Thursday, October 18, 2012

Discerning the Way Forward - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #47

Dear Friends in Truth,

As a church planter, I have noticed that there is a certain rhythm to each year. The very beginning of the calendar is a key time, when everyone begins to re-focus after the bustle of the holidays. In January through March, new things happen in congregations, and unique growth is possible. The fall provides a similar window of opportunity. September and October are pivotal months in the life of new churches. Folks are reorienting after the craziness of summer and - just like after New Year's - everyone is looking to establish routines and make new connections. This is an ideal time to launch initiatives, do outreach to our neighborhoods and invite seekers into the community.

For the last three years, our ups and downs at Capitol Hill Friends have followed seasonal patterns. The fall and New Year have brought new energy, opportunities and numerical growth. The summer and winter holidays have been accompanied by lower energy and reduced attendance. Over time, we have learned to roll with the punches, coming to anticipate these natural swings. We have adapted our programs and outreach to the rhythm of the seasons.

It came as no surprise when attendance and energy at Capitol Hill Friends plummeted in July and August. Not only is this time of year generally characterized by decline, but we had also had three of our core members move out of town in July. These were major losses, but I figured that the usual seasonal pattern would help cushion the blow. Things would pull together in September/October. The fall boost would rescue us.

But this fall has not stuck to the script. Energy has not risen. Attendance has not recovered. The summer slump has largely continued. This year is different.

This unexpected challenge may be good for us, in the same way that cod liver oil is beneficial - it tastes awful, but it has lots of vitamins. This fall's "tough medicine" has caused us to seriously reevaluate our life as a community at Capitol Hill Friends. Who are we called to serve? What mission is God calling us to here in the city? What is our model for being a deeply rooted community in a highly transient urban area? How is God asking us to change in order to adapt ourselves to the needs of the culture we live in? Is God still calling us to plant a Quaker Meeting here in DC? These are questions we have held and considered all along, but they are taking on a new urgency.

I know that, to be faithful, I must be open to laying down this entire venture. Capitol Hill Friends does not belong to me, or even to the membership as a whole - it belongs to Jesus Christ. We must rely on him to show us the way forward. Whether we lay down this ministry, radically change our orientation as a group, or simply keep walking forward in faith, we must do it because Jesus calls us.

It is possible for an individual or small group to keep a project going for a while under their own strength. But not forever. After two or three years, fatigue sets in. Our enthusiasm is gradually replaced by bone-weariness. Everything seems to depend on us. Each step we take in our own strength is crushed by the weight of responsibility.

I suspect that the three year mark is a critical moment for a new community like Capitol Hill Friends. The honeymoon period is definitely over. We have had plenty of chances to see our own weakness and limitations. I know that I have gained a much fuller view of my own personal failings after three years of service to this community. The daily grind of local ministry has been powerful in exposing my true character. Of all the prayers I ask, one that God always answers with devastating immediacy is: "Lord, humble me."

I hope that you will continue to lift me up in your prayers, and to ask that our Heavenly Father speak clearly to us at Capitol Hill Friends. We need guidance for how to move forward with our calling to be faithful witnesses for Christ's Kingdom in Washington, DC. What form that should take, I do not know. But God does. I am counting on that.

In the love and mercy of Jesus,

Micah Bales


Matt said...

Hello Micah,
We have never met or communicated by email but I do read your blog often.

I consider Capital Hill Friends a big inspiration from what I've seen of you guys online. Something I may seek to replicate one day not too far off.

I have long sought a Christian community that you seem to be building - one that is contemplative, celebratory, friendly (small 'f') and radical in terms of how you choose to live.

Having spent many years in the Unitarian tradition, a once radical fellowship, I have grown disillusioned and found myself with the Quakers.

However, I guess my worry is the unprogrammed Quakers have also gone the same way as the Unitarian - diluted to the point of becoming some sort of middle-class spiritual / philsophical hand-wringing club. That's perhaps putting it a bit bluntly, and no offence to individuals is intended.

I guess what I'm saying is you are having an impact across the world with your radical public witness and ministry. The idea that a bunch of Christians can get together to try and work things out, to try and live out a stripped-down, everyone included, committed Christianity.

And I think hope and resolve can be drawn from Matthew 18:20 - you could have a church of 5000 but not necessarily be Spirit-infused where just 2 or 3 might well be. Speaking as a distant outsider, I think you guys are.

Simply let your lives speak, the rest will be taken care of.


Charity said...

Hey Micah,
Reading your blog today brought to mind something from a book that has had a huge impact on my spiritual walk: Hind's Feet on High Places. There is a song that the water sings as it pours itself out from the heights of the mountains that goes like this:
Come, oh come, let us away—lower, lower every day
Oh, what joy it is to race, to find the lowest place
This the dearest law we know—“It is happy to go low.”
Sweetest urge and sweetest will, “Let’s go down lower still.”

Hear the summons night and day, calling us to come away.
From the heights we leap and flow, to the valleys down below.
Always answering to the call, to the lowest place of all.
Sweetest urge and sweetest pain, to go low and rise again.

We've talked about your hopes that this meeting would take off and grow abundantly. Maybe the Spirit is directing you to do something else instead. I love what you said about evaluating how God is calling Capitol Hill Friends to serve, who you are called to minister to with what God has given you. This is a great query. Maybe your community, small as it is, is being called to pour itself out in love for others. Maybe it is not to build up itself and its members, but to be poured out.

I don't know what this will look like. But if this is what God is calling you to do and you are obedient, it will be beautiful.


James Breiling said...

I second Matt: "Simply let your lives speak, the rest will be taken care of." I extend this suggestion: The persons that have had the most spiritual/living in the spirit influence on me have not been pastors/ministers or weighty Friends, but persons whose Light radiated through their work and everyday interactions.

RE: Capital Hill Friends. A paraphrase, If Capital Hills Friends is not known, does it exist? I recall reading that Jerry Falwell acquired the initial congregation for his Liberty Baptist mega-church in Lynchburg VA by going door to door, introducing himself and inviting those who were not church members to his fledging church. Such outreach also offers an opportunity to learn what folks want in a religious/spiritual entity. Perhaps you've already done some of this. If so, what can you report from the engagements?

A recent story reported a study that found a continuing (and, to me, unsurprising) decline in the membership in the mainline Protestant dominations.
As I read the story, and from my personal perspective and interactions with others, these churches (to quote a colleague) are excluding many.
This has little to do with whether the worship is still traditional rather than contemporary. For my scientist colleagues, they feel that were excluded from the churches of the childhood and youth especially by the dogmatic assertion (especially by evangelical churches) in the truth of the prescientific descriptions in the Bible about the creation and nature of the universe and of life on earth and about the Garden of Eden. We now have solid scientific understandings of the creation, size and organization of the universe (from astronomical science), of the laws of matter (from the science of physics) and of the evolution of life (from biology). And the bodies of evidence from these sciences continue to both replicate the essence of the main findings and to extend them. For example, a recent paper reports sophisticated radiological and DNA analyses of bone fragments from widely dispersed locations that identified these bone fragments as from homo sapiens of 11,000-13,000 years ago.
THe implications of these sciences for the creation and Garden of Eden stories are clear and compelling.
A church that does not recognize and adjust its theology to the findings of science largely precludes the scientifically literature from membership.

Then there is hate and callousness. At the top of the list for unwarranted hate and exclusion are gays, lesbians and transsexuals. Arguably at the top of the list for callousness (and exclusion from the mainline Protestant churches) is the poor (with a frequent interlacing with racism). Their needs are minimized. They are blamed for their situation: residing in miserable housing in woeful and difficult communities whose schools are at best struggling, being short of adequate and nutritious food, having at best problematic access to quality care for illness prevention and treatment, being challenged to find work, especially that which will support a family, and who are served poorly by government -- from protection by the police to public transit.

Yes, the church must put the first commandment that Jesus identified -- loving God with body, mind and spirit -- first, but close to, indeed, intertwined with the first commandment must be going beyond comforting the members of the Church to walking the talk of the second great commandment: the Golden Rule, which is nicely complemented by the when you feed the hungry, comfort the suffering, etc., yea do this for me (Him).

Unknown said...

Re: Capitol Hill Friends,

Just because you have encountered obsticles doesn't mean it should be laid down. If Jesus had given up because of obsticles His ministry wouldn't have lasted much beyond the wedding of Cana.

Instead of giving up maybe you need to look at what you can/should do differently. I know that if I was moving to DC and looking for a worship community I wouldn't even give CHF a passing glance.

Looking at your website the first thing I notice right off that would turn me off is the time that you meet. For many, Sunday afternoon is a time when they get together with their families, relax, and get ready for the upcoming week. Putting your meeting time when you did effectively says, "Choose us over your family." To which I would respond, "Don't hold your breath."

The other thing that turns me off is the length of the meeting time. Two hours is a long time to demand of people every single week. It would be onerous to people with children of any age. Teenagers wouldn't behave for that long never mind a toddler. Probably the most successful spiritual communities out there are the recovery communities, and they never officially meet for one hour. If people can and want to hang out together after meeting that's great. It's even strongly encouraged. But, it is never required.

You do a lot of hang wringing in this blog about why we're not attracting young adults. Well, young adults often have children, or they are planning on having children. Your meeting time and length says loud and clear, "People with families are not welcome here."

James Breiling said...

Harking back to "Burn the Meetinghouse Down":
I have reviewed budgets for several Quaker meetings in the DC area that meet in meetinghouses. The proportion of their budgets that goes for maintaining the facilities is, to me, impressively modest. Of course, that proportion could be zero with a house church. See paste below from a blog of a pastor about a house church that uses 100% of the offerings for the poor in its community (Orange County CA) -- and that has Jesus as "the answer."

You probably already know that I walked away from pastoral ministry at a traditional church about six years ago to start a church that meets in homes around Orange County, California where 100 percent of the offerings go to support the poor in our community. You probably also know that I’ve written a book called “This Is My Body:Ekklessia as God Intended” a few years ago about how God’s design for His Church has always been about people as living stones where everyone is a priest of God offering themselves as daily, living sacrifices.

So, it might be a shock to you that I would say, “House Church is not the answer”. But, I’m saying it. It’s not the answer.

Jesus is the answer. The Gospel of the Kingdom is the answer. Surrender to Christ alone as a daily follower of Jesus is what counts, not where you meet on Sunday mornnings.

Does it matter how you gather? Yes, I’d say it does matter. Especially if you have any real hope of stepping into the awesome reality of having Christ as your functional leader and head in the Church.

Does it matter if you submit to a pastoral authority? Yes, I’d say that you shouldn’t do that. Especially if you have any real desire to become a member of the priesthood of all believers and fulfill your calling within the Body of Christ.

Does it matter if everyone in the Church has an equal opportunity to speak, and teach, and share, and use the spiritual gifts God has given them? Absolutely! Without this the Church is not a Body at all, according to Paul the Apostle. What makes us a “Body” is when Christ alone is our actual head and when everyone else is working together to share their spiritual gifts for the building up their brothers and sisters in Christ.

But gathering in a home won’t cut it. Meeting in a circle and singing songs won’t accomplish anything. Having a great meeting about Jesus is not the same thing as having an actual meeting with Jesus.

House church is not the answer. Jesus is. And learning to gather beneath the shadow of His wings, and learning to hear His voice together, and actually encountering the Risen One in the fellowship of other submitted and surrendered believers is what every follower of Christ is made for.

Whatever you do, please don’t settle for house church. Gather together with Jesus as your only focus, and accept no substitutes.

Joe Snyder said...

Dear Micah,
I am a little late responding to your blog, but feel I should say something. As you know, there is no right or wrong answer. I know of cases where Friends have been called to keep Meeting with only 1 or 2 attenders and have eventually revived and proved a faithful witness. I also know of cases where Friends have held on to a Meeting long after it should have been laid down. I can only urge you to listen as carefully as you can to what Christ is telling you, whether inwardly or through the counsel of wise, thoughtful, and discerning friends. I am too far away to have any other counsel than this. I do admire what you are doing there.
Yours faithfully,