Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence, and Power
Part I: Becoming a Blessed Church
For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with church. I think it has been one of Godís holy jokes to call me to be the pastor of a church, to spend my life in the very place that I had struggled with for so long. Most of my earliest memories of church are not particularly wonderful. I remember sitting in church and being told constantly to ďQuit fidgeting,Ē ďDonít sniffle,Ē and ďBe quiet.Ē I remember being given a weekly assignment, as part of my confirmation class, to listen to the sermon and outline what it said, and then trying to cheat from my cousinís notes because I had no idea what the preacher was saying. I knew that the church was supposed to be a place of God, but I had a hard time sensing God there. Instead of being confirmed in the church, I walked away from the church after confirmation class because I had become disillusioned with the church. Looking back 25 years later, and especially on my 17-year career as a pastor, there have been times when I jokingly concluded that my being called into ministry was simply Godís holy joke on me. You see, I am now the one who invokes fidgeting in young children and bewilderment in teens. Why would God call that fidgety, discontent child to become a pastor?
Regardless of how I now feel about the church, much about the Christian church turned me off as a teen. I was a turned-off teen a tuned-out culture. The churches of my youth seemed devoid of God, and living in a culture that increasingly denigrated Christian religion helped me to tune out the church. As a youngster and a teenager, I had a tremendous spiritual hunger and a deep thirst for God that wasnít satisfied in the church of my youth. I sat through worship service after worship service, feeling little of Godís presence. I donít want to give the impression that the church actually was devoid of God, only that I rarely sensed Godís presence. There is a big difference between the two. I was a cynical teenager in a generation of baby boomers who consistently denigrated the church at every opportunity. How was I supposed to encounter God in church when the pop icons of the early and middle 1970s were so critical of the church?
Second, I thought the church was a place of hypocrites. I couldnít get beyond the fact that I saw so many adults listening, singing, and praying on Sunday morning, but doing and saying nasty things the rest of the week. Was there anyone who didnít look like a ďsaintĒ on Sunday and act like a ďsinnerĒ on the other days? Of course there were many, but I didnít notice them. I was too focused on the ďsinnersĒ to notice the ďsaints.Ē
A new pastor came to the church when I was 15, one who offered a glimmer of Godís presence, but by then I was too cynical and jaded to profit from his ministry. So I walked away from the church with the intention never to return. I sought God elsewhere. Psychology became my religion. I went to college and studied to be a counselor. I developed a belief that if psychologists ran the world, the world would become a happy place. Working as a counselor in a psychiatric hospital for several years cured me of that naÔve belief. The hospital was, in my experience, the most unhealthy place I had ever been, and not because of the patients. Those of us on staff didnít practice what we preached. We were unhealthy people trying to help other unhealthy people, and it didnít always work.
At this time that I began to dabble in Eastern and New Age thought. I was practicing what I now call ďABCĒ spiritualityóanything but Christianity. I read books about the psychic Edgar Cayce. I read books by a New Age guru who said he was a Tibetan lama. I read books by psychologists turned spiritual guides. And for a time all of them fed me, but it soon became apparent that they werenít offering me truly nourishing food. None of them led me to encounter God. That didnít happen until I had a mystifying experience that opened me to the possibility of Christ.
The experience came through a patient I was counseling who had a mystical experience that continues to influence me to this day. A young man of 16 he had been brought to the hospital after engaging in bizarre and dangerous behavior. He was diagnosed with a bipolar affective disorder (manic-depression), and his bizarre behavior stemmed from an extreme manic state, in which psychotic episodes are not uncommon.
No improvement was evident in his first few weeks in the hospital. The treatment team decided that if he didnít improve soon, he would be sent to a long-term facility. I didnít expect him to improve much either, but he surprised me one evening when I walked into his room for one of our counseling sessions. For the first time since I had known him, he seemed clear in his thoughts. He began by saying that he wanted to tell me something, but that he was afraid I would laugh at him. I assured him I wouldnít and encouraged him to talk. So he told me his story.
A few evenings before, he had been lying on his bed when he noticed something in the window. It was Jesus. Now, being a person who didnít know what to do with the whole idea of Jesus, I didnít know what to say. So I said what all counselors are trained to say in such situations: ďAhhhhhh, go on.Ē He told me that Jesus had been standing in the window, and behind him was a forked path. Along the left path were strewn, in his words, ďbums and guys on skid row.Ē Along the right path were strewn, in the patientís words, all sorts of successful people. I had no idea what to say. Spiritual experiences were not covered in my counseling training. In fact, I had been taught to ignore anything spiritual. But I had to deal with this one or I would lose my patient. After thinking for a long while, I asked him, ďWhat do you think Jesus was telling you?Ē He thought for a while and said, ďI think Jesus is telling me that I have a choice to make right now. If I keep going the way Iím going, Iím going to end up on skid row with all the bums, but if I make the choice to join Jesus, I can be successful like all the men on the other path.Ē Not knowing what else to say, I said, ďI think youíd better listen to Jesus.Ē He did and immediately began to improve.
At a counseling session a week later he told me that he had had another experience of Jesus. This time he and Jesus were standing on the 50-yard line of a football field. A chain-link fence separated them. Looking backward, he saw that the grass was dead from the end zone to the 25-yard line, while the rest was green. Again, I asked him, ďWhat do you think Jesus is saying?Ē He said, ďI think Jesus is telling me that I have gone from death to life, but I still have obstacles to overcome to join him.Ē I said, ďI think youíd better listen to Jesus.Ē And he did. He was discharged to his home within a week. He was a different person. His encounter with Jesus had changed him.
Now, I donít want to dismiss the impact of the medication he was receiving, but I also canít dismiss his experience of Jesus, because that experience totally changed his thinking about life. He accepted responsibility for himself and his behavior, and he became determined to get better. Jesus had used this young manís illness to show him a better way, and he took it. I saw his father a year later in a mall and asked him how his son was doing. He told me that his son was doing beautifully, he was looking at colleges, and that one would never know that he had been ill. The father then told me that we were miracle workers. I didnít know how to tell him that it wasnít meóit was Jesus.
This experience changed me because it altered my perceptions of how God works. This young man had encountered Christ, and the encounter had changed him. This is what I had been missing and what I had hungered for in my youth. I had not encountered Christ in church, but I had encountered him in a psychiatric hospital, even if it was vicariously through a patient. That experience left me questioning every assumption I had previously made about Christianity, the church, and God. It didnít immediately lead me back to church, although that process began soon afterward.
Over time the stresses of working long hours in the hospital for little pay took their toll. I burned out at age 25. I was so disillusioned with the whole field of psychology and counseling, even more than I had been with the church. I was in a crisis. I had lost my sense of purpose, and I felt isolated and alone. So I quit and moved home to live with my parents while I searched for another career.
I quit right in the middle of the recession of 1983, which left the area around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I lived, with a 12 percent unemployment rate. There were no jobs. I became more and more despondent as the months passed. Where was God? Why wasnít God helping me to find a new career? Why did it seem as though every door was closing before me? I felt as if I were drowning. A lifeline had been thrown to me a month before I quit my job as a counselor, but it took months of floundering before I could grab it. My father had told me about a program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I could get a master of divinity degree there, and a master of social work from the University of Pittsburgh. I laughed. ďDad, could you actually see me as a minister?Ē ďSure,Ē he replied; ďIíve always seen you as a minister.Ē How ridiculousóme as a pastor. The funny thing, though, is that deep down I had that same feeling about myself. Somewhere deep inside, in a place that I really didnít have the courage to look into, I knew that I was called to be a pastor, but I was in no state to accept that knowledge. I rejected and repressed it. It took a long period of unemployment and a state of desperation finally to give me the courage to recognize that I was being called to become a pastoróto become a leader in the very body that I had tried so hard to reject and ignore. But more about that in a bit.
In the midst of my struggles I decided to join the church in January 1984. In joining the church, I became aware of something that I had refused to see before. Of course the people in the church were hypocrites. Of course the church was flawed and full of faults. I was just as aware of their faults and flaws as before, but now I recognized something even more important. I was a hypocrite, too. I was just as flawed and faulty. What better place was there for me than a church?
The choice to join the church came one evening several weeks before Christmas as I cried to God in prayer about my life. I could no longer take my loneliness, my lack of purpose, and my growing despair. I decided to make a commitment to Godóto Christ. I would join the church because I needed others to join me on my journey, just as I needed to join them on their journey. The funny thing is that after making this decision, I began to experience God more tangibly in my life. Coincidences opened doors that had previously been shut. People came into my life who gave me guidance. I began to experience God all over the place. My decision to join the church was leading me to experience God tangibly, even though the church itself hadnít really changed. What changed was that I was now extremely open to God for the first time.
After making the decision to join the church, deciding to enroll in seminary was fairly easy. My intention was to go to seminary so that I could return to my career as a counselor, but this time equipped to deal with the spiritual issues that typically arise in counseling, issues that I had been discouraged from addressing in my previous work as a counselor. I went to seminary not only to be trained in theology; simultaneously I worked on a master of social work (a counseling degree) at a local university to train to become a better counselor. Through my studies I regained a sense of purpose and formed a plan to return eventually to working as a counselor, one prepared to address spiritual issues as they arose in my practice; but God thwarted my plans once again. (Through experience Iíve discovered that God seems never to be content to let our plans be ďThe Plan.Ē God always has deeper plans.) I thought Godís plan was that I become a counselor again, but God put me back into the place that I had been trying to escape, the church. The discernment of my prayers and providential and coincidental events made it clear that God was calling me to become a pastor, to lead a church.
Still, I faced a problem. I had gone to seminary hoping to learn how to deal with the spiritual issues I had encountered in counseling others, issues that I hoped also to address as a pastor; but I never really learned to address them. I took courses in Greek and Hebrew. I took courses in pastoral care and the Bible. I took courses in ethics, Christology, theology, and the like, but I still didnít know how to deal with the spiritual issues people faced in their lives. I was no better trained to deal with the patient who saw Jesus in the window than I had been as a counselor six years before. I didnít necessarily know how to address the spiritual thirst of those in my care. I was still spiritually parched myself. How could I lead people to wells of living water when I had no map to find them myself, or even a bucket with which to draw the water? I had found God, but I didnít necessarily know how to lead others to God. I didnít really know how to pray. I didnít know how to lead a Bible study. I didnít know how to do much more than tell people to be good. Knowing how unprepared I was, I hid my deficiencies and read everything I could in the area of spirituality. I was especially drawn to the works of mysticsóthose who had encountered God and had written of their experiences. Eventually, I decided that I needed to study spirituality so that I could be trained to deal with the spiritual issues of those in my church, as well as my own.
I began working on a doctorate in spiritual formation at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. It was in studying spirituality that I finally found a map that enabled me to lead others to spiritual water, and a bucket to draw it out for them. As opposed to theology, which is the study of God and life from a rational, analytical, and semiscientific perspective (using Scripture, tradition, and the insights of the Christian community throughout the ages as the material of study), the study of spirituality is the study of the lived relationship between God and us, as well as the study of the practices and perspectives that lead to a deepening of the relationship with God. The theology I had learned in seminary was important, the study of theology was an experience much like eating dry crackers. It could sustain me, but I couldnít completely swallow it. The study of theology seemed dry and fragmented.
In contrast, studying spirituality was like being given water to drink, allowing me finally to digest and process all the theology I had learned years before. I not only became alive; I also began to wonder why the church hadnít given me water like this years before. Why hadnít the seminary given me this kind of water? Why hadnít I been taught that theology and spirituality were partners; that spirituality was the water that gave life to theological insight? Why did it take 14 years of struggling on my own to discover this water of life?
The problem was that my seminary studies emphasized studying and speculating about God. My studies in spirituality showed me how to encounter and experience God. Unless we encounter God, speculating about God becomes nothing more than abstract conjecture and theorizing that has little impact on daily life. When we have an actual encounter with God, though, this speculation deepens us by revealing the depths of God.
After I graduated with my doctorate, it became clear to me that I was being called by God to return to the church to form a model for how to create a more spiritually vibrant church. I was being called to take the insights and practices of the growing spiritual formation movement and to find a way to bring them into the life of the local church. The vision I had was not one of simply offering retreats, classes, and small groups on spirituality. The vision was to restore to the church a clear sense of Godís purpose, a transforming sense of Godís presence, and an expectant sense of Godís power in our midst.
I was fortunate in 1996 to be given the chance to do just that. I was called to become the pastor of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, a place of wonderful, spiritually thirsty, and charitable people. Over the past eight years we have worked together to experiment with ways of forming a church of purpose, presence, and power. Through this book, I hope to share with you what we have discovered in our ministry together at Calvin Church: a way of doing ministry that leads to creating a church filled with Godís blessings.
I have been frustrated over the years that a vast majority of the congregations in the mainstream denominations, and the denominations themselves, have adopted a functional style of church that cuts off their spiritual cores. What I mean is that too many churches focus only on function, on doing the activities of church, and not on the fact that at their heart churches are meant to be spiritual communities in which people form a relationship with and experience God. (Iíll explain more in chapter 2.) In these churches there is little expectation that members will experience and encounter God, or connect what they do to Godís purpose, presence, and power. The problem in many of these churches isnít so much what they do, but the spirit in which they do it. They worship, but not necessarily with an eye toward leading people to an encounter with God. They meet to do Godís work, but not necessarily in ways that include prayerfully seeking Godís will and way in their work. They offer prayers, but not with the expectation that the prayers will do much more than offer comfort and consolation.
Many denominations, churches, pastors, and members become mired in a series of worthless arguments in their attempt to diagnose why mainstream denominations and churches are in decline. Too many in the mainstream church think the problems have to do with theological positions, styles of worship, or availability of programs. So they say that the decline is the result of churches being too liberal or too conservative; or that the decline is due to our too-traditional worship. They say that we donít meet enough of peopleís needs, and we need to offer more programs.
When it comes to theological positions, Iíve noticed that there are many growing conservative and liberal churches, just as there are many declining conservative and liberal churches. When it comes to styles of worship, if growth is just a matter of becoming more contemporary, why do so many declining churches add a contemporary worship service, but remain depleted? (Of course, many churches also remain traditional and slowly die) Many churches continue to stagnate, even though they try to offer a multitude of programs that appeal to all. At the same time, many churches grow vigorously while offering little more than a caring community.
What I have consistently noticed in almost all thriving congregations, including Calvin Church, is that what makes the difference is the extent to which the community is open to God at its core. Many churches simply arenít open to God. They let the will, ego, and purpose of the dominant voices in their congregation, whether the pastorís or that of a few strong members, drive the agenda. Instead of seeking Godís call and purpose, they arkgue over who is right and wrong. Declining churches tend not to be open to Godís presence. They worship, meet, and engage in ministry and mission, but their sense is that God is in heaven, we are on earth, and all that matters is doing good deeds so that we can get into heaven. The congregants have no sense that Christ is in their midst, and that this presence of Christ can bless them and make their churches places of love. So they continue to engage in the practices of the church, but they donít expect an encounter with Christ. Finally, these churches have no awareness that Godís grace and power can work in their midst. They have no awareness of the Holy Spirit. They are unaware that when we become open to God, Godís Spirit flows through the church to make miracles happen.
This book is about how to open our hearts and minds to God in our communities in such a way that we become blessed in everything. It is not a book on how to turn a small church into a large church, although spiritual growth can lead to numerical growth. It is not about how to attract members, although that may happen because people are attracted to spiritually healthy places. It is not a book on how to become a successful pastor by the worldís standards, although that may happen. Simply put, this is a guide on how to create a church that is open at its foundations to Godís purpose, presence, and power. It is a book on how to create a spiritually deep congregation that becomes inwardly and outwardly healthy on every level: spiritually, psychologically, physically, and relationally. (Iíll say more about this topic in chapter 2.) It is a book on how you can open your congregation to Godís blessings so that these blessings flow through everything the church does, from meetings to ministry to mission.
My prayer is that as you read this book and begin to use what you discover in it, you will find your church growing in the way God is calling it to grow. Just as every pastor and layperson has a calling, so does every church. My prayer is that through this book, you will be able to discover the path God is calling your church to walk, and that as you walk it, you will discover how to open up the congregation to discover Godís blessings everywhere.
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