Paradigm shift

After 18 years of service in the Air Force, I got my dream job to command a flying unit. It was the only flying command for folks in my career field, and I was fortunate to get it.

And then Congress voted to close the base.

Instead of making the squadron the best it could be (my dream) my role was to keep the mission going while the unit got smaller and smaller as people moved on to new assignments. Best I can tell, nobody ever dreamed of doing that.

Now I have another dream job. I’m the pastor of an amazing church in the heart of a transforming city. “Where would you put a church?” I ask. The answer is, right here, where ours has been for 245 years. I am truly blessed.

But there’s a challenge, and it seems to me it’s not unlike the one I had a long time ago.

For most of my time on the planet, it was normal for people to attend church. Attending church would lead people to serve and grow in faith. The church in North America worked on this paradigm for most of the 20th century.

Attendance led to engagement.

Now it’s just the opposite. Now the church has to engage people where they are and give them ways to serve. When people see the church making a difference, maybe they’ll attend, and some will grow in faith.

Engagement leads to attendance.

Churches everywhere are missing this paradigm shift, and when they do, they’re effectively voting to close.

The early church never built buildings and expected people to attend. It went to its neighbors and engaged them. People came to faith after seeing the church make a difference in their lives.

It turned out that my dreams for an Air Force career were too small. I was blessed to have more great jobs I’d never even dreamed about. I think it can be true for the church too, if we engage the folks to whom God is calling us.


We have an interesting situation in the church where I pastor.

We serve a meal on Tuesday nights attended by a lot of hurting folks, including the materially poor and homeless.

About the same number of people come to worship in our sanctuary on Sunday.

But few of our Tuesday guests worship with us on Sunday. And only a small number of dedicated members help serve the Tuesday meals.

It’s as if we have a Tuesday congregation and a Sunday congregation. Why is that?

Matthew 9 tells the story of the call of the disciple Matthew. Jesus saw him sitting in a tax collector’s booth and said, “Follow me.” Matthew got up and followed. That night, Jesus went to Matthew’s house for dinner, and some of Matthew’s tax collector friends were there too. The Pharisees (New Testament scholar Dale Bruner calls them the “Serious”) wanted to know why Jesus ate with “sinners.”

The Serious had a point. They’d inherited a tradition, much of it coming directly from God himself, which said a good Jew needed to avoid sinners. The entire concept of God choosing a people to bless all of humankind depended on the Jews keeping themselves separate from the pagan world. This separateness helped them relate to a holy God.

And did we mention? In Jesus’ day, tax collectors were considered the worst sinners of all, on par with murderers.

So, which is it Jesus? Do your followers hang out with “sinners,” or do they keep themselves separate?

Which is harder, for the Serious to see themselves among the sinners, or the sinners to see themselves among the Serious?

Jesus was able to hang out with the most hurting people, and take their hurts upon himself, without becoming one of them.

Somehow, with Jesus, it was never “either/or” but always “both/and.”

The extra mile

It’s one of the most famous sayings in the Bible. Jesus said, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”

In Jesus’ day, there were few things people hated more than the Roman occupation. There were Jewish rebels who wanted to kill any Roman solider they saw. It was especially galling that Roman soldiers could order anyone to carry their gear for a mile. Jesus’ command that his followers should voluntarily go an extra mile would have seemed ridiculous.

We hear the phrase “go the extra mile,” as “push yourself, go above and beyond.” But in Jesus’ day, one of the most humiliating things that could happen to you was to have a hated, pagan, occupying soldier make you carry his stuff. Jesus was saying, “Accept the humiliation. Go with him two miles.”

We don’t think this way at all. When someone humiliates me, I usually start imagining what I’m going to say to put them in their place.

How many times have you seen a situation escalate into real violence because someone had their pride wounded?

How many times have you seen a situation diffused when someone refused to be goaded into a fight?

Don’t you wish our politicians today took Jesus’ sayings to heart?

Jesus never condoned murder or injustice; that’s not what this command is about.

If anyone was ever humiliated; if anyone had a right to be angry about the way he was treated, it was Jesus Christ. Instead, he turned anger and humiliation into grace. That’s what he’s calling us to do.

He didn’t carry the gear for a soldier, he carried a cross for us.

Faster Horses

After reading David McCullough’s 2015 book on the Wright Brothers, I wanted to visit the Wright Cycle Company (if it still existed) where, in 1903, the brothers built the first airplane. So, I went to Dayton to the Aviation Heritage Park. But I was disappointed. The Wrights’ shop, along with their family home, had been moved in 1937 to Greenfield Village, an outdoor museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Greenfield Village was the vision of industrialist Henry Ford, who wanted to showcase American innovation and preserve the nation’s history.

Greenfield Village is an amazing place. It includes the lab where Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, the courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law, and the home where Henry J. Heinz started his packaged food business, all carefully moved there under Henry Ford’s direction. The Henry Ford Museum includes the bus Rosa Parks was riding when she refused to give up her seat. There are exhibits on design, transportation, energy, leisure, and creativity. The legacy of Henry Ford himself, who revolutionized automobile mass-production, is center stage. And all this is set within the context of freedom, justice, and the struggle for civil rights.

The museum asks, “What if Rosa Parks had simply moved to the back of the bus?” or “What if the Wrights had given up?”

Henry Ford is quoted as saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.’” There’s no proof Ford really said that, and many object, saying it appears to devalue peoples’ opinions. But you can’t help but be struck, as you explore the Ford Museum, how vastly different strands of endeavor came together to form a nation.

But consider this. God is weaving together the strands of all lives everywhere into the infinitely greater future he’s creating. We all have a choice to follow a well-worn path or set off in a new direction. We can choose to keep trying or give up.

God is calling us into his future. Will we join him, or will we settle for faster horses?

Off the map

In his book, Canoeing the Mountains, pastor and seminary leader Tod Bolsinger tells a story from his time as a church head of staff. The church had called him, in part, to reach new families. In Tod’s church, young people had their own worship service and rarely attended “big church.” The downside of this was that young people never really felt they were part of the church, and many quit church when they went to college. So, Tod asked the staff to brainstorm ideas to help young people feel more like part of the family.

“Let’s have Youth Sunday,” someone suggested, and it got the group working. Like they’d done in the past, one of the youth would preach, while others would read scripture, usher, and so on. Everyone liked the idea.

Then the business manager spoke up. Youth Sunday had always been the lowest-attended, lowest-giving Sunday all year. The junior high director agreed. The kids hated it. They felt silly wearing shirts and ties. The older folks hated the music. Everyone ended up feeling awkward and patronized.

Canoeing the Mountains is Tod Bolsinger’s metaphor for where the church finds itself today. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the Louisiana Purchase. When Lewis and Clark reached the headwaters of the Missouri, they expected to find the Northwest Passage and float down the river to the Pacific.

Instead, the Rocky Mountains stood before them.

They had boats and no map.

Kind of like the church today.

Tod describes it as a “moment of deep disorientation.” When we find ourselves in moments like this, “we tend to try to reorient around old ways of doing things.”

We keep canoeing when there is no river.

Tod said that Lewis and Clark set out “defined by a myth,” that the Northwest Passage existed. “Imagine their thoughts as reality set in.”

Lewis and Clark could have given up. The exploration could have waited until a better equipped group was assembled. Instead they pressed on.

Tod’s church never brought back Youth Sunday, but the discussion led to all kinds of experiments that led to new traditions that got everyone involved.

Thank goodness that, even when we’re off the map, God is already there.

Fourth great

Last week I went with my son Sean over to Jefferson County, Ohio in search of information on my fourth great-grandfather, John N. Hall, Sr. We knew that John was born in Maryland in 1772, married Elizabeth Stevens in 1796, and moved with six children to Ohio in 1807. There, on their homestead in Wells Township, they had six more children, including Benoni, the one who became my third great-grandfather.

There wasn’t much information on John in the Steubenville Library, but there was a deed, transferring a small parcel of land for the sum of twenty-five cents, to the trustees of Lloyd’s Methodist Episcopal Church, “to preach and expound God’s holy word.” John Hall was one of the trustees. We learned the church had closed long ago, but it had a burying ground, and if we could find it, we might find a tombstone with John’s name.

We did find the little graveyard, but most of the stones were broken or unreadable.

At one end of the graveyard, hidden among tall weeds, was the foundation of the little church.

Sean and I kept talking about, in two hundred years, how little will be left to tell our descendants about who we were and the lives we lived.

But we did find one more thing of John Hall, Sr., his Last Will and Testament. Written a month before his death, he said he was “of weak body, but sound and perfect mind and memory.” For this, he was “humbly thankful to the great author of all our blessing.”

That’s about all I know about my fourth great-grandfather. He was a pioneer and a farmer, and he raised 12 children. But I know the most important thing: he was a follower of Jesus Christ, and one day, the bones in that little cemetery will come to life, and I will meet him face-to-face.


When Naysa Modi missed the word “bewusstseinslage” in the championship round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee a month ago, (she omitted an “s”) it opened the door for Karthik Nemmani to win. But he first had to spell two more words correctly. Karthik correctly spelled “haecceitas,” then came the championship word: “koinonia.”

The Bee’s official definition of “koinonia” was, “An intimate spiritual communion and participative sharing in a common religious commitment and spiritual community.” One news report describing the winning round of the Bee called “koinonia,” “an obscure word of Greek origin.”

In the weeks since the Bee, Christian writers have been trying to make sense of this. “Koinonia” is part of the routine vocabulary of many churches. There are “Koinonia” groups, “Koinonia” classes, praise bands named “Koinonia” and so on. The word is so familiar to so many Christians that it’s hard to fathom how it could be used in the championship round of the National Spelling Bee.

“Koinonia” was the word used by Luke to describe the distinctive community of the early church. Acts 2:42 says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship (koinonia), to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Christians tend to overuse the word “fellowship.” It gets reduced to describing the hospitality time after worship on Sunday. But “koinonia” is much more than that. It’s the intimate, interdependent set of relations among people who together are being transformed by their relationship with Jesus Christ.

So when the news describes “koinonia” as an “obscure” word, it makes me both sad and hopeful. This “obscure” thing is what the church of Jesus Christ uniquely has to offer. It’s also precisely what the world needs.

Silent Epidemic

The suicide of celebrity chef and TV travel host Anthony Bourdain, 61, hit a lot of people hard, especially people my age. Here was someone who seemed to have it all together. He lived a life people dream about, travelling the world visiting exotic places. And yet Bourdain was a recovering addict. Whatever despair he was experiencing didn’t come across to viewers. One middle-aged fan of Bourdain said, “His death is a reminder that we just don’t know what people are going through unless we ask them.”

For two years now, life expectancy in the US has been dropping. The reasons seem to be suicide, substance abuse, and despair. The risk of suicide among men ages 55-62 has increased 55% since the year 2000. One researcher called this “the silent epidemic,” an epidemic that is “under-researched and under-reported.”

When God created everything and pronounced it “good,” there was one aspect of creation that God said was “not good.” It was “not good” for the man to be alone. So, God created someone to keep the man company.

Many years later, Paul, the early Christian missionary, wrote that “we belong to each other.” God designed us to be connected to each other the way the parts of the human body are connected, with no part more important than another. This happens supernaturally through Jesus Christ.

This means that the church has something that nothing else has, and it’s what people today desperately need. We’re a community of four generations, joined together by the God who made us. God gave us the church to be the place where people who care about you know what you’re going through.

You can travel to exotic places, and you won’t find anything better than that.

Growing young

It’s well documented that young people are leaving the Christian church at an unprecedented rate. One study estimates that by the year 2050, 35 million young people who were raised in the church will have abandoned the faith. The reason is usually not a crisis of faith. They simply aren’t interested in the Christian life they saw lived out in church.

But there’s hope. Fuller Seminary has documented the results of a four-year study of hundreds of churches in the book, Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church. It turns out that many churches are growing, and growing with young people. And it’s not just churches with hip music and edgy youth programs. All different kinds of churches are growing.

This week, I committed our church to take part in a year-long study of Growing Young with other like-minded churches in Pittsburgh. The average age of our church is 65, a generation older than the average of our downtown Pittsburgh neighborhood. We could use some members of the church who are passionate about young people to join us.

The folks at Fuller believe that when a congregation commits to growing young, it’s not at the expense of older generations. Young people bring energy to an entire congregation. As a congregation grows younger, other priorities gain momentum.

When I look in the mirror, I notice that I’m not getting any younger, and there’s nothing I can do about it. It doesn’t have to be that way with our church.

35 million

That’s the number of young people who were raised in Christian households who will walk away from the Christian faith by 2050. So reports Vincent Burens, President and CEO of the Coalition for Christian Outreach. The US is “currently experiencing the fastest decline in religious affiliation in the history of this country.” The majority didn’t have a crisis of faith or reject church teachings. “They left because they just weren’t interested in the Christian life they saw.”

And remember, Burens is talking about young people who were raised in the Christian faith. The 35 million does not include those who have no Christian experience or reference point.

Burens calls this, “The largest mission opportunity in the history of America.”

This really isn’t new. It was documented in the 1970s by the Rev. Lesslie Newbigin, a Presbyterian minister from England who served for 27 years in the mission field in India. Returning to England in 1974, he discovered that the churches of Europe were mostly empty. Europe, once the source of missionaries, had become the mission field.

Another study, published in 1982 in the Christian Encyclopedia, estimated that 29,000 Christians in Europe and North America were leaving the faith every week.

It’s possible for individual churches to experience this decline (85 percent are either declining or stagnant; only 15 percent are growing.) and miss the mission opportunity this paradigm shift represents. The reason is that declining churches become more intimate, more comfortable, more homogeneous.

Our ancestors at First Presbyterian Church crossed an ocean and a wilderness to plant this church on the frontier.

When paradigms shifted, and needs changed downtown, they dug up the cemetery where their own saints were buried to build new church buildings.

If any church in America can meet the great mission opportunity of our day, it’s us.