Church is Back. But Different.

Nervous energy oozed from every corner of the entryway to the church. Fifteen students from Baker College of Auburn Hills, a campus of Michigan’s largest not-for-profit university, were preparing to make a presentation to clergy and lay leaders at the former First United Methodist Church in Berkley.


Eighteen months ago, the declining Berkley congregation voted to close and give their building and assets to Birmingham First UMC in order to start a new worshiping congregation. The appointed pastor, Zack Dunlap, and leaders at the Berkley First campus connected with the Interior Design program at Baker College for ideas about how to re-imagine an almost one-hundred-year-old building to be more welcoming to a community that was described by Money Magazine in 2015 as 28th among the top livable cities in the United States.

The students were pumped. Accustomed to working with restaurants and businesses, this was their first church. After soliciting Pastor Zack for his ideas, they divided up areas of the building and worked feverishly for two weeks to dream, measure, consult and draw up plans.

Dressed professionally and well coached by their teacher, each group was ready with floor plans, charts and sample building materials. As the presentations were about to begin, I glanced up at the wall behind the easels and charts and noticed another guest among us. Clinging to a corner of the wall and ceiling was a bat. Zack said this was the first time he’d ever seen one of these erratically flying mammals in the Berkley building.


The wheels started churning as the phrase “bats in the belfry” came to mind. A belfry is the top of a bell tower on a church where the actual bell is located. Belfries were often infested with bats, who enjoy the darkness and seclusion of such an isolated place. The Berkley building does not have a belfry, so at the same time as we wondered where the bat came from, we made no attempt to disturb it.

I couldn’t help but note that “bats in the belfry” is also an outmoded term for insanity. Claiming that someone had “bats in the belfry” was an insinuation that they had crazy thoughts (i.e. bats flitting around their head) and were thus mentally unstable or even possessed by the devil.

As the students presented their ideas and dreams for how this building might be reinvented, I envisioned a congregation that looked like them: diverse in ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, background and belief. The students were very cognizant that they were designing a church, not a retail store, restaurant or commercial business. They also brought their own faith history with them, whether Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, Catholic or independent megachurch.

One student said, “As I worked on this project and walked around the building, the hopes and dreams of this new church were palpable.” Their guiding question from the beginning was, “How do we convey the reality that something new is happening here at Berkley First?” In fact, the cards that Pastor Zack hands out as he meets people in the community say, “Church is back. But different.”


Because Berkley First (the new name of the church) seeks to reach out to young families in the neighborhoods around the church, we listened carefully to the suggestions of the students, who represent the generation we want to target.

  • The sanctuary must be multi-functional – no pews!
  • More light in the sanctuary will create a cheerful atmosphere.
  • Very sensitive to what the church represents, students included crosses in various places and spoke of the value of Christian symbols.
  • A coffee bar in the entry way is a must.
  • First floor restrooms need to be handicap-accessible.
  • The most interesting suggestion was a custom piece of furniture that holds diaper bags for the nursery.
  • The lounge needs to be updated as a gathering place for young people.

The students also talked about the WOW factor. They asked, “Where do you want to splurge in your remodeling project to make the greatest impact?” Suggestions included beveled glass, a free-standing iron cross on the stage, a feature wall in the entryway using recycled pallet wood and innovative wallpaper on the back of the stage.

I was totally engaged. The ideas were fresh and enthusiastic. Designed to be appealing to young people, their proposals intentionally retained some traditional elements as well. At times their teacher would provide gentle suggestions for how the designs might be improved. Other times she just let them go for it.

One young woman admitted that she struggled with her drafting assignment and asked God to help her. She subsequently came up with a WOW idea for a unique panel on the screen in the Fellowship Hall.

“Church is back. But different.” Maybe that’s why our bat friend was a quiet but palpable presence among us that morning. In the past, bats have been a symbol of insanity, one definition of which is “Doing the same time over and over and expecting different results.”

Berkley First will be back … but different. It will be different because if we do church the same way we’ve always done it for the past hundred years, we disregard the culture, values, hopes and dreams of the very people with whom we seek to share the love of Christ. The legacy of the original Berkley church is that when the remaining members realized the insanity of trying the same old things that were no longer working in a different world, they closed the church before their financial resources were exhausted, left the building in great shape and gifted us with a bat.

As we prepare for the launch of Berkley First, the bat has now become our teacher.

  • The silent bat on the wall reminds us of the thousands of individuals and families in Berkley who are not practicing Christians. Whether they are unchurched, dechurched, nominally religious, disaffected, hurt, disillusioned or lapsed, our mission is to simply share and model the love of Jesus and invite them into relationship with Christ.
  • The silent bat on the wall reminds us that in order to be relevant to the needs of people today, our building must look fresh and inviting. More important, our programs must minister to the needs of our community as well as provide opportunities for spiritual growth, mission and outreach for all ages.
  • The silent bat reminds us of the importance of including the voices of young people in all aspects of church life. How do we nurture our children, youth and young adults and encourage them to be in leadership at the same time as we humbly learn from them how to be church again, but different?
  • The silent bat on the wall reminds us that we can’t wait for others to come to us. People who have been silenced for whatever reason and those whom the world may claim to have “bats in the belfry” will not walk through door of our church unless we proclaim and live out our desire to be an inclusive church.

Come to think of it, the WOW factor may just be the bat, which we never saw again. Church is back. But different.


P.S. I am on vacation, and my next blog will be published on Tuesday, July 5.

A Prayer for Orlando

Out of the depths we cry to you, O Lord.

We weep for the lives of fifty people senselessly gunned down in Orlando, the largest mass killing in US history.

Many more have been seriously wounded.

There is no magic in the city of the Magic Kingdom to bring them back.

Lord, hear our voice!

We are tired of the killing, God.

Why is there so much hate in our world?

Do you hear us, God?

Why did you create us this way, with the capacity for great evil as well as great good?

Why won’t you intervene, instead leaving us to simply grieve?


Let your ears be attentive to the voice of our supplications!

Two guns are purchased the week before, one an assault weapon.

Why are we so fascinated with our guns, God?

A gay nightclub is targeted, the killer swearing allegiance to the leader of ISIS shortly before the shooting.

A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel and dozens of parents are weeping for their children; they refuse to be comforted for their children because they are no more. (Jeremiah 31:15)

If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.

What do I say, God, when asked why we have to confess our own sins as an act of repentance in atoning for the sins of our ancestors and others, including atrocities against Native Americans and African Americans?

What do I say? I have not committed mass murder, but I, too, am a sinner, and bear the weight of collective sin.

Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have failed to be an obedient church.
We have not done your will,
we have broken your law,
we have rebelled against your love,
    we have not loved our neighbors,
    and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience,
   through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.

Waiting for your kingdom to come doesn’t have to be passive, God. In fact, we are the ones you call to bring in your kingdom. You are already there when a young man sees another gravely wounded at the nightclub and holds him close to stem the flow of blood. He says, “I don’t know if you are religious, but I am going to say a prayer for you.”

Thank you, God, that in times of crisis, you give us strength we never knew we had and the ability to help and comfort others and pray in ways we never knew we were capable of.

Thank you for the outpouring of love and support for our LGBTQI brothers and sisters around the world, which reminds us again that that every person in this world is fearfully and loving created by you and that each one is your beloved.


O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.

The hope is in us. That’s what you whisper in our ear every day, God.

“You, too, are a sign of hope,” God says.

“Will you bear witness to my love in this world in a way that decries gun violence, discrimination against the LGBTQI community, disdain toward refugees, rejection of  the poor, and dismissal of all those who are deemed to be ‘other’?

“Each one is my beloved, including you. If you are not willing to replace hate with love, who will?”


The Church That Dazzles!


Dazzle: “to overpower with too much light” or “to confuse, surprise or delight by being or doing something special or unusual.” Do you know of any organizations that use the word “dazzling” to describe themselves? When is the last time your church dazzled?

Anyone with a connection to Ann Arbor, Michigan cannot fail to know about Zingerman’s. With three University of Michigan graduates in my family, I have been to both Zingerman’s Delicatessen and Zingerman’s Roadhouse more than once.


Zingerman’s dazzles! Started as a deli in 1982 by Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig in an historic building near the Farmer’s Market in Ann Arbor, Zingerman’s has expanded into a collection of small food-related business in the Ann Arbor area that are operated by partners who share ownership.

  • Imagine how your congregation might dazzle if your church mission statement reflected the energy and pleasure of Zingerman’s mission.

We share the Zingerman’s Experience; Selling food that makes you happy; Giving service that makes you smile; In passionate pursuit of our mission; Showing love and care in all our actions; To enrich as many lives as we possibly can.

Does your worship elicit joy? Do guests to your church feel the love and leave with a smile on their face? Do your ministries enrich the lives of church members as well as those you serve?


  • Imagine how your congregation might dazzle if you followed Zingerman’s Guiding Principles.

Great Food!

Authentic worship services that engage all the senses and surprise with their creativity are essential to attract new people.

Great Service!

Is your primary focus on serving guests who come to your church as well as people in need outside of your church?

A Great Place to Shop and Eat!

Here is how Zingerman’s describes it. “We provide a dazzling environment for our customers and staff. It’s neat! It’s clean! It’s Zingerman’s! Floors are swept and mopped constantly, windows sparkle, employees fall to the floor, colliding with each other as they race to clear each table before the guest has hardly moved away from it.”

How do your church buildings and programs sparkle with energy?

Solid profits!

Is your church serious about cultivating generosity and stewardship for the sake of God’s mission in the world?

A Great Place to Work!

Does your staff love what they do and have fun, and do you treat them well?

Strong Relationships!

Do you encourage each other to increase in grace and hope and become your best selves?

A Place to Learn!

Are you providing continual opportunities for spiritual growth?

An Active Part of Our Community!

Would your community notice if you weren’t around anymore?


  •  Imagine how your ministries might dazzle if you had a long term vision for your congregation.

In 2006 Zingerman’s began creating a vision for the year 2020. The vision was written by the managing partners of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses and reviewed and enhanced by hundreds of staff members.

Zingerman’s 2020 Vision document says, “We’ve successfully applied the model of sustainability to all aspects of our work. Today in 2020 everyone and everything we engage with – in our personal and professional lives; our business and community; our customers and staff; our suppliers and environment – are better than they were when we embarked on this vision fifteen years ago. We have created a community of businesses where people willingly bring their whole selves to work. We feel free to express ourselves and tap into our deepest creative potential. We believe in what we are doing and integrate our sense of purpose into who we are.”

Does your congregation have a vision for the future? Can you see beyond 2016 or even beyond the next month? Do you know where you are headed? Any congregation can begin to dazzle by looking at each aspect of its ministry with new eyes.

How can your building dazzle? It doesn’t have to be new, but it also doesn’t have to look cluttered, tired or dirty.

How can your nursery dazzle? Parents today expect that we are ready and capable of caring for their little ones with tenderness and competence. New toys and equipment and friendly faces indicate to parents how much we really care about families.

How can your worship dazzle? Great leaders bring their most creative planning to worship, with high energy, inspiration, opportunity for silence and meditation as well a constant challenge to connect faith with the world.

How can your electronic and print communications dazzle? Adapting to the changing face of electronic communication through an attractive church website and social media is no longer an option.

How can your staff and congregation members dazzle? Guests have positive first impressions when they are cheerfully engaged with smiles, hospitality and genuine warmth.

How can your programs dazzle? Vital churches understand that families, couples and singles are all looking for opportunities to grow spiritually, nurture their children in the faith and make a difference in the world.

Zingerman’s Vision for the Year 2020 includes this paragraph, “We know that we are a small presence in the universe; we make and sell food. Rather than focusing on a few grand gestures, we take hundreds and thousands of small actions with great passion and great love. We are changing the world with every transaction.”

Every church can dazzle! And every disciple can dazzle! When we believe that we change the world with each handshake, each hug, each kind word, each song, each Sunday school class, each youth group meeting, each outreach project, each hospital visit and each prayer, it will happen. How will your church surprise and delight by dazzling this week?