Friday, July 15, 2016

Chairs by the Door

When I left church Sunday I noticed a guy sitting on a big rock next to our main, street entrance.

As I thought about it on my way home, I put it together. I try not to think in terms of stereotypes… but this guy was a type. A messed up mop for hair, scraggly beard, squinty eyes from hours of starring at screens in the dark, the sort of look that one could assume that he smelled like dirty socks and Fritos… the guy was a gamer, playing Pokémon Go on his iPad.

For reasons beyond my knowledge, the game designers determined that churches would be good locations for Pokémon gyms. I’m guessing that it is because church property is generally accessible to the public and nobody lives there. By the luck of the draw (or Divine providence?) Northshore is a gym. So that means that some of the multiplied millions who are playing the game need to stop by gyms like ours to advance in the game. There has been a steady stream of people stopping by Northshore’s campus, usually the parking lot, since the game launched on July 6.

I thought, "why would anyone sit on that rock by the road?" And then it occurred to me… there is nowhere else to sit, at least not outside. Have you noticed that churches generally don’t have chairs outside of our buildings? It isn’t because we don’t value chairs. Pastors like me are keenly aware of our chairs (I have 242 in our auditorium; I know because I counted them myself). But we are often focused on just those chairs. That is where people get the really good stuff, where they hear me talk and listen to the music I provide. Of course those are the most important chairs. We want people to fill those chairs, several times each weekend.

But what about some chairs by the door? 

I wasn’t really a Christian for the first twenty years of my life. I can remember that I didn’t feel all that comfortable sitting in those chairs in church auditoriums. I didn’t feel like I belonged. I didn’t know what to do or how to act. I figured that the people who were comfortable in those chairs were probably judging me.

It could be that people who might not feel comfortable in the auditorium would like to sit by the door.

So I put some chairs by the door. I even took a few more steps, including putting up a few signs, and providing a place to plug in (Pokémon Go really drains batteries).

Within an hour or so, I had my first taker. And later that afternoon, that gamer guy showed up. I talked to him and learned that his name is Bennet; he lives in the apartments across the street. He exclaimed, “You did this? This is awesome! Most people just ignore people like me. Sometimes they tell me to go away, but I can usually tell that they want me to go away without them saying it. But you guys rolled out the red carpet! Thanks!”

I’ve had a number of conversations this week in those chairs.

In this case, I literally put chairs by the door. If you are a church leader, I’d encourage you to do the same. 

But there are all sorts of ways that we figuratively put chairs by the door, ways that we let people be part of our church in peripheral ways. There are several of those figurative chairs by the door right at the top of our minds at Northshore these days. We just finished up VBS; we think of VBS primarily as an outreach to our community… a way for kids and parents to check us out. We’re having an outdoor party on Saturday that we’re calling Hot Spot in the Lot, friends and neighbors are welcome to join us for food and fun. And on Monday we are more than doubling the distribution capacity for our food bank as we go to a weekly schedule. These are all figurative chairs by the door, ways to punch big holes in the hard shell that surrounds our church, ways that people can get a glimpse of the kind of people we are and the kind of God we serve.  

Let’s be sure to put chairs by the door… welcoming, comfortable places for people to enjoy that might just be a stop on the way to believing and belonging. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Dialoging the Monologue

Laurie and I are in a small group comprised of parents of millennials. This quarter we are reading David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church… and Rethinking Faith. It has been a great catalyst for discussion as we think about and pray for our children, their friends, and their generation.

The book and our discussions has led me to think about our worship services at Northshore, specifically the preaching. So over the past two weeks we’ve conducted a few experiments.

When it comes to preaching there are all sorts of approaches. There are some approaches that are more academic, while others are more related to everyday life. Some are shorter, while others are longer. Some produced by professionals (many more qualified than me), and other approaches that rely only on lay persons. Some are based in deeper research, while others are more spontaneous. Regardless of approach, the act of preaching is established in the Bible as a vital part of the life of God’s people. Preaching the Gospel has always been a central and vital part of church life, both the Church Universal and our congregation at Northshore.

With that said, it is good to think about approach, looking for ways to make our current presentation of the timeless Gospel relevant in our days.… so, we are experimenting. Specifically we are trying approaches that might make these moments more of a dialog than merely a monologue… more of a conversation together rather than merely a speech. Not necessarily things we’ll always do, or might never do again based on how it goes… just experiments.

This idea of more dialog is a significant element of communication in our times. We no longer settle for merely a few authoritative sources that provide information to us via a talking head. Gone are the days of just a few national news organizations, for example, that simply tell us what is going on. These days we expect many streams of information, as well as ways to enter into those streams ourselves. When we watch the news or even sports, the television screen usually gives us several views into the information with scrollbars and information blocks and multiple boxes and such. And then there are the second screens, as we watch social media feeds on our phones and tablets simultaneously with what is happening on the television screen.

So, for those second screeners we offered this hashtag: #NSromans. When one uses this hashtag on Twitter during the preaching, they might even see the tweet on the screen. (Now if words like hashtag and live tweet and second screen sound like gibberish to you… don’t worry about it; this isn’t for you).

The other, more low-tech, experiment is a Q & A. At the close of the messages, rather than giving time for our usual response in prayer (an altar call), I have opened the floor for questions related to the day’s message (as well as the other two messages in our series). This isn’t meant to be a game of stump the pastor, or a time to ask unrelated questions (for those who need to know if there were unicorns in the ark). Just a few minutes to consider the Scripture together as a community.

We believe that the Bible is the Word of God, and it is vitally important to our lives. Furthermore, we believe that the Bible is for us all, to be read and understood and applied by us all… not merely by a few paid professionals. I’m glad people listen to what I have to say about it, and I’m glad that most seem to appreciate what I have to say about the Bible. But we are going to be at our best when God’s Word is more than just a monologue from a few of us, but rather a constant dialog among all of us.

After two Sundays of experimenting, I’m pretty pleased with the results.

The hashtag has had limited response. Most of the use has been my own, using Tweetdeck to preload tweets related to my message that are released during the message. While only a few others have used the hashtag, there are indications that people are watching the feed (second screen) and appreciate seeing the tweets on the screen during the message (we are using the Twitter function in ProPresenter).

The Q&A has, so far, been the real success. The questions have been thoughtful and relevant… and it seems that my answers have been helpful. You can judge for yourself; the recordings for 5/1 and 4/24 available here.

It seems that millennials have been the primary users of the hashtag (apart from this Xer). But, to my surprise, the participants in the Q&A have mostly been Boomer women.

I talked with my son Alex about it and he had good advice, saying “just because we millennials aren’t yet participating in the Q&A does not mean that we don’t appreciate it.” He seemed to indicate that he and his ilk appreciated the effort, the transparency in the communication, and the invitation to enter the dialog. Furthermore, it seems, at least this far into the experiment, that he and his ilk were glad to observe the dialog… that he was encouraged by the kinds of questions asked and answers given.

I’m pretty sure that we’ll use these tools, at least from time to time, in the future.

I am interested in feedback. Have you observed these tools in use in other congregations? What makes it work really well (or not)? Are there other good ways to make our messages less like a monologue from a talking head? I’d be glad to hear from you.