Northminster Presbyterian Church, the church that I pastor, was chartered as an official Presbyterian church on March 21, 1954, with 123 members. It’s located in the San Diego community of Clairemont (just east of Mission Bay and La Jolla), a community that emerged due to the tremendous need for housing in the years following World War II. At that time, it didn’t take long for Northminster to grow into a vibrant congregation. But that was a different time.
When I first became the pastor of Northminster Presbyterian Church in 2007, the church had been in decline for the better part of 25 years. It was a slow, gradual decline from over 600 people to barely 100 people on an average Sunday.Why did this happen?
As a sci-fi fan, I’m not prone to spending extra money on a movie that doesn’t involve lasers, superpowers, or time travel. So when I heard that About Time (directed by Richard Curtis, who also brought us movies like Love Actually, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’s Diary) was a romantic comedy in which the guy could travel through time I thought this would be a great movie to take my wife to.
Have you heard of this thing called "Sunday Assembly"? It’s a church. Well, kind of. It’s a church in the sense that it’s an ekklesia. Ekklesia, the Greek word for church, simply means “assembly” or “gathering.” Here’s the surprising thing about the Sunday Assembly—it’s made up entirely of atheists!
As I wrote in an earlier post, some problems churches face are adaptive. They are adaptive problems because no one yet knows the solution to the problem. Technical challenges, on the other hand, are problems for which one already knows the solution. But can technical solutions appropriately address adaptive challenges?
We face all kinds of challenges in our churches today. The obvious ones have to do with issues of declining membership and finances. That’s certainly what we’re struggling with at my church! But go a level deeper and you can see that people just don’t respond to our methods of outreach and evangelism the way they used to.
I’ve written previously about continuous and discontinuous change and how that is affecting churches today. And while discontinuous change creates a feeling of disorientation and instability, this isn’t necessarily all bad for the church. Richard Sennet, in The Conscience of the Eye, says, “Judeo-Christian culture is, at its very roots about experiences of spiritual dislocation and homelessness.” In other words, God’s people have struggled repeatedly with discovering their identity and place in the world.Today the community of God once again finds itself struggling to find its position in a society that is less hospitable to the church than it has been in the past.
Remember the scene where Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing is sinking deeper into the swamp on Yoda’s planet, Dagobah. Luke is surprised when Yoda tells him to lift it out himself. When he tells Yoda that lifting a ship with the Force is nothing like lifting stones, Yoda replies, “You must unlearn what you have learned.” That statement applies to lots of areas of life, don’t you think?
In the sermon series, “Misunderstood,” I tried to unpack three words that are often misunderstood. The three words are: “hell,” “born again,” and “tithe.” So much emotional baggage and preconception are attached to these words that when we use them we often lose our hearers before we can say anything meaningful.
If it is true, as I stated in another post, that our churches tend to “lean into the ideas of conquering and domination”—or as building and extending—how might we begin to think differently about the kingdom of God? Rather than thinking of it as something we own and control, how might we begin to “receive and enter” the kingdom of God?