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Virtual Small Groups Can Overcome Isolation
June 26, 2020 | Monica Lawrence
Virtual Small Groups Can Overcome Isolation
Isolation is one of the deep pains we are experiencing as churches and individuals right now. The changes brought about by COVID-19 highlight how many ways we are separated from each other, even in God’s family. But loneliness in the Church isn’t new. As a millennial Christian, I know we have a habit of hopping from one church to another and a reputation for leaving the Church altogether. When I was in college, I attended several churches but never really got plugged in. I was always assigned to an age group, meaning I missed out on perspectives, growth opportunities, and encouragement outside my bubble. That’s part of the reason I love the inter-generational aspect of The Colossian Way. It pulls you out of your echo chamber and says, “look at all these voices that make up the Church.” It’s not just millennials who get stuck in echo chambers or feel isolated. As I coordinate our trainings and workshops and connect people with faithful conflict engagement resources, I see church leaders burdened with the heavy responsibility of supplying answers to hard questions and responding to conflict, all while holding their congregations together. It’s easy to feel alone in your struggle to navigate culturally divisive conflicts in the Church. My favorite part of hosting Colossian Way trainings is seeing Christians make connections to others struggling with difficult disagreements. To come together, to name those struggles, and to work toward a way forward – knowing you may never agree – is an incredible gift. But does that unity and relationship carry over to a grid of tiny Zoom boxes? Back in March, my colleague and I decided to lead a Colossian Way group online to see if it was possible to practice discipleship through Christian conflict engagement virtually. Here’s what we learned: Technological Skill Level Isn’t a Barrier to Participation: Facilitators should familiarize themselves with the video platform they use by accessing tutorials and perhaps investing in a paid account to access convenient features. Small group participants just need a strong internet connection and be able to log on to the platform. It’s Important to Get Used to New Conversational Rhythms: When you meet online, conversational rhythms of talking and listening can become more rigid; you lose the moments of excited interruption and “turn to the person next to you” conversations. Just like in an in-person small group, Facilitators should learn to be comfortable with silence and carefully manage time. If your platform allows you to split up into breakout rooms, be mindful of the extra time those technological transitions take. Take the Extra Time for Relationships: In the Colossian Way groups I’ve led, we took a little extra time to get to know each other. When we met in-person, we shared a meal before each session. Online, we took a few minutes to connect before the session began. One of our participants taught Spanish and used a different flag or photo from a Spanish-speaking country as his webcam background each week. Another, a healthcare professional, participated despite the strains of her job during a pandemic. Bonding over these interests and challenges helped us dive into difficult topics. In the end, our online group, like any group, worked, not despite a lack of relationship or closeness, but because we committed ourselves to building relationships with one another and to being spiritually formed to look more like Christ in the midst of disagreement. Facilitating a Colossian Way group is challenging but extremely rewarding. You’re joining a robust community of experienced guides who are playing an active role in making their congregations more loving, more resilient. In addition, we’ve designed training and resources to support you every step of the way. And, in August, Facilitator Training will be available online, making it easier than ever to equip yourself to guide your church to navigate conflicts in Christ-like ways. I’m a runner, so I’ll use a running metaphor. You can run barefoot. You may step on some pebbles, hit the pavement too hard, or scrape your toe, but you’ll absolutely get from point A to point B. But a good pair of running shoes will support you and help you run better. A good pair of shoes will protect you from rocks, support your feet, and help you run faster, longer. The Colossian Way Facilitator Training is like a good pair of running shoes. It teaches you how to balance your time, respond when somebody in your group monopolizes the conversation, and how to manage your own anger and anxiety. And perhaps most valuable, Training brings you into a community, because even though running can seem like a solitary sport, our endurance and speed get a boost when someone runs beside us or cheers us on at the finish line. For information about our newest small-group series, Political Talk, including how to become a Facilitator register for an upcoming free, one-hour webinar. To support other “runners” on this Colossian Way journey, I invite you to donate today to help provide online training and eBook curricula to Christian leaders looking for a way to hold together in Christ.
Does it Work? Discipleship and Witness.
June 8, 2020 | Emily Stroble
Does it Work? Discipleship and Witness.
We see face masks everywhere. Articles fill our news feeds every day, explaining precautions, studies, and the potential effectiveness of innovative solutions for disinfecting our surroundings. We also lament. Outcries against injustice fill our communities. We strive to discern how we are called, in this moment, to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). But will any of it work? It’s a fundamental, bold question, demanding we evaluate the results something produces against its purpose. We are often asked if The Colossian Way works. Our community of over 850 small-group participants in 10 denominations answers with a resounding “yes.”  But what does that mean? First, we must clear up a few misconceptions about The Colossian Way. Some people come to The Colossian Way expecting it to help them change their opponent’s mind or to quickly resolve interpersonal disputes. They will be disappointed. The purpose of the Colossian Way is to equip Christians to navigate deep, cultural conflicts in a way that results in discipleship and witness. “Discipleship” and “witness,” then, are the measure by which we know whether The Colossian Way works. They are central to The Colossian Way because they are central to the life of the Church. The Great Commission, the foundational purpose statement of the Church, commands Christians to “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel,” (Mark 16:15) and “make disciples of every nation” (Matthew 28:19). Discipleship and witness change us. Discipleship goes beyond teaching. It evokes a commitment from the pupil to adopt and be formed by the teaching. Similarly, witness goes beyond talking about the Gospel, meaning to testify or give evidence, to live as evidence of Christ’s redemptive work. Conflict has always existed at the center of Christian life, right alongside discipleship and witness. Most of the New Testament is concerned with the witness and discipleship, often in the context of deep cultural conflict. Paul writes frequently about factions within the church, responding to civil authority, and issues around socioeconomic status, to name a few. So, if The Great Commission commands us to disciple and witness, if the Epistles aim to design a Christian community that does just that, let us ask a bold question: Does the Church work?  In a 2015 study by the Barna Group, only 1% of church leaders stated they thought churches were doing discipleship “very well.” A 2017 Lifeway Research Survey found that 32% of young people leaving the church listed hypocrisy as their reason, another 29% didn’t feel connected to their church, and 25% cited political disagreement. The media conveys a similar image of a hypocritical, insular, divided Church, indicating that the same issues that drive congregants away may also prevent them from coming in the first place. While these statistics don’t present a full picture of the Church, they indicate the work to be done if we are to fulfill our purpose as the Body of Christ.  The Colossian Forum has committed to coming alongside churches doing this work. Henry, a pastor trained in The Colossian Way and a member of his Christian Reformed Church Classis’ Healthy Church Task Force, put it this way: “The heart of it is a number of us thinking, ‘how do we work with conflict differently than we have before?’ … The approach can be applied to many things. I’ve heard retired pastors and newer pastors respond immediately that’s exactly what we need to be doing.” The Colossian Way helps church leaders build that different, consistent, approach to navigate the difficult questions and decisions they face right now. Conflict will certainly continue as we begin to regather our congregations and political tensions increase heading into the fall. The bold question that remains is “will the Church work in the face of the deep brokenness of the world?” We invite you to join us with your prayers, leadership, and support. Like many non-profits, The Colossian Forum put its fundraising efforts on hold to focus on the needs of our community in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as we prepare to offer vital decision-making and conflict-engagement resources, training, and support in this critical time, we’re working to match $4,000 pledged by several cornerstone donors by July 10. Our total goal of $8,000 will help equip leaders through forthcoming online training, translate our curriculum into an accessible ebook format, and develop whole-church practices for conflict engagement and decision-making. Give today at colossianforum.org/give.
On the Other Side of This Thing
May 26, 2020 | Emily Stroble
On the Other Side of This Thing
The questions we ask can be very telling. When a quick scroll through the headlines in my newsfeed fails to offer clarity or calm, I find myself typing vague questions into the search bar: “How long do pandemics last?” “When will this be over?” While many of us feel impatient as we adapt to new challenges and squint into an uncertain future, I’m struck by how much of Christian life is composed of waiting and expectations. The wintery dark of Advent gives way to the light of Epiphany, which swiftly transforms into the somber weeks of Lent. Easter celebrations rekindle in us an eagerness for the resurrection of the whole Body of Christ. And, now, once again, we find ourselves waiting like the apostles for Pentecost. Jesus, after his resurrection, tells his disciples, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised.” The disciples excitedly ask if the kingdom of Israel will be restored. “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.” The disciples are still looking “intently up into the sky,” when two men in white suddenly appear to ask them why they are still there (Acts 1: 4-11). To this day, disciples are eager for Christ’s return. I wonder if our impatience confuses the direction in which ministry travels. In times of difficulty, do we sometimes allow our longing for the kingdom of God to turn into “survival mode?” It is so easy to hunker down, put our blinders on, and focus on ushering our congregations to “the other side.” Meanwhile, we miss the joy offered to us and skip over the demanding work that results in a stronger church. We become content to numbly let fruitful moments of lament, conviction, or discipleship blur past us and to let our congregation settle for some paler version of Christian life. Seasons of global crisis like COVID-19 are not the only places where we fall into survival mode. In conflict, it is easy to focus on a resolution or closure. If we, as church leaders, gird ourselves for decisions we’re dreading, we’re depriving our communities of an opportunity for real discipleship. After all, it is in the hard, active work of “iron sharpening iron,” that we build communion and fortify our churches against division. I wonder if the catch phrase, “We’re all in this together,” now ubiquitous in advertisements and social media posts, is a similar attempt to skirt important conflicts and questions. Facing these difficulties might yield discipleship if we were bold enough to stand still in the difficulty and open our eyes to what God speaks to us and asks of us now. After all, faith is not an avenue of escaping the world but a witness to Christ’s entrance into it. What is our pre-Pentecost work in COVID-19? What is required of us while we wait for the signal to disburse from upper rooms? What is offered to us in conflict? In the beginning of Acts, without a deadline for the Holy Spirit’s arrival, the work of the Church went on. As we wait for the celebration of Pentecost in 2020, we face a similar task. Many of the pastors in our Colossian Way community are facing hard decisions, knowing ministry and discipleship can’t settle for survival mode indefinitely.   The Colossian Way is an invitation to deeper engagement now; to discipleship, relationship, and joy in the conflict, crisis, and challenge. If you haven’t seen it already, watch a Colossian Way decision-making process modeled in this live stream we prepared in partnership with Crossroads Bible Church. And this article offers a host of resources to help you turn this time into the discipleship opportunity you’ve been waiting for.   Much of the Christian life is waiting, and we recognize how difficult it is to shepherd a community through the conflicts and anticipation. But through his Church, on every ordinary day as on Pentecost, Christ’s ministry of redemption and reconciliation crosses over from the Eternal Kingdom to our temporary world. Thank you for your ministry on this side of heaven.
COVID and Council: The Conversation You’re Dreading Is the Opportunity the World Is Waiting For
| Sarah Nicholas
COVID and Council: The Conversation You’re Dreading Is the Opportunity the World Is Waiting For
On May 20, Pastor Church Resources convened a panel of Christian Reformed pastors and lay-leaders to talk not about the logistics of reopening but about some of the practices and postures that help congregations engage challenging conversations in hopeful ways.  Learn More
Michael Gulker Addresses Students at Asbury Theological Seminary
May 14, 2020 | Sarah Nicholas
Michael Gulker Addresses Students at Asbury Theological Seminary
"Conflict is the opportunity you've been waiting for--not the disruption you're dreading." In this interview with Dr. Bryan Sims, Associate Professor of Leadership and Lay Equipping, The Colossian Forum President Rev. Michael Gulker shares how The Colossian Way can help aspiring and serving church leaders shepherd their congregations through conflict to discipleship.  Watch Interview
The Veggie Burger Church
May 7, 2020 | Michael Gulker
The Veggie Burger Church
Church feels different now. The seating might be more comfortable in our living rooms, but the sanctuary is smaller. Over the past couple of weeks, I have talked with 22 church leaders—17 pastors and five denominational leaders with a bird’s-eye view of hundreds of churches—about how they are leading and seeing others lead congregations differently now. Across the board, it seems the novelty of online church has worn off. Just as pastoring is more than delivering a weekly sermon to a camera, congregations are expressing that online church seems to be missing something. The image of a veggie burger comes to mind. There are good veggie burgers out there, maybe even some that are better than a hamburger. But a veggie burger is not a hamburger. And if you order one and get the other, you will be disappointed. The available ingredients for worship have changed. We are all struggling with worship taste buds that are not satisfied by live streamed services and Zoom fellowship. So, rather than trying to make online church “taste” just like in-person church, how can we faithfully make “veggie burger church” that actually nourishes our souls? Applying the Colossian Way to this question, we should offer our praises alongside our laments, and chart what we hope for in and on the other side of this time. Praise. It turns out there are many reasons for joy in this new style of church. We have drastically simplified church liturgies and orders of service: singing, sermon, prayer, online fellowship. Families worship together instead of disbursing children to Sunday school classrooms. One pastor of a mega-church told me he has seen people who are not typically involved in the life of the congregation beyond Sunday services are asking about ways to serve. People have more time and energy to serve and connect in new ways. Lament. Some pastors I spoke with shared that roughly 80% of the church activities we aren’t doing right now, in and beyond worship services, don’t seem to be missed by congregants. In fact, some thought those activities may be gone for good. Several pastors confessed avoiding the difficulties of change by hoping that everything will go back to normal soon. But many congregants may not return to church, even when the governor says it’s OK. “Normal” seems increasingly distant, and pastors sense some changes may be permanent. The life of the Church centers in community—the communion—of the Body of Christ. Leaders are wondering how to be relational, while social distancing, and offer connection and discipleship that go beyond one-sided preaching and pre-recorded content, especially in response to the intensifying toll on mental health. In our veggie burger metaphor, it would seem the “meat” of the church we’re hungry for is embodied relationships. Hope. We do not need to choose between lament and hope. Lament can nurture hope. Lament, after all, is a kind of negative image of heaven, illuminating those things that are not right now but will be resurrected and redeemed in eternity. We hope now for a Church rebuilt into a stronger, more resilient, more beautiful witness. Post-Pandemic Church How do we live now then, as a Church of hope? The leaders I spoke with had a few ideas. Though physically isolated, each church doesn’t need to figure it out alone. Several pastors I spoke with expressed a desire to learn from each other and discover the best way through together. We can imagine together what new possibilities could emerge if we dropped some of the activities most churchgoers don’t miss. We can begin to imagine new possibilities for small, in-person fellowship in the interim before large gatherings resume. We have a unique and exciting opportunity now for “micro-churches,” small gatherings for discipleship and fellowship. In fact, according to Christianity Today, 44% of over 1,500 pastors are looking for practical tips on how to construct online small groups. In a second survey of nearly 2,000 pastors, the top two resources pastors identified as needing to help them lead are ways to create engaging online conversations and gatherings (61%) and practical ways to be on mission in this season (55%). While online right now, future smaller gatherings, with the right infrastructure and staff support, can provide a very different but still spiritually nourishing diet of worship and discipleship. And the new forms of fellowship that current constraints make possible can diffuse a deep, rich sacramental life across your congregation. We know many of you will face hard decisions in the near future about when to reopen sanctuaries, which programs and activities to resume, how to engage faithfully in matters that were already tense before the pandemic. These necessary conversations will spark conflict, and, we hope, help cultivate discipleship. If church must change—if we must change—let it come in the form of growth toward Christ. If you are searching for deep, scriptural resources that lay leaders, elders, and families can use, I invite you to learn more about The Colossian Way. One pastor told me in our conversation that, “the best work The Colossian Forum does is help think theologically about practices and complex issues that locates the work in the Church rather than the ivory tower or [with] academic pastors.” We designed Colossian Way curricula in the hope that they would foster new life in the Church in times of crisis and tension, like those we experience now. It brings us immeasurable joy that these tools in the hands of faithful Christians continue to do just that.  We pray for you daily, my brothers and sisters, as you do the hard work of lament, hope, discipleship, and engaging conflict in the Church. How are you experiencing church now? What are your praises, laments, and hopes for your/the Church? We’d love to hear and learn from you. Feel free to email me at mgulker@colossianforum.org and let me know a good time for us to talk.

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