Friday, April 20, 2007

The Deli – Location, Location, Location

It is Friday morning and I am at The Oasis, my “office” away from the office. I am putting together the PowerPoint for this weekend’s worship services. Following that, I will finish the prep for the class I teach and try to make serious headway on next weekend’s services (I will be out of town most of the week for the Purpose Driven Presbyterians conference). There is a point in my telling everyone this “stuff.”

Driving from the church office to The Oasis I went past a real estate office. Its reader board said, “Established Deli for Sale - Spanaway.” Spanaway is an area of the county near our church. A deli is for sale!! What went “wrong” with the dream of the deli owners? We will never know. However, this I do know—I would NEVER own a deli in Spanaway (even though I lived in Spanaway for ten years). A deli needs to have a population base to support its operation. Spanaway is a diverse area that ranges from middle to lower income neighborhoods to rural “hobby” farms. People drive through Spanaway on their way to somewhere else. Local residents buy groceries, gas, lattés and fast food. Small businesses come and go on a regular basis. It is not a great location for a deli.

A poor location is difficult to overcome for a church. Evergreen is in a beautiful location. We have almost five acres on top of the hill south of Graham. We have a fabulous view of Mt. Rainier. Our location has serious problems. It is VERY dangerous getting off and on the highway from the church. There have been serious car accidents on the highway in front of the church—many of our folks have had close calls. A more serious problem for attracting new members is that we are 2.5 miles south of the urban growth boundary. People do not drive our direction—the vast majority of all services are to the north. Thousands upon thousands of people have moved within five miles of the church and will never drive by our church. There is no local paper or radio station for advertising. It will be very difficult for Evergreen to overcome our poor location.

Evergreen is not alone in our Presbytery. Mission Wood Presbyterian Church (in Milton) is no where near a main road. The majority of people in Milton have no idea that Mission Woods exists. Parkway Presbyterian Church (in Parkland) is off the beaten path (sorry Kyle). My clergy group meets there every month. Unless a person lives in the neighborhood of Parkway you would never know it exists. Westminster Presbyterian Church (in Tacoma) is at the end of a dead end street. They have a huge physical plant that is invisible to the community. If you are going to Lakewood Presbyterian Church (in Lakewood) you had better print out the directions from Mapquest! This list could go on, and on, and on! Our Presbytery is filled with churches that are invisible to their communities because of their location!

A business can “make it” in a poor location IF it offers such a superior product that people will seek it out. Something similar can be said for a church. However, it is very difficult for a smaller church to offer such a superior experience that it can overcome a less than ideal location.

Evergreen isn’t the “normal” small Presbyterian Church. People who happen to find Evergreen love our theology, worship and music. For a small church we have an excellent choir. We have so much going for us; yet, it is difficult to overcome our location.

There is a growing number of people at Evergreen (most of them are our newer folks) who recognize the problems with our location and are open to the idea of relocating the church. Session will seriously look at the relocation issue in the coming months. Location, location, location. Why is it that so many of our churches are in less than ideal locations?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

“Joe Gatta’s is no more”

Jack Haberer (the Editor of Presbyterian Outlook) wrote an article called “Deli Church in a Supermarket World.” Haberer refers to a neighborhood deli run by Joe Gatta. Joe’s deli provided fruit and vegetables that came straight from the farm. Sadly, Joe’s deli is no more.

Norm has the best corn in Puyallup, Washington. Norm sells fresh corn from the back of his pickup on East Main Street (in August and September). I discovered Norm while visiting someone in the nursing home just off of East Main. I love corn-on-the-cob. The sign on the old truck read, “10 ears - $1.” What a great deal! I stopped and bought a dollar’s worth of corn. The corn was FABULOUS! I came to learn that Norm has a learning disability but grows the best corn in the area. Each morning he goes out to his field and cuts corn for that day. Norm has the best corn around. Sadly, Norm could stop selling corn and very few people would even notice.

Here’s the problem… it takes commitment to get corn from Norm. He sells corn in an out of the way place. Corn is all that he sells. Last year his corn was 6 ears/$1. I bought corn from Norm once last summer. With my limited free time I would rather go to the supermarket and do all of my grocery shopping than to make a special trip to get only one item.

The smaller church is a lot like Norm’s corn truck. Small churches are a dime-a-dozen (especially in the PCUSA). To survive it must provide a quality product. Our “product” is being Christ’s visible body in a particular location. That body provides opportunities for worship, discipleship, fellowship, ministry, evangelism and mission. If the small church does these things well it will survive and possibly even thrive. Not everyone is looking for a “big box” church experience—but any old small church just won’t do!

Like Joe’s deli, many of our Presbyterian churches should probably close. We celebrate when a believer “goes to be with the Lord.” We say that he/she lived a good life—loving and servicing the Lord. The person will be missed. It was a sad and happy day when my mom died. Mom dearly loved the Lord. Mom had dementia—most days she did not know who I was. It was a sad day the day mom died. It was a happy day the day mom died. We need to allow some churches to die—and then start a new, fresh ministry in their place.

Will all smaller churches survive? Some will—some won’t. Will Evergreen? Will the 30 or 40 smaller churches in the Presbytery of Olympia? Will the thousands of smaller churches in the PCUSA? I believe that it all depends on how well we go about being the body of Christ.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

“Deli Church” – Acting Like a Supermarket Even if we Aren’t One

Jack Haberer (the Editor of Presbyterian Outlook) wrote an article called “Deli Church in a Supermarket World.” Today we are going to look at his idea of acting like a supermarket church.

John Haberlin was the founding pastor of Central Kitsap Presbyterian Church in Bremerton, Washington. He told the new church that they would act like a large church even though they were a NCD (New Church Development in Presbyterian lingo). That church grew and prospered. He said that you have to plan and program for breaking through the 200 barrier or it will never happen.

It is easier for a new church to begin acting like a supermarket church than it is for an existing church. Evergreen is an excellent example of this. Many, but not all, of our church family would love to see the church grow. Some are even willing to sacrifice their wants and desires to see this happen. Yet, there are many long time members of Evergreen who are comfortable with things the way they are. They like the “folksy” feel of a small church. They like to have a “volunteer” greeter corps to welcome people and hand out worship bulletins even though most of these good folks do not know the names and faces of people who have been at the church for less than three years. They like to have “lay leaders” lead the Call to Worship and Pray of Confession, even though many of the “lay leaders” are not good communicators in front of a group of people.

We are in the process of having a “professional” group of greeters to work alongside the regular greeters. This new group of greeters will be small in number and WILL know the names and faces of everyone who regularly comes to Evergreen. Their sole task will be to welcome newcomers and assist them with information about the church and our ministries.

Like most churches, our long-time church attendees feel that our church is warm and friendly. Most newcomers feel that our church is not warm and friendly—that it is hard to get to know the long-time members. Fortunately, we have some very outgoing newer folks who make it their mission to welcome other newcomers.

Is it possible for a smaller church to act like a larger church? Yes it is. However, it is very difficult to actually do it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"Deli Church" vs the "Supermarket"

Jack Haberer (the Editor of Presbyterian Outlook) wrote an article called “Deli Church in a Supermarket World.” Yesterday I looked at his idea that smaller churches don’t expect much of pastors because they don’t want the pastor to expect too much of them. Today I want to look closer at the idea of the “deli” vs. the “supermarket.”

Back in the dark ages I was a student at Washington State University. WSU is located in the town of Pullman, just a few miles from the Idaho border. Pullman is a small town surrounded by wheat fields. Spokane, the closest town of any size, is an hour drive away. Moscow, Idaho, is about eight miles from Pullman and is home of the much smaller University of Idaho. Developers wanted to build a mall on the outskirts of Pullman. The city council, at the urging of downtown businesses refused to grant the necessary zoning changes and building permits. The developers went to Moscow and before you could blink an eye the mall was built. Following the mall were LOTS of other national chain stores. Moscow became the economic hub of the region because the businessmen of Pullman refused to allow their town to change.

Shopping malls have been blamed for the downfall of many downtown business areas. It is true that malls draw people away from downtown mom-and-pop stores, just as huge supermarkets draw people away from the neighborhood deli. It is easy to blame the “big-box” stores for the closing of the locally owned smaller stores—and sometimes they are to blame. Another cause of the failure of the smaller store is the store’s refusal to recognize the need to change to meet customer needs and expectations. Additionally, there are stores that offer products and services that do not resonate with the surrounding community.

The church I serve is in an area of transition. Thousands of people are moving in a few miles to the north of the church (inside the urban growth boundary). A few subdivisions are still being built outside the “growth area” because they had been “platted” prior to urban growth. Change is happening all around us. New schools cannot be built fast enough to handle the growth. New churches are also sprouting up—renting space in almost every school. Most of the pre-existing churches are not experiencing growth that reflects the growth in our community. Should those churches “blame” the new churches for their lack of growth? Should we blame the “big-box” churches that are eight miles to the north of us?

“This is one place where the modern consumerist mentality is screaming wise counsel to the church. Do you want us to join your congregation? Then give us an education! Provide us a university atmosphere where we can learn the Bible, cultivate excellent practices, study classical thinkers, wrangle newfangled ideas, and in the process become thoughtful disciples of Jesus Christ.” (Jack Haberer)

I do not believe that people are driving by our churches saying, “…give us an education!” They don’t even see our churches as they drive by—they don’t believe that the church is relevant to their lives. Do they need a place to learn about the Bible? Yes! Do they need to study classical thinkers? Yes! Do they need to wrestle with new ideas and notions? Yes. But here’s the catch—they do not recognize that they have that need.

People tend to respond to their most pressing need (or want). The person sinking to the bottom of a lake is thinking about their next breath of air. The parent with a child hooked on drugs is thinking about keeping their child alive through that day. The family that is being crushed by consumer debt is worried about keeping the electricity from being disconnected (today our church is helping a single mom keep her water from being disconnected). For the most part the church does not seem relevant.

Most church members are out of touch with the needs of those who do not attend church. The big-box store draws in people because it responds to the needs of potential customers. Too many church PCUSA church members either do not care about the needs of the unchurched or they do not want to change some of the things they do so they can help meet those needs. I am not talking about changing our foundational biblical, theological beliefs! I am talking about how we implement those beliefs.

It is time to stop blaming the “big-box” churches for our lack of growth. A few years ago I was serving on our Presbytery’s Church Redevelopment Committee. There was a small church in an area of RAPID growth (I’m not talking about Evergreen). The church continued to shrink while the surrounding population exploded. A “Baptist” church approached the Presbyterian Church to inquire about renting the church building on Sunday nights (this was a rural area with few buildings available to rent and land was very expensive). The PCUSA church saw this as an opportunity to gain some added income and quickly agreed to the arrangement. Within a few months there were over 100 people in attendance at the Baptist church on Sunday nights (most of them were young families). The pastor of the Presbyterian Church said that that Baptist church was “stealing” their people. These were not the Presbyterian Church’s people—these people had not been attending any church in the area!! The PCUSA pastor dearly loved the Lord Jesus and wanted the church to grow. The PCUSA pastor was retired and serving the church on a part time basis. Additionally, the PCUSA pastor was one of the most boring speakers I have ever heard. The Baptists were not the reason that the Presbyterian Church was not growing—the Presbyterian Church and its pastor were the reason the church was not growing!

All churches need to spend a lot of time seeking God’s leading for their church. Our churches want to be “neat and tidy.” Our people hide their struggles—many of the same struggles of those in our surrounding communities. The people of our churches struggle with many things: addictions (drug, tobacco, alcohol, pornography), marriages are failing, kids are having trouble with school, grandparents are raising grandchildren, financial collapse, faith issues, etc.). Our churches need to deal with the needs of people—the people who attend and those who don’t attend. Then, and only then, will our churches become relevant.

Monday, April 16, 2007

“Deli Church” – Jack, You Got at Least Part of it Wrong

Jack Haberer (the Editor of Presbyterian Outlook) had an article called “Deli Church in a Supermarket World.” For the next few days I want to take a closer look at the article.

“I hate to say it — I don’t want to misjudge — but I fear that too many churches have extended their pastors an unwritten and probably unstated but well understood term of call: ‘You don’t expect much from us, and we won’t expect much from you.’”

I would like to respectfully say, “NOT!” There may be a few churches out there that don’t expect much from their pastor, but I have run into very few of them. Most churches have an expectation that the pastor is on call 24 hours per day, seven days a week. There is the expectation that the pastor will be at everything that goes on at the church—the pastor needs to be resident theologian, prayer warrior, passable preacher, teacher of the young and old, barista (coffee maker) and mechanic. If anything, the smaller the church the more they expect of the pastor. Oh, did I forget to mention, that if the pastor has a spouse then the spouse is part of an informal clergy couple/team.

I can think of only a few churches which had low expectations of the pastor. One of those churches was a small, struggling church in Los Angeles. At its peak in the ‘50s there were 300 in worship each Sunday (they had to worship in the Fellowship Hall because the sanctuary was too small.). I was at the church for a couple of years in the early ‘80s. The church had shrunk to a Sunday attendance of 42. The pastor was a very nice man—but he was about as inspiring as a slug. He loved that church. They had very few expectations of him. I ran into a couple of church is Southeast Alaska that have few expectations of their pastors. These were village churches and quite remote, geographically speaking. The church members knew that the pastor would be there for a couple of years and then be gone. I have to say that not all village churches are like this!

So… the part that I disagree with is the low expectation on the pastor.

I think that Haberer is correct in that too many Presbyterians do not want the church to expect too much from them. There are those people who are there every week and there are those folks who project the attitude of “you should be glad I’m here when I’m here on every second or third Sunday.” Too many Presbyterians have no desire to be in a class or Bible Study.

When I came to Evergreen almost nothing happened at the church apart from Sunday morning. There were no small groups or home Bible Studies. Evergreen was a “low expectation” church. Evergreen became a “high expectation” Purpose Driven Presbyterian Church two years ago. It will take many years to change the culture of our church. I am confident that God will transform our church.

So… Jack was correct in that too many Presbyterians do not want the pastor (or the church) to expect much of them.