On Age and Relevance in the Church

“Our church is shrinking,” they’d whine
Average age, seventy-one, a bad sign
To avert a disaster
A millennial pastor!
The average is now sixty-nine

The email from the pastor made me chuckle.

“We have a mostly older congregation, no children, but we do have one millennial couple!”

“One millennial couple” and it was almost as if it was a badge of honor.

But I understood. The church has changed drastically in the years that I have been involved in ministry. My friend, Pastor Jon, likes to remind me that “no one has been in more churches than Chuck Neighbors.”  I don’t know if that is exactly true, but I have been in a different church almost every weekend for the last 45 years. I have seen a lot of change over the years.

My generation of Baby Boomers, who once strived so hard to be “relevant” and “contemporary” in church now find themselves on the outside of church culture. To the younger church culture we are now, it seems, irrelevant and too traditional by their standards.

Indeed it is rare to find a church that appeals to all ages. Churches that promote a “contemporary” worship style seem locked into a new tradition they have created that is no longer contemporary. In striving to be relevant, contemporary has become tradition.

I recently did a series of performances for a church in Sun City, Arizona. Sun City is well known as a retirement community. There was a good turnout every night. People enjoyed the performances. I have a statement that is read when I am introduced, that “if babies get too noisy to please take them out of the room so as not to distract from the performance.”

The pastor read this and received a big laugh.

Babies? There was not even one millennial couple in the audience.

Mixed Messages

On Palm Sunday it was a privilege to perform to over 5,000 people in three services at a church in the Los Angeles area. It has been a while since I shared with an audience this large and I have to say it was both exhilarating  and exhausting. Three in a row of Encounters, with a lot of emotional characters, takes a toll on the body.

After each performance I was happy to hear some great comments from people that sought me out to compliment my performance. One comment came up more than once:

“I have never seen anything like that before.”

It gave me pause and made me ponder what exactly they were referring to. Did they mean they had never seen an actor do a one-man show? Perhaps. Or did they mean they had never seen a dramatic performance in the place of a sermon on a Sunday morning. That seems more likely to me.

Their comments were a blessing and a reminder to me of the great gift the arts can be to the church. These listeners heard familiar stories from the life of Jesus told in new and different ways and it impacted them deeply.

The church continues to struggle—or maybe doesn’t struggle enough would be more accurate—when it comes to making room for the arts in the church. The response this last weekend gives me hope that progress is being made in this struggle.

After such a great weekend I was stopped in my tracks when I returned home. A very different response from another church awaited me. A pastor was hoping to schedule a performance this summer; we had the date penciled on the calendar and I was awaiting the formality of an approval from the church board. Then I received this email:

“It is with deep regret and personal disappointment that the Board decided to decline the opportunity.”

I pushed back. Often these things don’t pass the Board because of budgetary reasons. I asked if it was about the money. His response:

“It had nothing to do with money. There was just an expressed apathy. I showed them the clip you sent which I felt was incredibly powerful but apparently they did not share my perspective. I am both puzzled and frustrated. I am sad and disappointed and believe we have missed a wonderful opportunity.”

I am especially bothered by the word “apathy” as the reason. I would be more understanding if it were about the money, or “not appropriate for worship” or even what is even more typical, “we have never done anything like that before.”

Notice how close the phrases are:

“I have never seen anything like that before”

“We have never done anything like that before”

The first was an open door that brought new insight and spirtual impact to the listener.

The second is a closed door that resists change and settles for the status quo.

One step forward, one step back I suppose. (Uh-oh, was that a subliminal message about dancing in the church?)

Strength and Weakness

When Jason Gray photobombs your selfie!

I had the pleasure of bumping into my friend, singer-songwriter Jason Gray, last week. It was quite a fun coincidence. I knew he was coming to my town of Salem, OR for a concert on Sunday and we were actually hosting him in our home on Sunday night. Lorie and I were flying back from Dallas, TX on Friday and guess who was seated behind us?

I got to know Jason, before he became “famous.” We were both partners in a child sponsorship ministry several years ago and traveled together to Africa on a mission trip.

If you are a fan of his music, you know that one of the themes that Jason writes and sings about so eloquently is “weakness.” He makes the case better than anyone I know that God’s strength is experienced in our weakness. He uses his own handicap as an example. Jason is a stutterer. You don’t have to be around him very long to discover this.  Yet, Jason is one of the best communicators that I know. Kind of ironic, isn’t it? He doesn’t try to hide it. He even makes jokes about it from the stage.

In addition to being an amazing musician, Jason is also a terrific storyteller. His stories reinforce his theme of weakness, as he shares openly and transparently about his own life. He makes the point that when we share our weaknesses and our failings with others, we are able to truly get to know each other better, like each other more and relate to each other honestly. He even quips from the stage about his stuttering, “now that you know that about me… I bet you like me just a little bit more.”

Oh how I need to be reminded of that. It is okay to have weakness, it is alright to share our weakness. In this age of social media, we spend way too much time trying to make ourselves “look good.” Through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, we put our lives under a microscope, yet work furiously to make sure people only see our best side.

I am inspired by people like Jason. I want to be more like him when it comes to being honest and transparent about my life. It is one of the reasons my newer presentations have been personal stories from my life. It has been freeing to tell my stories and to hear people afterwards thank me for being transparent and talking openly about my struggles and failures. Through that process they see that they we are not alone. (Check out Truth be Told…from a Guy Who Makes Stuff Up and Go Ask Your Mother…a Father’s Story)

Take a listen to one of my favorites of Jason’s. I think it is one of his strongest pieces and it is called “Weak.”

Donuts

So, I was at this church and they were having what they called a “Ministry Fair.” All of the different ministries of the church set up tables in the lobby. The idea was for you, the church member, to see all the possibilities and then sign up to be a part of a ministry of the church. There were all the usual suspects: women’s ministry, men’s ministry, youth and children and nursery, and various mission outreaches. But I knew which ministry I would want. It was the first thing that caught my eye when I walked into the church. Donuts. If God called me to this church and gave me a ministry here I am pretty sure it would be someplace near this little stand in the corner where they were brewing fresh coffee and serving up donuts. Now here is a church that is practicing for heaven!

Has it ever bothered you that for all the stances the church takes on living the Christian life, the one area that many seem to overlook is healthy living when it comes to diet? I mean the church may have a Celebrate Recovery ministry, and even a health and fitness ministry, I was at a church recently that had a Pastor of Sports. Yet on Sunday morning they serve up donuts, alongside a healthy dose of caffeine. I grew up in the era of the church potluck. Fried chicken and casseroles, and lots of cake and pie! As one church lady righteously defended, “but there are no calories, I followed the recipe exactly, calories were not on the list of ingredients.” The church potluck, how I miss it. It doesn’t seem to be a thing, like it was when I was younger. Maybe that is a good thing. With so many states now making cannabis legal, the potluck might need to be redefined.

But hey, I am not here to judge…I think I read somewhere that that is a sin.

But donuts! I walked by the donut booth and took a peek at the signup list. Looks like this ministry might be overbooked. I grabbed a maple bar and chatted with Scott who was overseeing the signups. Scott heads up this ministry and it turns out is in law enforcement. Why am I not surprised?

Man, this maple bar is especially good; suddenly I know why, it’s the bacon. Yes, this is no ordinary donut (I should have noticed the pink box when I approached the table). This is a Bacon Maple Bar. I am in Portland, Oregon after all and the donut I am eating is a Voodoo Donut. Voodoo Donuts is one of the things that put Portland on the map. I fly a lot and it seems on every flight someone is carrying that signature “pink box” full of donuts home with them.

I am pleased that I selected this maple bar. At least I can now say that I had a healthy breakfast. I have grains, I have protein. Maybe there is more to this ministry than I previously thought.

I wonder if anyone is bothered by a church knowingly serving up something named Voodoo. I mean I am all for various elements of the faith community learning to get along with each other, but embracing Voodoo is stretching it a bit. I wonder if there is an aspect to this I am not seeing. I suddenly envision people with little dolls representing the pastor, hiding in their pockets and purses. If the sermon gets too long and people are craving their donuts, the pins come out.

There may be more to the donut ministry than I ever realized before.

Counting Blessings

As 2018 draws to a close, I find I am reminded of that old hymn “Count Your Blessings.” Sing with me if you know it:

Count your blessings, name them one by one,

Count your blessings, see what God has done!

Count your blessings, name them one by one,

And it will surprise you what the Lord has done!”

So here are just a few of the blessings I am counting from the past year. 

– 85 Performances were given in 9 states

– Over 180 kids in poverty were sponsored through our partnership with Food for the Hungry

– God’s provision through some challenging times for our team, both financial and on the health front

– Lives impacted through the ministry as reflected in this quote from a recent performance:

“Our church had actor and storyteller Chuck Neighbors come and share his “In His Steps” drama recently and it was fantastic. His acting is second to none and he made us feel like we were transported to a bygone era. The adults and the kids alike were all captivated by his presentation. I would highly recommend any church, large or small, to invite Chuck to come and present this powerful drama and challenge to walk in the steps of Jesus!”

This ministry is now 35 years old and it couldn’t have happened without the prayers and support of people like you. If you are reading this letter, you are one of those who have made this journey possible. That’s hundreds of performances and thousands of lives impacted with the Gospel! 

As you look forward to 2019, we would be so very honored if you would remember us by giving a gift to Master’s Image Productions.  We would be especially grateful if you could support us on a regular basis with a monthly pledge. You can make a donation online or set up a month gift plan with a credit card here: www.mastersimage.com/donate. Gifts are tax-deductible.

We Wish you a Merry Christmas! 

And God’s blessings in the New Year!

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