Today’s post looks back at the year 2011 here at Nativity, an amazing year of grace and favor from God. Here are my top ten favorite things (in no particular order).
1. “Catholic Atheist”
My favorite message series of the year was, far and away, “Catholic Atheist.” Inspired by Pastor Craig Grochel’s book, “Christian Atheist” this series took a hard long look at the ways in which we can say we believe in God and then act like we don’t. This series was exactly what our congregation (beginning with me) needed to hear, whether we wanted to or not. And I think it had an impact: a friend of mine confided, “You shook some people up and you lost some people over that one.” That’s OK, in fact it’s good: “Churches grow by attrition as well as addition”… I think Rick Warren said it first. In a healthy, growing church you’ve got to shake things up every once in a while.
For the past couple of years we have been trying to come up with a way to increase capacity, given our overcrowded conditions on the weekends. Nativity Crowne Plaza was an interesting but unsuccessful experiment (mostly, I believe, because it was short lived…though, of course, it was short lived because it was labor intensive and expensive). Last spring we tried another approach, an “on line campus.” This was far less labor intensive, though it was still a big effort because the whole thing was prerecorded. The broadcast ran Sunday mornings, and Wednesday evenings, through Lent and Easter, with modest viewership. We discontinued it during the summer with the plan to reintroduce it in the fall. During the break the smart people on our creative team figured out how to broadcast live from our 10:30am service. Technical difficulties bedeviled the project for weeks, but were eventually overcome and currently we are successfully broadcasting at 10:30am and 5:30pm on Sundays. There is a live announcer, live chat room and prayer room too. This is a huge step forward for us, and affords many opportunities for outreach. Because it is sustainable, we have the time we need to build and audience and I know we will.
3. Mission Haiti
The pictures from our most recent mission trip to Haiti are impressive and moving. The school cafeteria that we sponsored is beautiful. And the lunch program is essential to keeping kids in school, which in turn is critical to breaking the cycle of poverty. I think we have great partners in the Church of St. Anne, and their pastor, Fr. Wilner, who visited us in October. I am thrilled that we are a part of this work. Reaching out, beyond ourselves and our needs to meet the needs of others, changes who we are.
4. Atlanta & Rome
Last April I spent a wonderful few days with some of our staff and leaders at an exciting church conference in Atlanta, sponsored by the third largest, and one of the fastest growing churches in the country, North Point. I also had the opportunity to sit down to lunch with their pastor Andy Stanley. The whole experience was uplifting, challenging and inspiring and sent me home wanting to do what I do even more than ever: serve the local parish church. Later that month I had another very special opportunity to travel to Rome for the beatification of Pope John Paul, one of my personal heroes. Seeing St. Peter’s Square and all the streets beyond filled to overflowing with worship and praise was breathtaking and sent me home with fresh appreciation for being part of the Universal Church.
5. Kids and Student Programs
This year we saw two major developments in kids and student programs. First, we offered an entire message series all about students. Chris Wesley, our Youth Pastor, joined me to discuss the next generation and what we should be doing for them as a church community. Then, this fall, we retired our old Sunday School of Religion and launched kids small groups. While I was expecting push back from people comfortable with the traditional model, none was received and the new program looks to be a big hit with kids and parents.
I believe both these developments positively laid a more solid foundation for our programs to grow beyond the mentality of “CCD” or “Religious Ed” to a fellowship where students get to know and grow in Christ.
6. Doing What Parishioners Do
On my top ten list definitely goes this more amorphous category. For several years now we have been increasingly clear and constant in what we are asking people to do, in terms of their discipleship. This list includes daily prayer and weekly worship in the Eucharist (in a full and active way that includes singing and giving). We also talk about service (in a mission or ministry or both) and small group life as the ways we are asking people to grow in Christ. While 2011 didn’t see any particularly remarkable development in this category, it did reveal a more consistent and effective effort to “turn the fly wheel” of this basic message. The fruit is evident in healthy, growing small group life as well as the vitality of adult ministry.
7. Christmas Eve 2011
This started out as a headache: not only would the Fire Marshall not approve our plans for additional seating at the Fair Grounds, he was actually going to be reducing the number of seats. About two years ago we stopped all promotion of the event because we were maxed out, now we would have to be turning people away…which was unacceptable. The alternative venue that the Cow Palace afforded was an interesting opportunity but looked to me to be too big a challenge to take on so close to Christmas. We did it anyway, once again stepping out in faith, and watching God bless our efforts. It was a stunning success.
In the future I believe we will look back on this Christmas Eve as a game changer and a threshold to a great work God is doing among us.
8. “Make church Matter” (the book)
Regulars to this blog know by now that my associate Tom and I have been writing a book for about a year and a half, though the project picked up momentum in 2011. I spent half the summer completely devoted to writing every day and late this fall we began the challenging process of finding a publisher. Don’t know if anyone will want to publish it, since it is outlining an unconventional approach to parish life, but we will get it out there somehow. 2011 was definitely the year of the book.
9. “Make church Matter” (the conference)
In past years we have offered a fall retreat-style meeting to bring staff and parish council members up to speed on what’s going on. This year, we took that to a whole new level with our first ever church conference, which was intended for all our ministry leaders. In fact, as planning proceeded about 2 dozens leaders from parishes elsewhere requested to join us, not something we had expected but an interesting development. While we learned a lot and will continue to improve it for next year, the conference was a wonderful experience.
10. “Make church Matter” (the blog)
Finally, rounding out my top ten at Nativity in 2011 would be my newly designed and labeled blog and the opportunity to share ideas with you in this informal setting. Honestly I love to write to you and am deeply honored that you join me here and give consideration to these thoughts. To all my faithful readers in our parish, across our community of North Baltimore, elsewhere in the country and beyond, thank you, God bless you, and Happy New Year.