Greetings in Christ,
One year ends, another begins. We put a period at the end of each sentence, some space between paragraphs, a title at the beginning of chapters, and we punctuate the passing of one year in the life of the church by creating an annual report. Much like the original languages of our Holy texts, time has no punctuation, no titles, no chapter/verse numbers. The books of the Bible were written as uninterrupted streams of text, just as God and creation co-author the story of time, uninterrupted. It wasn’t until much later, that we divided these the scriptural texts into chapters, we added in titles that attempt to capture the essence of each periscope, and we added in verse numbers to help us navigate our way through the story, through time.
Standing at this moment in time, I am drawn to craft my annual report letter in two parts: Looking Back (a retrospective look at 2016) and Moving Forward (a prospective look into 2017), as where we’re going is most certainly shaped by where we’ve been.
Looking Back: 2016 retrospective
For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. (Romans 15:4)
In my annual report letter from last year, I wrote about the importance of focusing on being a healthy church – a healthy body of Christ. This topic became the broader framing for a Cross of Hope Leadership Retreat that was held off-site in February of 2016 that involved ~16 congregational leaders (new/returning council members, table leaders, and other key volunteers). We met for 3 hours together, engaging in discussion around what it looked like to be a healthy body of Christ using some tools/exercises to invite more reflective thinking.
Our sessions began with some really big-picture questions: Why do we do what we do as a church and what is the purpose of the church? Just to make things fun (and for time’s sake), I restricted people to giving one word answers. Some of the responses that were tossed out and written on the whiteboard were: God, Community, Love, Faith, Hope, Discipleship, Service, Worship, Fellowship, and more. This first reflective exercise, more than any other that day, has stuck with me throughout the year because it illuminated a simple and disquieting reality, we do not have a shared vision (sense of purpose) here at Cross of Hope. The closest thing we do have to a shared vision are the 5 goals that the Transition Team worked on, which served their purpose well and were not intended to be a long term guiding document (or strategic plan), but rather, some goals to guide us through a time of transition.
My intention/hope for this leadership retreat was that it might become a catalyst for continued reflection and investing some work around a congregational visioning process, but even though the feedback from this day was exceptionally positive, one thing I learned from that retreat was that we would need a smaller, more nimble, group to continue that reflection. After many months’ worth of attempts to answer the question that lingered on the “unfinished business” portion of our council agendas: “Leadership Retreat: what’s next?”, eventually the Strategic Organizational Reflection Team was conceived, specifically to be an ongoing team with no institutional power, composed of primarily people who are gifted in big-picture, strategic, and reflective thinking, tasked in a broad sense to engage in the very kind of work that the name of the team suggests. The team is currently comprised of Suellen Dickhausen, Connie Edstadt, Jim Meyer, Tom Struwve, and me, but I’m getting ahead of myself (more on that later).
Shortly after the leadership retreat in 2016, we engaged in a very successful Congregational Lenten theme, Water: From Scarcity to Abundance (a collaboration primarily between the Worship & Music and the Missions Table) that resulted in raising enough money to build 2 water catchment systems for people in Uganda who did not otherwise have access to clean water supplies! The success of this seasonal theme ended up becoming a prototype for our current year-long congregational theme “Stewards of Creation” that started in the fall of 2017.
Stewards of Creation has been a wild journey, that we’re still very much in the middle of, but some highlights so far have been our Fall Festival/outdoor worship kick-off, Last Harvest / Wild Game potluck, cutting our Sunday Morning paper usage in half, and a year-long growing art installation “Tree of Hope” being created by my wife Danae to follow/grow with the seasons and themes in worship; the Christmas Eve service being the first moment where the two converge. Without spoiling too much of the plans that lie ahead, I will say that we have a lot in store the second half of this congregational year-long journey of reflecting on our role as Stewards of Creation that will take us into next summer. Right now we are particularly excited about a collaboration between Worship & Music and the Faith Formation teams to introduce the congregation to an inter-generational hands on curriculum called Connect the Drops bringing faith and science into the same space as we explore watershed stewardship together during Lent in 2017.
While many know that I generally err on the side of optimism, I was inspired this year by a prisoner of war, named Admiral Jim Stockdale who I learned about from the book Good to Great by Jim Collins that we used in the leadership retreat at the beginning of the year. Admiral Stockdale is known for saying “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” The first half of this quote obviously appeals to the optimist in me, while the later, helps me frame the “brutal facts of reality” in a new and healthy way. So, while 2016 was indeed an exciting year, it was not without it’s challenges, and Admiral Stockdale reminds me that I would be missing something important as a leader in this congregation to not explore some of those challenges.
There are two areas I would like to focus on. For starters, one doesn’t have to dig deep into the financial report from our treasurer & finance team (included in this annual report) to discover one significant area of challenge. The church’s financial footing going into the summer did indeed inspire me to voluntarily take some unpaid leave throughout the summer months to help ease the budget, which it did, but still not to a degree necessary to make things comfortable through the year’s end (that said, we absolutely rocked at raising money for the youth mission team, water catchment systems, a family in our congregation who experienced a great loss over Thanksgiving weekend when their house burned to the ground, and other directed giving). Secondly, and more generally in my regular weekly field of view, our Sunday worship attendance this year went down from 169 average weekly attendance in 2015 to 142 average weekly attendance in 2016. By the way, for better or worse, these trends are not out of line with what the majority of main-line Protestant congregations are experiencing. Note, that fewer people in worship each week does not mean we’re losing members (our membership has actually increased in 2016); it simply means that our average members are coming to worship at Cross of Hope on Sunday mornings less frequently. Yep, those are the facts; they’re not terribly uplifting or energizing, but despite what the numbers tell us, I am, without question, faithful that not only the church, but Cross of Hope will indeed prevail. I believe this, with such fervency, that I dedicate my life work to helping the church to adapt to and remain meaningful in the lives of an ever more digitally connected postmodern people of God.
Moving Forward: 2017 Prospective
Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established. (Proverbs 16:3)
In order to prevail, however, we will need to adapt to the changing social climate and attitudes toward mainline protestant religiosity in our nation and culture today. We will need to return to that very same spiritual heritage that got us here, and remember, especially now, entering into the 500th anniversary year of the beginning of the church’s Reformation journey, that we are a church that is called to constant re-formation.
Among many other critiques of the church in his time, Martin Luther noted that the church was not meaningfully meeting God’s people when the scripture and mass were not spoken, written, or read in a language that was understood by those who gathered to worship God. Martin Luther, did not seek to reform his community into one that more meaningfully interfaced with the structures of the church, but rather, he sought to reform the church in a way that more meaningfully met the people of God (how, who, and where they were) by writing the first German language translation of the Bible (only one small, but significant part of his contributions to the church’s reformation), and beginning to hold mass in the German language for local worshipers. It seems like such a simple and obvious move to us today, and yet it was revolutionary (and even treasonous) at its time.
We need to boldly adapt how we do what we do as the Body of Christ to meet God’s people where they are, rather than expecting God’s people to meet the church where/how it is. Thankfully, I do not believe that this will take another grand reformation, but it may take some deliberate adaptation, reframing of our priorities, and reaching out to new modes of community that (for better or worse) have become more important and far more highly engaged with than church communities. Like it or not, we are living in the midst of a major cultural shift into the digital era. An ever increasing amount of our social interactions are happening through and shaped by online communities. More human connections are happening through portable digital devices than in person. I hear critique from many adults, about how folks these days are so glued to their phones, even when they’re face to face with others; it’s not an uncommon scene to see two people sitting together out for a dinner, both on their phones. I too wonder about the health and long term impact of this utterly new mode of (dis)connectedness and communication, but like it or not, this is indeed the ever-evolving cultural reality of the world in which we live. Our last president was the first to stream live weekly YouTube addresses to the nation; and I’m sure that nearly every American is aware that our incoming president frequents his Twitter account. There’s no stopping it; the digital era is here to stay, and it’s only going to continue to become more significant in the lives of God’s people in years to come.
We are only just beginning to get our feet wet, as a church, in truly reaching out and therefore accepting/acknowledging this one kind of online community, by beginning to invest our time, energy, and resources in live-streaming our worship services. Currently, we have an unattended camera setup to stream the service, but if you happen to be sitting behind that camera, you would notice the thumbs-up and heart icons floating across the screen from time to time; you would notice comments being left by live online worshipers, and yes from time to time you would even notice (unsolicited) prayer requests during the prayers of the people. Imagine the potential for truly unique and meaningful human spiritual connection if we were to solicit those online prayer requests. Imagine the potential for the church meeting people where they’re at on Sundays mornings, if we had a live Sunday morning online community engagement minister. Imagine if we offered to then send communion out to God’s people who worshiped with us online. I believe that online communities just may be a new frontier for outreach to God’s people.
In last year’s annual report letter I wrote that “every church member should be involved in outreach”, but I realize that we have not adequately equipped our members with the tools for outreach in this era; we have not adequately taught our members how to engage in outreach. Well here’s one very simple, very easy, and very effective way to engage in outreach: If you have a Facebook account/app on your phone, then (whether or not you’re physically in worship on any given Sunday morning) type Cross of Hope into the search field and you will find our official FB page (which you should have already liked by now BTW), scroll down to the actively streaming (or previously posted) video of worship, and click the share button. With those few simple and easy steps you will have engaged in 21st century, online outreach/evangelism!
But a very reasonable question to ask at this point would be “why?” – Why engage in outreach as a member of Cross of Hope – and to answer that, we must first answer the really big-picture questions I asked at last year’s leadership retreat: Why do we do what we do as a church and what is the purpose of the church? We took some good stabs at answering those questions at last year’s leadership retreat, and here is where I now (finally) return to the Strategic Organizational Reflection Team, as I believe we have made some significant headway in finding the answer to those questions as they relate to Cross of Hope. Now, I look back with some irony at the fact that I asked the participants of last year’s leadership retreat to answer these questions with one word because as it turns out, after discussing multiple books we had read (namely, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, by Tod Bolsinger, and Simple Church by Tom S. Rainer & Eric Geiger) we think that the answer to these questions really can be summed up in one word, and that word is: discipleship. The church exists to continue the work of Christ in the world, and it’s articulated pretty clearly in the great commission “Go therefore and make disciples…”
It’s quite simple really: Cross of Hope is about growing disciples of Christ. I lay this out in such an up-front manner here in my annual report letter because after some conversation and collaborative reflection, we actually can’t imagine people not agreeing. It’s what the church exists for. We do what we do as a church to make disciples of Christ out of all kinds of people, and oddly enough, I believe that we had really lost track of that fact, or at least we forgot how to say it so simply.
Beyond believing that the core of our purpose is to growing disciples of Christ, we have been engaging in quite a bit of focused reflective conversation around what the signs/attributes of a well-developed disciple of Christ are, and how we as a church go about naming and framing our approach to growing disciples. We believe that if we say we are about growing disciples, then we should define a clear process that describes how we, as a congregation, engage in this important work for Christ. We should have a clear, simple, and focused answer to the question of how Cross of Hope grows disciples. I simply cannot express to you here in typewritten communication just how exciting, energizing, and hope-bringing these conversations/meetings have been, but I can (with the blessing of the rest of the team) share a bit of an update on where we currently find our reflections leading us.
Preliminary, unofficial, and admittedly rough draft though this language still is, we have begun to feel called to start floating these ideas, language, and thinking around in the broader congregational field of view while we are still early in the reflective process. We hope to refine this language through feedback from a larger pool of invested congregation members (than simply the 5 of us), while simultaneously beginning the slow and intentional journey (yet to be fully conceived) of engaging the broader congregation in what we hope may possibly/eventually become a shared vision as we believe that some derivation of this language is indeed needed to help us focus and organize our collective ministry efforts here at Cross of Hope. We felt that this 2017 prospective portion of my annual report letter would be an appropriate place to invite the rest of the congregation to join our reflection. Below, I will leave you with our first attempt/rough draft of describing that very process, with the invitation to engage any of us in discussion, reflection, and feedback.
Cross of Hope Lutheran Church is about growing disciples of Christ through
CONNECTING to God and neighbor, GROWING with others, and SERVING the world.
Cross of Hope Lutheran Church: CONNECTING – GROWING – SERVING
More on that in the year ahead… maybe even at a cottage meeting near you.
May the Great Spirit/wind of God, divine parent, and holy Son, be with us all as we journey on, in the year and years to come. Faithfully yours in Christ Jesus,