What Struggling Congregations Need to Renew Their Churches

Photo via Goran Bogicevic /

Photo via Goran Bogicevic /

I am in a lovely college town to help a congregation discern its path forward.

It faces challenges that many church leaders will recognize: leadership, finances, isolation from the surrounding community, not enough young and middle-age adults to carry the congregation forward.

It also has pluses. The members aren’t deeply divided or mired in distrust and disdain. They aren’t afraid of change. They don’t bury the future in grand laments about a lost “golden age.”

I think they have a good shot at turning a corner and building a healthy next phase. I hear reports from across the nation that things are improving for Christian congregations. A new generation of clergy is exploring new ideas. Fresh energy is emerging. Denial is losing its hold, as congregations whose average age is 60 to 65 realize they must change or die.

Denominations are slower to adapt, but they, too, are moving forward in practical ways such as training in leadership and stewardship, and flexible deployment of resources.

Yet for this fresh day to last, church leaders will need to embrace a truth that goes beyond organizational development and resolving present issues. It’s a truth that many congregations simply cannot hear.

That truth is this: There is too much shallowness, not enough depth.

Over the years, in a process that isn’t at all unusual, we have equated faith with attending Sunday worship, maybe pitching in on a committee, and forming friendships within the fellowship. People enjoy belonging to the congregation. They radiate a palpable joy in being together. They seem content.

Life After A Death

IN 1998, AWARD-WINNING writer Linda Lawrence Hunt and her husband, Jim, were forced to consider a question no parent wants to ask: How do you find meaning in life after losing your child?

Their 25-year-old daughter, Krista Hunt Ausland, had just died in a bus accident in Bolivia while volunteering with the Mennonite Central Committee.

“Your joys become more intense,” consoled a friend whose family had also lost a child.

This resonated with Linda, especially since Krista was known for her energy and enthusiasm. Linda and her husband, now retired professors of English and history at Whitworth University, had always encouraged Krista to travel and take part in community service, but even they were amazed by the intense joy Krista exuded serving as a school teacher in inner-city Tacoma, Wash., or volunteering in poor communities in Latin America. Writing about that joy might help to recover some of it in Linda’s own life, she thought.

Fifteen years later, Linda’s newest book is more than just an ode to a remarkably happy daughter. Pilgrimage through Loss: Pathways to Strength and Renewal after the Death of a Child is a collection of ideas and insight from more than 30 parents who decide in their darkest hours to “face grief in creative and intentional ways.” The book, which contains study questions at the end of each chapter and references new research on grief, is intended as a resource for grieving parents, as well as for those hoping to support them in the right ways and at the right times.“Closure is an illusion,” explains Linda, but she describes multiple examples of parents finding strength and even joy in sacred spaces and rituals, as well as in giving and receiving symbolic acts of kindness.

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Letting Go—And Its Complications

FORGIVENESS IS wholeness, Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Anglican minister Rev. Mpho Tutu, write in their newest collaboration,The Book of Forgiving. Scientific research shows that forgiveness has the power to transform us in spiritual, emotional, and even physical ways. That evidence is paired with the Tutus’ collective experience in counseling, studying, and teaching and their personal stories about the difficulty of forgiving. Archbishop Tutu writes about learning to forgive his abusive father. Mpho, who writes about learning to forgive the man who murdered her housekeeper in her home, is pursuing a PhD in the topic of forgiveness.

The book lays out some simple but critical truths: Everyone can be forgiven. Everyone deserves forgiveness. You must be willing to forgive. Forgiveness is not a weakness, nor a luxury. Forgiving others is a way to practice forgiving yourself. Through forgiveness, we all become whole again. Unconditional forgiveness is an act of grace that frees all parties from further indignity, and from self-blame and corrosive hatred.

The path to forgiveness seems simple enough when you can navigate it in four easy-to-follow steps: Tell the story. Name the hurt. Grant forgiveness. Renew or release the relationship. The path is also—sorry—a bit pedestrian. That doesn’t mean the route map isn’t useful. But the book will be most applicable if you have struggled to forgive or feel that even contemplating forgiveness is an impossible burden weighing heavy on your heart and soul. If you’re carrying a load you can’t seem to gracefully shrug off or leave by the side of the road, the Tutus can help you chart the course.

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Two Years After a Devastating Earthquake: Hope for a New Haiti

Port-au-Prince church post-earthquake. Photo by Colin Crowley via Wylio http://w

Port-au-Prince church post-earthquake. Photo by Colin Crowley via Wylio

How does one dig out from under such tragedy? How does one have hope for a better life, for a new Haiti?

In a meditation titled "The Gates of Hope," Minister Victoria Safford writes:

"Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope -- not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness ... nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of 'Everything is gonna be all right,' but a very different, sometimes very lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle — and we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see."

Indeed, we need to plant ourselves at the gates of hope and work toward a just peace, on Earth as it is in heaven.

Environmental Activist Anna Clark: 'Christians Must Conserve Resources'

At the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina last weekend, I was able to speak with Anna Clark, author of Green, American Style, president and founder of EarthPeople, a green consulting firm, and a contributor to Taking Flight: Reclaiming the Female Half of God's Image Through Advocacy and Renewal. Anna has a heart for equipping churches to make small and big changes for the sake of creation care and stewardship of the earth's resources. How can Christians do this, you ask? Read our conversation to find out.