John Frye shares his reflections on closing a church.  What can we learn from this? – STEVE

Closing a Church (John Frye)

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 3.35.58 PMThe Closing of a Church, by John Frye

Last Sunday the local church where I have served as pastor for nine years closed. Thankfully, it closed well, but not without tears. The church had a faithful, yet roller-coaster history and for reasons too cumbersome and complex for this post, the decision to close was a “severe mercy.” Severe in that it is always hard to end a church’s history and merciful because the faithful folks who hung in to the end were fatigued and needed a clear, sharp decision about their future.

I had to do some painful soul-searching. When I agreed to take the call to be the part-time, interim pastor of the church, I was told, “John, you may just be there long enough to give the church a good burial.” This potential (short) future of a ministry did not set well with me. I thought, “No church is going to die under my watch.” That was nine years ago.

As the ministry entered into its final two years, issues in the church’s DNA, frictions with members, and the inability of the church to negotiate healthy change, the church entered into what our denomination calls an “at risk” status. Using a medical metaphor, the church went into cardiac arrest and was on life support in the last eight months to a year. It’s hard to get a church on life support to become more missional. Energy levels drop and morale flounders. I came to a hard realization: churches do die and this one was dying under my care.

At our denomination’s once-a-year annual meeting, I would attend as a delegate from our church. Delegates celebrated and voted into the denomination new church plants and churches switching denominational affiliation. Delegates also were informed of and voted on churches that closed. I knew that churches do, indeed, die. Yet, I would always say to myself, “Not the church where I serve. It won’t happen.” A pastor’s pride, a leader’s stubbornness can sometimes become the block to the larger purposes of God. I had to wrestle with this.

My experiences as a pastor have shaped my ecclesiology. I no longer idolize big churches (mega-brands). I was the teaching pastor of one of those for 24 years. I ended my ministry there very wearied and in a dark-night-of-the-soul condition. On the other hand, I no longer think little churches only have one future: to grow into healthy, missional communities. John the Apostle’s pastoral wisdom in Revelation 2-3is very significant to me. The only glorious One is Jesus who walks among the lamp stands, his local (real geographical) churches. As a pastor I am owning into the ragged humanity of the “body of Christ,” glorious as she will be in the consummation.

Big or small, churches are fragile because of the lingering power of the Fall in and on human relationships. Let him who boasts, boast only in the Lord.



Reposting an article that needs to be part of the dialogue about the nature and fruitfulness of the church today-Steve


I’ve tried hard not to write about this. Really hard. I don’t want to be the guy that has to weigh in on every controversy that erupts in evangelical culture. And yet, when Donald Miller wrote about not attending church and “graduating” from traditional church, it generated a lot of angst in me. My frustrations come, not because I don’t understand his point, but because I relate a lot to his feelings about traditional church. I am somewhat of a reluctant pastor who passionately loves serving the church. What I mean by that is, it was never my intention to be a pastor, and when I got fired from my first church job, I wanted to walk away from the church.

But I couldn’t. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t.

I love the church, and I believe a lot of what we see on the surface of church isn’t necessary to the Christian faith. But that doesn’t mean we should throw it out. Church, as with most spiritual things, has the surface thing we see, and then there is the thing behind the thing. If all we see is the music and the lectures and the frustrated parents who spent the morning wrangling kids into clothes to get them to church on time, then we have to wonder if it is worth it.

If all I’m doing is giving a lecture I don’t want to do it. For one, I’m not that good of a lecturer. Two, there are a lot of others who are better than me. Thousands of podcasts and sermons are available online, most of which are probably better than me. If you want a lecture, listen to Tim Keller. He’s better at it than me.

If all I’m doing is giving a lecture then I am wasting my time. A good portion of my week is spent studying the Bible, reading commentaries and theological books, praying, and writing all in preparation of giving a good lecture on Sunday mornings. But if I’m just giving a lecture, then all that is pointless. Seriously. Because 90% or more of what I say on a Sunday is already known by those sitting in the congregation. And an even higher percentage is forgotten by Tuesday.

If all we are doing is singing songs, then we should stop immediately. Immediately. Because it is weird. No where else in American society do adults gather in a large room to sing songs together. You could argue it happens at a concert, but people don’t gather to sing songs, they gather to hear a band or singer. The closest you could find is a karaoke bar. Which is weird for other reasons. If church is just a Sunday morning karaoke bar, then we should stop. Now.

If all we are doing is putting on a concert, then lets admit there are a lot of better concerts out there. And while we are at it, let’s also admit that no one likes a concert at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

If all we are doing is gathering once a week for community, then we don’t understand community. Being in the same room with the same group of people for an hour a week and then spending fifteen minutes chatting over cheap coffee doesn’t constitute community. The old guys who meet at the same diner for breakfast on Fridays have better community than we do.

If all we are doing is lifting a cup of grape juice and dipping some tiny squares of cheap, crustless white bread while standing over a heavy oak table, then we serve the worst appetizers ever.

If all we are doing is singing songs and listening to lectures, then to hell with it. Because that’s not enough.

But maybe that’s not all we are doing. Maybe I am not just studying the Bible and commentaries and theological works to prepare a lecture. Maybe I am entering into the presence of God, on behalf of the people of God, to deliver the word of God.

Maybe it isn’t just a lecture, but a submissive act of subverting the narrative imposed upon the people of God six days a week by orienting and reorienting ourselves around a narrative of grace.

Maybe we aren’t just singing songs, but maybe people who are vastly different than one another – mothers and father, young and old, men and women, black and white, widows and widowers, rich and poor – are joining their many voices into one voice and declaring something together.

Maybe we aren’t just lifting a cup with cheap grape juice into the air while we recite some words. Maybe we are acting as hosts to the Table of God, where the presence of God rests uniquely as it invites people to a space of grace and equality.

Maybe we aren’t just coming together to find community. Maybe we are involved in an embodied, liturgical rhythm that informs our lives about what we value. Maybe the act of getting up, dressed, moving, coming together, isn’t about community, but is about liturgy. It shapes us. It involves us. It reminds us. Even the most contemporary non-liturgical churches requires the liturgy of coming together.

Maybe we aren’t gathering in tribes, but we are gathering in a local place to remember that as we gather, all tribes gather and will one days sing together with one voice to the one Lord.

Because if it is about that, then I want to be a part of it. Even if it is boring and difficult and maddening and uncomfortable. Because the thing we see on the surface is connected to what’s behind it. And what’s behind it is beautiful and rich and wonderful and mysterious and inspiring.

If church is about all that, then I’m all in.
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Bono, the lead singer of U2 is not a Christian by his statement. He is, however, a friendly critic of Christianity and an admirer of the best elements of our faith. Here is an excerpt from his recent book (written along with Michka Assayas:

Assayas: I think I am beginning to understand religion because I have started acting and thinking like a father. What do you make of that?

Bono: Yes, I think that’s normal. It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma.

Assayas: I haven’t heard you talk about that.

Bono: I really believe we’ve moved out of the realm of Karma into one of Grace.

Assayas: Well, that doesn’t make it clearer for me.

Bono: You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics; in physical laws every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.



The singer Bono from U2 is not a Christian and he has deep respect for the faith and its mission. Yet he is often critical of how Christians carry out that mission.  Bill Hybels interviewed Bono in 2010.  The exchange is worth our consideration as we keep our eyes wide open as the church of Jesus Christ.


by  Stephen L. Dunn

I had my first ministry assignment in 1971 when I was hired as the part-time Youth Pastor of the Newville (PA) Church of God.  That was forty years ago. It was a time when, particularly in small towns, churches were the centers of the community, church people were viewed as solid citizens, and pastors were positions of honor and respect.

Forty years have pretty much changed that. The ecclesiastical landscape is not a pretty sight.  During those 40 years our society has seen a seismic shift in its values and perceptions.  Churches are now considered by many postmoderns as entities that squelch true spirituality.  Church people are often viewed as political enemies of reasonable, “normal” people.  Clergy types are viewed with suspicion.

Scholars, social commentators, and religious historians speak of a shift from being a churched culture to a … you fill in the blank.  Whatever the case, churches and Christianity no longer hold home field advantage.

In the churched culture, people thought being good folk was synonymous with being good Christians.  In a culture that tracked with the church (Robert Bellah said this was because the culture had a civil religion that resemble Christianity), people thought of their churches as organizations that recruited members, provided benefits to those members (including status in the world and eternal life in the next). But because church and culture were basically on a parallel course, few churches concerned themselves with making disciples.  They just were recruiting and indoctrinating members with shared values).

Evangelism was replaced with church marketing.  Good people became the goal (good people who knew how to navigate a prayer book/hymnal) rather than transformed people.  But even choosing to become a Christian was relatively costless because the culture would affirm you anyway.  Most of the emphasis was on the outward appearance of faith and the willingness to do our “Christian duty.” Many, many mainline denominations continue to operate from this premise.  Many, many evangelical ones have chosen to be cultural curmudgeons.

Somewhere the idea of being Christ’s disciples was replaced with being a Presbyterian, Southern Baptist, and members of the Republican Party (if you were a social conservative) or the Democratic Party (if you were a social liberal).  The church and our culture have suffered immensely by this loss of true identity – of biblical identity.

When Jesus walked on planet Earth and lived in our neighborhood, he spoke of people becoming his disciples.  Of being people who proclaimed the Good News of the Kingdom by following Him.  FOLLOWING HIM.

In fact, that’s how Christians came to be called Christians.  They were recognized as followers/disciples of Jesus Christ.

Isn’t it time to stop being members of a church, or advocates of a particular doctrinal distinctive, or members of a political force in the nation’s culture wars – TO ONCE AGAIN BEING CHRIST’S DISCIPLES?

(c) 2011 by Stephen L Dunn

Step out of the boat

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