Here is a thought-provoking article from pastor Carey Nieuwhof: 6 Disruptive Church Trends that Will Rule 2017.

Click on the link to read the whole article.  There you will find other links that discuss these trends in more detail.  In brief, his six points are:

1. Consumer Christianity will die faster than ever

“Christian maturity isnt marked by how much we know or what we can get, it’s marked by how much we love and how much we give in light of how deeply we’ve been loved and how much we’ve been given.”

2. Cool Church will Morph

“Having great preaching, a decent band and an awesome facility or environment is not a bad thing. It beats having terrible preaching, pathetic music, and a dingy facility.

But unchurched people are increasingly interested in the mission more than the method. They want to meet Jesus.

They have enough cool in their lives. They don’t have enough Jesus.”

3. Preachers Who Can’t Speak to the Unchurched Will Preach to a Shrinking Crowd

“If you’ve never thought through what it’s like to be in church for the first time, with little to no church background, with a different moral code operating in your life, hearing truths that are thousands of years old, and trying to figure out your life through a very different lens, well, it will be exceptionally difficult for you to connect with unchurched people.”

4. Preaching will fuse both the head and the heart

“Information alone doesn’t bring about transformation. Preaching to the head can lead to a changed mind, but not a changed life….Preaching only to the heart creates emotional followers, whose faith rises and falls with their feelings.”

5. Anonymity will continue to give way to community

“Figuring out how to connect people faster, at their own pace and in their own sequence, will become the hallmark of churches where many gather.”

6. Engagement will become the new attendance

“One of the changes you’ll see happening in 2017 is leaders who measure engagement as much or more than attendance.”

How many people serve, how many give, how many invite their unchurched friends and how many jump into community beyond Sunday will become the new measure of effectiveness in growing churches even more than attendance.”

I came across an article by a young journalist about what it is like to be the only person who showed up for worship.  Having recently moved to Portland, Maine, the author was seeking a sense of sanctuary and solidity.  He had visited St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland before for a festive morning service, and decided to return for an evening service.

The priest’s care for this one worshiper reminds me of the incarnation of Christ that we recently celebrated at Christmas.  Our great God became a tiny infant in the arms of a small family.  And when our Christ grew and grew up, he mostly encountered people one, or a few, at a time.  The church has tried to proclaim the good news that he came for each one of us, for you, and for me.  This priest’s care over her one worshiper embodies (incarnates) that message in a gracious, powerful way.

When we who long so much to share the good news find ourselves wondering whether our efforts make any difference at all, we can think of this priest and the unforgettable impression she made on the lone worshiper.  He knows Jesus Christ came for him.  We can help others know that he came for each of them, too.

When you’re the only one who shows up to church


“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.”

–Isaiah 35:1-2

The term “food desert” describes areas where healthy, affordable food is hard to come by.  One of our adult Sunday School classes talked about this recently, and we looked at some of the down in the dirt ways people are trying to address the situation.  Food deserts exist in urban areas as well as rural areas.  Not far from us the Conetoe Family Life Center is working to grow healthy young people and a healthy community as it grows and distributes healthy food.

It occurred to us that there are many other kinds of deserts as well.  Within walking distance of the building our congregation calls home, we have identified a “music desert” and a “reading desert,” and there are certainly others.  In a music desert people don’t hear much enriching music, and they seldom attempt to make music. It is all left to professionals.  In a reading desert there is little storytelling or reading, and few books around to stimulate minds through words and good art.2016-02-09-21-20-33

Isaiah 35 reminds us that God can make the driest desert blossom, and God can make a way through where there seems to be no way.  God has the greatest green thumb of all. Our little flock is participating in what God is doing to help our community flower. Every week one of our oldest members leads a group that makes music flower at a local nursing home.  We also enjoy making music with some of God’s youngest children through gatherings called Music for Little Friends, to help their minds, hearts, and souls develop.  We will soon place a third Little Library somewhere in the churchyard.  The first two are in nearby neighborhoods, and there is a weekly story time at Little Library 2.  We are looking for creative ways to encourage children and families to use the libraries and read together. In these and other ways we are trying to garden with God.

Sometimes the small things we do seem so very small and inconsequential, and we worry about how our ministry can be sustained long term.  We need our divine Gardener to creatively cultivate us.  Yet even the smallest flowers are exquisitely beautiful, like a crocus.  In God’s eyes they are, at any rate.

file-dec-06-6-17-36-pmReaders, our prayers are with you for flourishing where you are in God’s gardening scheme.  And we appreciate yours for us as we plant our seeds with hope and longing for something beautiful from God in the future.

Don’t give up…

Here is a live version of one of my favorite Josh Groban songs.  “You are loved” is a message we need to hear again and again.

little-golden-bookBooks have always been my friends, and the one you see pictured here is a special friend.  I can still hear my mother’s voice reading My Little Golden Book About God.  This little book shaped my understanding of God.  I still believe that “beyond the farthest star, God knows the way,” and that God planned “[this] tiny world your two hands could span.”  I still believe that “God whispers to us in our hearts: ‘Do not fear, I am here, and I love you, my dear.'”

I am always on the lookout for children’s books to share in my ministry with children, and I have found that good children’s books speak to the faith of all God’s children, including those of us that are grownup.

I am dreaming of a book fair to help put some of the best books in the hands of children, youth, and their families.  It would resemble a school book fair, but it would pull together a collection of the very best Bible story books, board books, picture books, and books for young adults on topics such as prayer, worship, service, justice, and life in the church. It would include the best fiction as well as non-fiction.

I have started a list of titles, and I am seeking recommendations.  What titles do you dream of putting in the hands of your children and youth to support their faith formation?  I am especially in need of helpful titles for older elementary children and teens, but welcome all your recommendations.   You can put them in a comment below, or go to the contact page and email me.  Thanks very much for your help!

Meanwhile, here are two web sites for people who love using children’s literature in ministry:

Storypath is a ministry of Union Presbyterian Seminary.  You can find hundreds of book reviews there, plus bibliographies and lesson plans.  Each week they post reviews of books that relate to the Revised Common Lectionary readings for the week.  There is also a scripture index and a theme index.

Picture Book Theology is similar.  The reviews are written and posted by Hanna Schock, an avid reader who finds the presence and wisdom God in picture books especially.  She offers suggestions on how to use picture books in educational ministry.

Here are some of my own reviews from elsewhere on this site:

A Child’s First Book of Prayers, by Lois Rock.

Psalms for Young Children, by Marie Helene Delval.

The People Could Fly:American Black Folktales, by Virginia Hamilton.

Grandad’s Prayers of the Earth, by Douglas Wood.



Photograph by Harris Walker


The prophet Jeremiah called God’s people in exile in Babylon to seek the wellbeing of their Babylonian captors.  That sounds an awful lot like Jesus’ call to love our enemies.  Where does the will and the power to do that come from?

In search of an answer, here is a sermon I preached for an ecumenical worship service gathering people from all around the city of Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  It was part of a summer series on the theme of being the peace of the city.

The Power to Seek Peace
A Sermon on Jeremiah 29:4-7 and Ephesians 2:13-18
With allusions to Psalm 137 and Luke 6:27-36
Rocky Mount Summer Community Worship Service
Sunday, July 31, 2016
St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church

Somewhere in Babylon around the year 593, a congregation of homesick exiles from Jerusalem was listening to the reading of a letter from the prophet Jeremiah back home. They could not believe their ears! Say what, Jeremiah? Put down roots in Babylon? Seek the shalom—the welfare, the wellbeing, the peace—of Babylon? Pray for the Babylonians?

Imagine the murmuring! Jeremiah, they brought us here against our will! They worship gods with names like Marduk. Everything is foreign to us here. These people have hurt us as deeply as ever we could be hurt! Pray blessing and peace on Babylon?

Jeremiah, you know not! What we really want is for somebody to come in here and make the Babylonians suffer, pay them back. See, we do have a prayer, and it goes like this: blessed be the one who takes your children and smashes them against the rock! (Psalm 137).

Meanwhile the letter reader’s voice was continuing: because… in Babylon’s wellbeing you will find your wellbeing.

Jeremiah’s call sounds an awful lot like the call Jesus gave his followers. Jesus said, “But I say to you that are listening, love your enemies, do good to those that hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you.”

There’s no question about it: God was asking a very hard thing of the exiles. Did they heed Jeremiah’s words? Continue Reading »

https://farm3.staticflickr.com/2557/3757326409_9a0f118e01_o.jpg“Seek the wellbeing of the city where I have sent you…for in its wellbeing you will find your wellbeing.”  –Jeremiah 29:7, speaking to God’s people in exile in Babylon.

Recently my family and I have been walking through the neighborhood around the church building and inviting people to a special event celebrating the centennial of Morton Church’s official charter.  There are several back roads and pathways off the main road that runs in front of the building.  We were taken aback when someone who lives on a path less than a thousand feet away from the church driveway asked, “Where is Morton Church?”  A similar encounter occurred at a home on the main road less than half a mile away.

My hunch is that these people knew that there was a church building nearby, but did not know or remember the congregation’s name, or anything about who we are and what we do as a community of faith.  Talk about feeling invisible!  But the truth is, these people have been invisible to us–to me, at any rate.

This experience highlights something I’m finding again and again as I study, reflect, and pray, seeking God’s way into the future: congregations must actively seek the wellbeing of the neighborhoods in which God has placed us.  We must be a life-giving presence literally right where we are.  This means forming new connections with our neighbors, which will inevitably bring us into contact with their joys and their pain.  God is already out there on the move nearby, aiming to reach and bless our neighbors, and calling us to join him there.

The most important book I have read that fleshes this out is The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship, and Community, by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight J. Friesen.  They point out what the automobile and other technologies have done to our sense of place.  It is now possible to live in one place, work in another place, shop, and pursue other activities in yet other places.  It is possible to drive many miles to worship in still another community.  This disconnects people from one another, and it disconnects us from the literal ground we live on.

One shift that needs to occur is to recognize that the church’s ministry is occuring wherever we are in our everyday lives.  We literally are the body of Jesus Christ every day.  What happens on Sunday mornings grounds us for living as his body everywhere, all the time.

Another shift is to learn to observe the community around us carefully, and listen with openness to the people there.  Jesus said that he came so that people might have abundant life.  Another way to think of abundant life is life that is flourishing.  As we observe and listen, we must listen to the Holy Spirit.  How can we join Jesus in seeking abundant, flourishing life in our neighborhood?  Moreover, how can we collaborate with our neighbors in the work of blessing the neighborhood?

Two things that keeps me coming back to this book are the ideas for discussion and exploration, and the beautiful prayers.  Here is a sample:

“God, grant us the wisdom to listen attentively to your presence all around us.  May we listen well to your dream for creation.  May we listen well to our own lives.  And may we listen well to the people and place we call home.  By your Spirit enable us to discern our calling and have the courage to act.  Amen.” (p. 132).

When God’s people were in exile in Babylon, they were unable to see how they could go on being God’s people.  But through the prophet Jeremiah, God instructed them to seek the wellbeing of their Babylonian neighbors all around.  God instructed them to be a blessing in this new, strange, and unchosen context in which they found themselves.  In that way, they would find their own wellbeing.  In that way they would find their future.

“Seek the wellbeing of the place where I have sent you”–still our call as God’s people.  Or to put it another way, “Love your neighborhood.”


Image: Author: Eva Luedin
Author URL: https://www.flickr.com/people/40819389@N04/
Title: Neighborhood Watch
Year: 2009
Source: Flickr
Source URL: https://www.flickr.com
License: Creative Commons Attribution License
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License Shorthand: CC-BY