation is a form of meditation that focuses, usually, on the breath rather than on a mantra.

Of the articles in Living Peace, the one that most resonated with me was by Terrence J. Moran, CSJP-A. He wrote, “Contemplation is not another agenda item we add to an already overfull day. Rather, it is the wellspring that nourishes all our other activities. It is a choice we make to look at our life and our world in a particular way. It is a lens not a chore.” And in my experience, the nature of that wellspring is such profound peace that it changes the texture of everything else in your world.

Later Moran added: “The contemplative stance is not a matter of reading, workshops, ideas. It is a practice – daily, diligent, persevering even when results seem scanty.” This point is so important that I was surprised it was buried in the text rather than set off as a breakout quote. What makes meditation yield results is the dailyness of it, the regularity, the continuity of sitting in silence every day, regardless of whether you “go deep” or stay on the surface, whether your mind is beset with thoughts or as still as a frozen pond.

You could read about it, or go to a workshop to hear about it, or talk about it as an idea with someone else, but what makes contemplation work is actually doing it.

           

Passive Voice

This month’s The Sun includes in its “Sunbeams” this wonderful thought from an unknown author:

“I must do something” always solves more problems than “Something must be done.”

Not only is this a perfect illustration of the difference between active voice and passive voice—a point about which writers are forever being cautioned—but it’s also a useful reminder for everyday spirituality.

When you think about almost any issue (helping the poor, feeding the hungry, protecting the environment, human rights, stopping domestic violence, shopping local, ending child abuse, animal rights, etc.), the voice you choose for thinking about the issue will determine your level of involvement. Saying “Something must be done” may show that you care, at least a little bit, but it assumes that someone else will do what needs to be done while you remain passive, rooting from the sidelines. Saying “I must do something” puts you in the active role and encourages you to think of specific actions you can take to move the issue in the direction you feel it should go. Here’s a video to help you get started.

And how about your spiritual life? Are you still at “Something must be done” when you reflect on where you are in spiritual practices, in daily or hourly contact with the Divine, in taking care of your soul? “I must do something” raises the level of priority and leads you to specific actions you can take immediately.

 

 

           

Spiritual Practices – Surprising Possibilities

I’ve been listening to a CD of the Rev. Dr. Kenn Gordon speaking at the Center for Spiritual Living (CSL), Seattle, last August. Based in Canada, he’s the Spiritual Leader of the Centers for Spiritual Living. His talk in Seattle was about living in our purpose – but what most struck me were his comments on spiritual practices.

Dr. Gordon described spiritual practices as “vital” for living in purpose, but he quickly explained that he wasn’t necessarily talking about meditation or prayer or any of the usual things we tend to think of. Here’s how he defined spiritual practice:

“Whatever you choose to do: mowing your lawn, looking in the mirror and seeing yourself, playing with your children or your grandchildren – anything that awakens God within you, that can bring you back to the realization and the recognition that you have a vital purpose in this thing called life, that you play a part, and you’re part of a mosaic that is unfolding to the benefit and beauty of Eden itself.”

His phrase “anything that awakens God within you” is the best definition for spiritual practice I’ve ever heard, and it shows how wide the range of possible activities is.

It takes vigilance and a willingness to continually remind ourselves and to return again and again to the path of our purpose, said Dr. Gordon. And if we trade it away in order to “be right,” in order to fit in, in order to “have our level of pissedofftivity satisfied,” then we’re trading away our peace, abundance, joy, love, and light for the smallest thing.

If you have occasion to hear Dr. Gordon speak, don’t pass it up.