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.

Silent sanctuary?

Five years ago, the Dormont Community Presbyterian Church, once a thriving congregation in the South Hills of Pittsburgh, closed. The property was acquired by North Way Christian Community. North Way is an evangelical congregation in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, 25 miles away. Today, the former Dormont church is a thriving North Way campus. (What once was the Dormont United Methodist Church is now a Buddhist Temple.)

A couple years ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did a photo essay on two dozen churches in Allegheny county that had closed, with many of the buildings falling into decay. Dormont was one of the few to find new purpose.

(To see the photo essay, Google “Post-Gazette Silent Sanctuaries.”)

What happened? In every case, the neighborhood changed.

The mill closed and the workers moved away; a tight-knit immigrant community dispersed over time; the white middle class moved to the suburbs. Then people with different ethnic, racial, or economic backgrounds moved in.

The church was no longer ministering to its neighbors.

A stalwart generation kept the church going as long as it could, but then a big bill came due; the roof needed to be replaced; and that was that. The Rev. Dr. Sheldon Sorge, general minister for the Pittsburgh Presbytery, said the [Dormont] Presbyterian church reached a similar point as many congregations in changing neighborhoods. “They’re good people; they just didn’t have the energy to reach into a new community.”

Well, our church just got a report from a roof consulting company. Our roof, which was built to last 125 years, is 113 years old. But parts are in bad shape. We’ve only got five years of roof left, and its going to cost a million dollars to fix.

Is it curtains for us?

Well, our neighborhood is booming. $8.5 billion has been invested here in the last ten years. We still have money in our own investments to perhaps seed a rebirth.

Promising. Hopeful.

Here’s the rub. The people moving into our neighborhood are changing, too. Most no longer go to church.

If we hope to reach them, we have to make a difference, and be known for making a difference, in things that matter to them. We have to provide ways to welcome them, get them involved, let them see us making a difference.

Will we have the energy to do those things?

Will we have the courage to change the good things we’ve been doing to reach them?

I pray we will.

Wee little man

There’s a children’s Sunday school song that many in my generation learned growing up. “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.” It’s one of those tunes that sticks in your head. You may not remember what you had for breakfast, but if you sang that song 60 years ago, you might start singing it now, just because I brought it up.

The problem with songs like that is that they can leave us with memories that aren’t quite right. This is not a sweet little story about Jesus sticking up for someone who was picked on because he was short.

Jesus was passing through Jericho, about to begin the long climb up to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. In just over a week, Jesus would be dead, yet he stopped, not to accept the adulation of the crowd, but to spend the night in the home of Zacchaeus.

Instead of mingling with the crowd, Zacchaeus had stationed himself high in a sycamore fig tree on the road out of town. He didn’t do this because he was short and wanted to see, as the children’s song would have us believe.

He did it because he was hated.

Tax collectors were universally hated because they collaborated with the Roman occupiers. Tax collectors got rich by extorting as much as they could and keeping the difference for themselves.  Zacchaeus was the chief among tax collectors. If he had mingled in the crowd, he likely would have wound up dead, and no one would have missed him.

Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately, I must stay in your house today.”

Jesus took the hatred of the crowd upon himself.

It was a hint of the unexpected, lavish, self-giving love that would be on display on Good Friday of the week ahead.

Cut off

The health services company, Cigna, just released the results of a national survey of 20,000 adults on the impact of loneliness:

  • Nearly half of Americans report feeling alone or left out.
  • Over 40 percent feel their relationships are not meaningful.
  • 20 percent rarely or never feel close to people.
  • Only about half have meaningful personal interactions (quality time) with others on a daily basis.
  • Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and may be in worse health than older generations.
  • And by the way, social media use is not a predictor of loneliness.

The bottom line: most American adults are lonely. And do I need to mention the devastating effects of all this loneliness?

Ezekiel 37 is the passage where God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the valley of dry bones. Ezekiel worked at a time when the people of Israel were in exile. The exiles described themselves as “cut off” from their people, their homes, and their faith. It’s amazing how many times the phrase “cut off” appears in the Bible. In a desert culture where connectedness was critical to survival, to be cut off from the community was a severe punishment. To be cut off from God was the worst thing of all.

Could it be that what people experience today is a problem of biblical proportions?  They’re exiles, cut off from others and from God.

But there’s good news. There’s a place where four generations come together every week. It’s a place specifically designed to provide the connectedness that we were made and long for.

Come on church. We were made for this.



Assessment of authenticity

I’ve watched the short video maybe 20 times. I’ll show it to our new church officers again this year. The speaker is Dr. Rodger Nishioka, one the top Presbyterian teachers in the country. Rodger is speaking about the “21st Century Reformation.” The theory is that every 500 years or so, God holds a “rummage sale,” throwing out things in the church that are outdated and making room for the new. He says a reformation is a terrifying thing to undergo, but in the end, the church emerges stronger and more faithful. Every time I watch I discover something challenging, new, or encouraging that I hadn’t noticed before.

Rodger points out that most young adults today who grew up in the church no longer attend.

He was speaking about Christian mission to a group of those young adults, and one of them challenged him. She said, “The problem with ‘you people’ (the church establishment) is that you seem to have no effect on the place in which God has planted you.”

For young adults, the impact of a church on its neighborhood is an assessment of its authenticity.

The young woman said she watched people come and go from the church across the street from her condo complex. If the church disappeared, the reaction would be, “Cool, more parking. Wouldn’t it be nice if they made a difference here?”

I don’t doubt that Jesus’ call to Christian mission is global. But the average age of our congregation is a generation older than our neighborhood. Are we making the impact here that we should? Do the unchurched (or formerly churched) young adults in our neighborhood assess us to be “authentic?”

What about the young adults who grew up here who no longer attend? Would they miss us if we disappeared?

You can watch “21st Century Reformation” at