Thursday, August 29, 2013

Remembering the March (and marching onwards!)

This week, Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Most famous for the historic speech given by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the "March on Washington" is a cultural touchstone of modern U.S. history.  With the establishment of a federal holiday in Dr. King's honor, it has become part of the rhythm of schools and colleges to include a King Day celebration, and with gaining popularity, a day of service where students are engaged in various forms of community activism and volunteerism.

With each passing year, the March on Washington becomes like all historical events.  The key players and the first-hand witnesses to the gathering begin to pass away.  Presently, Rep. John Lewis is the only major platform speaker still with us.  While he provides his speech for the anniversary gatherings, Rep. Lewis is adding to his legacy through telling his life story in graphic novel form. 

Envisioned as a three part series, Rep. Lewis recounts his upbringing in the South in the just published "March, Book One" volume (Top Shelf Productions, 2013, $14.95). 
Former President Clinton hails the author as one leading us "from a past of clenched fists into a future of out-stretched hands".  Lewis uses the frame of imparting his story to two young constituents who show up at his office on the morning of the 2009 inauguration of President Obama.  Wrapping his story around the present and the past makes good sense as Lewis has spent his years recounting his first hand experiences of segregation, desegregation and striding alongside Dr. King and other key Civil Rights leaders as they sought ways to smooth out the "stony the road [they] trod". 

As I explore March, Book I, I will share a more formal book review with the blog and my review work with the "Sharing the Practice" journal, the quarterly publication of the Academy of Parish Clergy.  The book is already making the rounds on best-seller lists in a few short days.  One hopes through the graphic novel medium, often considered just a format for the spandex clad superheroes, a new generation will discover the power of a story embodied in the life and witness of Rep. John Lewis.

Elsewhere in American Baptist circles, the General Secretary Rev. A. Roy Medley shares a pastoral letter on the March on Washington, readable via:

On the day, Dr. Medley was an invited guest, sitting in the eighth row of the 50th anniversary celebration at the Lincoln Memorial.  At the original gathering, we were well represented by various denominational representatives, seminarians, pastors and lay folks.  Dr. King and Rep. Lewis themselves are counted among our numbers as dually aligned members of ABCUSA and the NBC/PNBC groups.   A period publication noting ABC presence at the original March on Washington appears via this link:

Also on the morning of the 50th anniversary celebrations, American Baptist affiliated congregation Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, DC, provided the venue for an interfaith prayer service with speakers from various faith groups and dynamic worship music.  To stream the service, visit

Spend time watching the original and the 50th anniversary speeches online. You'll find much to celebrate and some good reminders of what we Baptists join together with many diverse folks in seeking a just society and the beloved community.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Book Review: 7 Creative Models for Community Ministry

Over the years, I have contributed book reviews to a few journals. Most recently, I began serving as a book review contributor for Sharing the Practice, the journal for the Academy of Parish Clergy.  This journal is written by ministry professionals for a clergy and seminarian audience, so the book reviews tend to range from practical ministry books to academic texts exploring the different disciplines a minister should keep up with (biblical studies, historical/theological books, and other "weightier" matters).  

Recently, I prepared a review for the Fall 2013 issue of "Sharing the Practice", exploring a new book from Judson Press (the denominational imprint for the ABC/USA).   As a minister concerned for churches in need of revitalization, I believe this book will be of benefit to congregations, lay leaders and pastors, marshaling missional creativity with author Joy Skjegstad's experience and wisdom.  I invite you to read the review and consider this book in your church's mission.  You might never be the same after reading it!

Skjegstad, Joy.  7 Creative Models for Community Ministry.  Judson Press, Valley Forge, PA: 2013.  $16.99.  Available via or your local independent bookstore!

               Ron Carlson, Missional Church Strategist, for the American Baptist Home Mission Societies, is a long-time advocate for churches to become missional, yet he asserts some of the groundwork must be laid to get congregants into the right mind set.  He refers to this effort as shaping a “mental model” for why missional differs from previous approaches to church ministry and mission.  Rather than paternalism or institutional support, Carlson challenges churches to study what it means to be in the immediacy of a mission field: their own communities.  Getting into the missional mindset starts reshaping the “givens” of how churches operate and function.  In other words, the church has to think differently as it endeavors to act missionally.
               While certain missional church texts tend to engage the theory, 7 Creative Models for Community Ministry offers a very hands-on, close to the ground approach.   Consultant Joy Skjegstad distills her years of experience journeying alongside client clergy and churches into the seven models for churches to consider.  Devoting a chapter to each, Skjegstad offers insight into ways a church might enter into community ministry.  These models include:  donate goods or money, mobilize volunteers, partner with other organizations, advocate around public policy, engage in community organizing, develop a ministry program, and create a church-based non-profit.
               What I admire most about Skjegstad’s approach is her advocacy for a very measured, tethered to reality approach to any of these creative models.  Before she fleshes out each model in the book’s middle section, Skjegstad offers her opening chapters for churches who do not wish to trip over their own feet, or worse, rush into poorly planned, clumsily executed projects.  She warns against insular thinking where churches presume to know what is needed or best yet wind up with the efforts fundamentally misguided at the outset.  She offers basic principles for beginning a community ministry project, built upon careful study and gathering consensus from within and beyond the church that the effort is needed and feasible.  She sends you off on journeys sometimes less considered by congregations:  sitting down with community stakeholders, public/private/non-profit sector leaders and experts, activists, etc.  She encourages churches to listen intentionally, knowing that it will be a humbling experience for some, as they realize their understanding of a community’s needs may have been outdated or misinformed.  Such work may be leavening for a congregation, aligning them more closely with their own neighborhoods than ever before.  Given the depletion of federal and state resources for assistance programs, creative community ministry projects are needed more than ever before.

               She encourages churches to dream yet not to skirt laying a foundation with some attention to the project’s aims and purposes.  For example, the first model involves donating goods or money. Skjegstad points out donations are often the first and only stop along the way to meeting those needs.  By starting with the most familiar, Skjegstad skillfully reframes the untapped potential churches have to explore by reading onwards in her book and considering different models to approach community ministry.  If they choose to do so, churches soon find themselves deepening the potential of their church’s efforts as a congregation, a missional team or collaborative partner.  Instead of repeating old habits, churches begin seeing their efforts in a new light.
               Skjegstad turns often to illumining narratives from the churches and pastors she has served as a consultant, telling the stories of churches addressing poverty challenges, helping expand the educational horizons of children and adult learners and other ways of reaching out to help the marginalized or disenfranchised.  From these stories, readers gain perspective for the possibilities of what a local church can do in community ministry as well as no end of encouragement as they move from reading this text and into the missional context where they live.
               The third section offers chapters on evaluation, seeking funding and keeping projects in perspective when being carried out by small membership congregations.  Skjegstad reminds frequently that congregations do not have to carry out projects on their own, and they strengthen these efforts when they partner.  She encourages frequent communication within the congregation to affirm where projects are developing as well as celebrating the milestones, great and small, along the way.  (Her thoughts on fundraising are covered in her prior book Winning Grants to Fund Your Ministry, published by the Alban Institute in 2007).

               Skjegstad offers an optimistic yet realistic approach to community ministry.  Following the first section’s wise advice to dream yet be well informed when considering community needs, a church can select a model for community ministry and take those first steps.  When moving in the right direction, churches will find new life and vitality from such missional endeavors.  Indeed, Skjegstad encourages us to be aware and attentive to the possibility that your community ministry project will beget opportunities for “hybrids”.   One project can delve into a community need’s related issues (i.e. a food pantry ministry leads a community ministry project to form around cooking skills courses or efforts to help persons with limited or fixed income to learn personal finance and budgeting principles, etc.).  Her suggestion about a non-profit organization starting up as part of a community ministry project is presented with some basic non-profit governance concepts, ensuring a careful reader will realize the extra complexity involved if this avenue is pursued.
               For a brief book, 7 Creative Models serves as a thought-proving, perspective reframing introductory text.  In her approachable prose, she invites churches to hear and see their communities anew.  The book is best kept close at hand, consulted frequently all along the way.  The testimony of community ministry-minded churches reminds us we are not alone in such work.  For congregations wishing to embrace their communities more intentionally, the fruitfulness and dividends of reading this text may be frankly immeasurable.

Friday, August 16, 2013

See Where It Takes You

In English and Karen, the banner proclaims "One in Christ"
at Tabernacle Baptist Church (Utica, NY)
Over the years, I have heard the persistent worry of the sinking of the American Baptist Churches/USA and its other mainline Protestant counterparts.  Since the mid-1960s, "decline" has been shaping the narrative we tell ourselves and one another.  The heady days of mid-1950s euphoria have faded away.  Worse, some Christians try our best to imitate what worked then.
In these early years of the 21st century, scholar Diana Butler Bass has championed the idea that mainliners aren't down for the count or gone into the night.  Bass' research points to a number of smaller to medium size congregations who are embracing spiritual practices that go way back in Christianity's history:  hospitality, welcome, compassion, prayer, service to others, discernment, listening intently to the Word, you name it.  
The ways Christians live out their faith may vary, yet in such intentional efforts to connect belief with action, gospel with mission, churches in local neighborhoods are finding new life and vitality.  Some of us call it "missional", and others may say, "We are getting closer to the core teachings and values of Jesus."  We learn to reach out into our neighborhoods with more care and less chance of misinformed paternalism.  We learn to journey alongside one another in Christian fellowship and learn how to be neighbors to the Other.  (More on this last count below.) 
Bass was once asked how to wade into such a way of living and acting out the faith.  She suggests we "pick one--one activity that tugs at  your heart...Start there.  Just one thing.  Not all of them.  Do one thing well, with passion, with depth, with openness and understanding.  Engage it intentionally, pay attention to the practice.  See where it takes you" (Christianity After Religion, HarperOne, 2012, p. 152).  With these building blocks in hand, congregations find new life and reinvest deepening meaning on the basics of why we believe and "live and move and have our being" in Christ (Acts 17:28).  
I was reminded this past Sunday of my readings of Diana Butler Bass and others when I spent the morning as the guest preacher of the Tabernacle Baptist Church of Utica, NY.  Over the years, Tabernacle has been the second longest ABC/USA congregation to have ministry and partnerships with the Karen, people originally from Burma/Myanmar who left the country due to the political climate there and immigrated to places all around the United States.   Like many other congregations, Tabernacle found Karen families arriving on their church steps in search of support and friendship.  
Associate Pastor Rev. Daniel Htoo
speaks at the beginning
of the Karen worship service.
Thirteen years ago, the first family arrived at Tabernacle, looking for help.  They knew where to look because of the long mission history ties between Burma and the American Baptist Churches/USA.  In fact, this year is the 200th anniversary of the arrival of missionaries Adorniram and Ann Judson in Burma to begin their mission.  After much hardship (and I would wonder if we could be as faithful), they began seeing the mission field slowly develop as they became accepted.  Deep faith practices are much evident in the making of these hardy servants of the Lord!

The Judson legacy gave these Burmese refugees their hope, arriving as the "children" of the Judsons many generations later, knowing that the American Baptists would be a welcoming body of believers.  Tabernacle itself is revitalized, with a present day Sunday morning schedule of an English service (with a high percentage of Karen attending) followed by a service in Karen. 

The church provides a variety of services through their facility, serving the many Karen living in the greater Mohawk Valley area.  Through such intentional practices of compassion, hospitality, and solidarity, the congregation's identity has changed and blossomed.  A Sunday morning service at Tabernacle shows how these basic ways of living the faith lead to the faith becoming incarnate in the care, friendships and shared mission. 

In 2008, Senior Pastor, the Rev. Dr. Mark Caruana was interviewed by PBS' Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.  He observes, "This is a congregation that's been willing to embrace a new group of people--have been willing to go with changes that set people's heads spinning.  There have been times when I've wondered if the whole thing would just kind of blow apart.  It hasn't yet, and actually I think we're at the best place we've been as a congregation in years." 

Another great element of Tabernacle is multiplying its mission through theological education partnerships.  The American Baptist Churches/USA provides teachers and educational offerings thanks to Duane and Marcia Binkley, two dedicated missionaries affiliated with American Baptist International Ministries and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Central Baptist Theological Seminary (my alma mater in Kansas City!), and support from ABC NYS and other ABCUSA mission partners.  Tabernacle hosts sessions for Karen church leaders and pastors to build skill sets and enhance the various ministries.  The day before my visit to Utica, fifty-three attended a workshop at Tabernacle.

In Diana Butler Bass' words, see where it takes you!
To learn more about Tabernacle Baptist, visit
To learn more about the Binkleys' work, visit
To learn more about New York area Karen and other Burmese congregations, visit
To learn more about ABC New York State, visit
To learn more about Central Baptist Theological Seminary, visit 
To learn more about Diana Butler Bass, visit

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Faith Manages (or how Babylon 5 wound up in the sermon)

In my seminary coursework, I was fortunate to take the class "Preaching and Film", an elective course where we explored the connections between the sermon, the biblical text, and popular culture.  While the idea of going to a movie theater is becoming less culturally familiar in the world of Netflix and other ways to stream video at home or from the convenience of any manner of tablets, handhelds, laptops, etc., the principles of the course are still quite sound.  Film and other forms of popular culture strike resonance with what it means to be human.  Not everything you encounter in popular culture is edifying, and Neil Postman's noted study still speaks well to the worry we may be "Amusing Ourselves to Death" along the way.
Growing up in a generation (Gen X) with less likely acquaintance with religion, I found the course helpful as more of my friends know, "May the Force be with you" far more than "The Lord be with you."  Finding ways to share the Word in the midst of the many words and images driving our culture and in turn our values or worldview is quite the challenge. In my sermons, I turn to varying forms of pop culture, referencing films, television shows, graphic novels/comic books, and online content.  I am judicious in the ways I reference material, hoping always to help the words illumine how the Word guides us forward. 

For example, this past Sunday at the First Baptist Church of Syracuse, NY, I was invited to preach as part of my work with the church, providing assistance to their just starting process of pastoral transition.  Long-time minister Dr. Scott Kavanagh will be retiring at the end of September, and the lay leadership and Dr. Kavanagh invited me to share in an upcoming worship service.

In preparing for the service, I recalled a great line from a 1990s science fiction show that would illumine what I wanted congregants to take away with them from the service.  Churches go into a time of anxiety, uncertainty and sometimes disarray during pastoral transitions.  Why not encourage them to keep ahold of hope in the midst of such times?

So here's a few excerpts from the sermon to show how text, congregational context and popular culture dovetailed into my sermon in Syracuse:

My wife and I enjoy reading and watching science fiction.  Kerry introduced me to the 1990s television show Babylon 5, set in the far future on a space station where the many alien races gather and much intrigue plays out while “all alone in the night”.  The show often deals with the spirituality of the various characters, seeing faith as part of the future, unlike other science fiction writers and television shows where spirituality or organized religion have little or no presence in the future.

One of the greater lines of B5 dialogue happens when two of the alien characters are in a difficult situation, and a word of encouragement is desperately needed.  They share this sentence one to another, and they are able to get through the situation at hand.  

Indeed, later on this line of dialogue would later appear in the end credits at the end of a season.  It was a good word for the cast and crew to keep in mind as they wondered whether or not the production would receive a much-doubted additional season renewal.   In front of the cameras and behind it, you could say the show found great strength from just two words.  You could say this particular saying might even work its way into your own life after you’ve heard it today. 

The quote:  “Faith manages.”  

Ever since hearing this line, I keep it close to heart and mind.  The idea behind “Faith manages” is quite needed as we can convince ourselves to the point we cannot believe anything good can happen or ever did happen to us.  Persons who keep the faith do not turn away from the promises of that faith when things become dire.  

The preacher Fred Craddock claims prayer can happen even through grit teeth.  And for anyone along life’s journey with its twists and turns, you know that type of prayer well!  You know it…when the corporate pink slips go out, when the doctor starts to deliver the test results in a somber tone, when the night of cramming for finals didn’t seem to help much, when financial woes keep your future in doubt.

At times like this, you want to be curled up in a ball in the corner, rocking back and forth.  When we are to the edge, over the precipice, and our internal wherewithal seems to have evaporated away, this is when you realize the need for help.  For persons of faith (whatever that faith may be), that’s when your beliefs become your watchwords, your guide for times uncertain and paths unknown. 

It’s where we realize all the singing and praising, praying and preaching on a Sunday morning matters greatly.   We discover faith as the link between our beliefs and our lives, capable of providing strength, solace and a sense of a future.  Things may not work out perfectly or tied up neatly with a bow, yet keeping faith at the forefront acknowledges that we do not buy into the idea that what’s coming our way is going to be the last word on our future.  Faith will see us beyond our fears and anxieties, our forebodings and even our endings.

For Christians, “faith manages” is summed up in the word we use called “hope”.  We use this word in our speaking of belief and in our growth as disciples because at the very core of Christianity is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  By that remarkable story where life and death are reshaped by Easter’s great proclamation, we are able to stand in the gale force winds of change with confidence and live with assurance that whate’er befall, God is with us, each step of the faith. Hope grounds us when we think there’s no ground left to stand on.  Hope gives us a sense of identity and vision when we fear we otherwise “got nothin’”.

[And at the end of the sermon, I shared these last words....]

We may not have much ability to choose the path ahead of us, yet we have the great hope and trust found in Christ Jesus to lead us forward.  We could settle for curling up in the corner or running ahead on a heady mix of anxiety and stress.  Some folks (churches and even clergy!) choose to go that direction.  Some others just hunker down and try their best to hold onto what was and keep “what might be” at arm’s length.

It’s all about choices.  Which choice sounds the better one?

My friends, hear the good news:  

In Christ, hope is abundant!    And….faith manages….  AMEN.

Postscript:  After worship, a young mom said her daughter had something to share with me.  During the sermon, the daughter spent her time drawing and coloring.  She picked up on the first part of my sermon and drew a picture of an alien saying "Faith manages."   I was delighted to see how the sermon connected with the child.  With her mom's permission, I include a photo of the young artist (and perhaps someday a preacher herself!).

Friday, August 2, 2013

Missional Networking near and far

This past Sunday, I visited the Community Baptist Church of Wappingers Falls, New York, where the Rev. William (Bill) Dalrymple serves as pastor.  I found some interesting connections between the Cambridge, NY, congregation and Community Baptist.  Despite being geographically apart, the two churches have the potential for some good conversations about serving their communities.  I encouraged Pastor Bill and Pastor Robin (Cambridge, NY) to be in touch and see what sort of knowledge base and best practices they can share as they have common congregational interests.  You could say this is "Missional Networking" at its best.  (See the link below for more ABCUSA related work on this concept.)

I had met with Bill a couple of weeks earlier at the association clergy breakfast.  I learned of his congregation's long-time partnership with Mid-Hudson Love, In the Name of Christ (aka "Love, INC.").   Congregations work together to gather resources and assist persons with their basic needs.  Pastor Bill affirmed that such a collaborative organization has increased Community Baptist's ability to help persons while reducing the redundancy of several congregations offering help individually (and sometimes to the same individual!).

Such work aligns local churches with the needs of a community.  In turn, you realize you share common ground concerns with other religious communities.  Partnerships can be intra-Baptist, ecumenical and interfaith.  Some may be short-term and need specific.  Other projects could take on a life of their own, sparking other efforts and leading to deepening relationships between your congregation and the community.  Such work can draw people together even within your congregation as it expands the different ways people can connect and belong to a given church membership.

As I speak with other ABCNYS congregations, I will keep listening and looking for ways to connect churches together.  I believe missional networking is a great way to move us forward--together!

My sermon at Community Baptist appears online, by kind courtesy of the web support folks at the church.  You can hear some of my thoughts on the biblical and theological background of Christians working together as the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12) as well as the ways I am seeing ABCNYS as a powerful tool for networking churches together as we seek ways to live into the fullness of the Kingdom/Reign of God.

The mp3 file of my sermon "Building the Body" can be heard online via:

To learn more about missional networking:

To learn more about Community Baptist:

To learn more about Mid-Hudson Love, INC.

August 4--First Baptist, Syracuse
August 11--Tabernacle Baptist Church, Utica
August 18--Baptist Temple, Newburgh