Speak Christian to a “T”

This London Olympic coverage of course includes some joking about how the English language across the pond does not match what Americans call English.  Having lived in Northern Ireland, I can attest to these differences.  I remember on my first or second day going into a restaurant to eat.  I was confused about the layout and went and talked to a waitress.  I could not understand a word she said to me, so frustrated, I just left.  Not my usual way of dealing with someone speaking a different language, but we were both speaking English. I acclimated quite quickly and fully, as most people thought I was from south of the border, The Republic of Ireland.  There were certainly other instances of miscommunications. My flat mate was from Newcastle, and honestly many of the Irish had a hard time understanding her accent as well.  I remember one night about 6 pm she asked, “Would you like some tea?” and I said “no” thinking to myself I want something to eat.  About 15 minutes later I went into the kitchen to see she was preparing dinner.  I asked if I could have some, and she said, “I asked you if you wanted some.”  See, at that time of day, asking if you want tea referred to a meal, for I should have known that generally when someone was offering the beverage tea, you would be asked, “Do you want a cuppa?”

I am sure you know stories of miscommunications, which would have made the writers of “Three’s Company” consider them, but these miscommunications within the same language are frustrating.  This is what happens in Christianity often, and we assume we are speaking the same language.

Let me remind you that English on both sides of the pond works well, even if their petrol pedal is on the opposite side of the vehicle.  So why do some Christians that I know shy away from certain words in our tradition?  Evangelism, salvation, righteousness, sacrifice, etc. are example words that I sense have been dropped from many pastors’ lexicon.  I understand there are strong connotations, for some of these words do require careful use out of the Body of Christ, the church.  For instance, I will not go and greet someone by saying, “Hi I am from my Church’s evangelism team, and I want to make sure you understand the sacrifice Jesus made for the world’s salvation from violence, and we try to live a righteous life, so I hope you join us for worship.”  There is way too much baggage in those terms, and I am very aware of that.

You may say we need to reclaim the terms--I know I have said that myself.  Upon reflection, that attitude demonstrates defining my Christianity against another.  I just need to use the terms as I have learned from Biblical and theological study, while being aware when I am talking to those that know only the fundamentalists or media’s language of Christianity.  Let us be comfortable with our own speech.

If we are comfortable with our language, we are able to answer the questions and hang in there in dialogue with other Christians who are using a language that seems “foreign.” I know there are people filled with hate using that language, and I do not recommend anything but a smile and prayer for those individuals, but I have seen time and again Christians that explored the deeper and complex meaning of our traditional key words--they may talk the talk, but they also certainly walk the walk.

The best way to be comfortable is to use these terms without apology, while knowing these same words will have different meanings to other Christians.  Hopefully, we will find each other at the same table drinking from the same chalice or cup.

Letting Go

We all know that change is often hard. We all know that change is often necessary.

We all know that change is often feared.

I remember hearing once during a conversation on Missional/Emergent church that people really don’t fear change, but what they fear is loss.  And as I have transitioned from one ministry to another, that thought has struck me in a new way:

We don’t fear change, we fear loss.

We don’t want to lose what we have, so we try to hold on desperately.

To hold on desperately, we must have power, so we become concerned with gaining/keeping power.

Most conflicts in the church become power struggles.  As the church continues to change, even transform, into the 21st century, we are more and more concerned with gaining and holding on to power so we won’t lose what we have.  So we can keep the traditions we like that we associate with memories of what “good church is.”  So we can get back to the church we remember, when it was thriving (at least, how we remember it, how it appeared), when people went to church.

Problem is, we can’t make people go to church.  We can’t make people want what we remember.  We can’t make people be like us.  So we dwindle and dwindle.

And the center of the power struggle is… the building.

But stop for a moment.  When we look at the first and second century Christians, when we read the letters of the New Testament, I don’t remember Paul writing about any conflict over a church building.  There were power struggles, yes—but no church building.  People met in each other’s homes, at the synagogues, or down by the river.

We know that church buildings were not long in coming, and by the fourth and fifth centuries there were church buildings in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.  While we know there were rival church groups, and in the divisions of orders within the Catholic Church after the first millennium, for the most part church buildings were not build to be in competition with each other.

Then came the Protestant Reformation, and a few hundred years later, the Great Awakenings in the United States.  And church buildings sprung up like daisies.  Church groups built new buildings across the green, or even across the street, from other church buildings.

Church buildings were, of course, the community center for many.  It’s where you went if you were poor or in need.  It’s where you went to pray and seek counsel.  Church buildings had a significance for all people within the greater community.

Now a new transformation is beginning—or is it just getting back to our roots?  We don’t need the church building the way we once did.  YMCA’s, community centers, malls and parks have taken away the social needs.  A greater understanding of faith life has led to many to seek individual ways of finding faith.  And when the church has insisted you need community, you need a church building—you need the old ways—society has found a way to resist even greater.

The church needs to let go of the building.  It was not part of our earliest memories, nor did Jesus call us to go and build church buildings—he called us to go and make disciples.

The church building is the center of power for many people.  They have put their hopes and dreams and their finances into the building.  Many were involved in the design and décor of certain rooms in the building and also determine the function and use of those rooms.  The building committee or trustees determine what needs to be done about the building and what finances are used or what is needed to maintain the function of the building.  The building itself is called the church.  Many churches continue to use a picture of the building as their logo for promotion.

One of the biggest problems for the church today is the continued mistake of thinking the church is the building.  And even churches who are aware of this problem continue to do so by masking this mistake under colorful language of “being good stewards of the blessings we have.”  There is nothing wrong with that statement in itself.  If the “blessings,” however, is understood by most to be the building and/or finances, then you have a problem.  The words have changed, but the attitude and belief is still there.

I think the building symbolizes power, control and stability for many in the church.  It means we are something in the community. We are important and we would be missing if we were gone.  Those last statements are important; however, what the church building often also represents is that we are in control. And that is the crux of the problem: are we really in control?  Should we be in control?

Letting go of the building is a symbolic letting go of centralized power.  Rather, when we decentralize power, we allow for power-sharing among members, but more importantly, there is freedom for the work of the Spirit and an acceptance that control does not happen in an office, a sanctuary, or a Sunday School room—control is something that is shared, empowered by the Holy Spirit—and even at times, let go of.

I’m not suggesting everyone go out and sell their buildings.  However, I am suggesting we let go of the concept of building ownership,  letting go of the phrase “being good stewards of the building” with its connotations of power and ownership as the focus of our work and even our identity.  I think churches should get out of the renting business and instead see themselves as building partnerships.  We need partnerships with other congregations, ballet studios, artists, non-profits, childcare centers and others that might use our building.  When we are simply landlords, it is hard (if not impossible) to do ministry because we are worried about what might happen to our building, what kind of damage might happen or what needs to be cleaned up and who will pay for it.

When we are partners, we recognize that God is the one in control.  We recognize opportunities for ministry are not just ours but are everyone’s and that we all can be involved.  We recognize that we are all on the same side—trying to promote God’s goodness and beauty and love and justice in a world that needs it.  We recognize true stewardship of all of our gifts and are interested in working together to create a community center, a place of worship, a place of peace and contemplation, or whatever we envision lead by the Holy Spirit, together.

Identity Crisis

I have not been back to my alma mater’s campus in 13 years. The year I graduated college, the school was gifted more land and some buildings from a closed plant and since my graduation the campus size has grown to more than twice its original size. Buildings have changed functions and many have been remodeled and renamed. In talking with a few alumni today, including family members, the first thing everyone said was “My, how it has changed,” and expressed some disappointment. As I walked around campus and recalled some wonderful memories, I realized that most of the greatest memories were not specifically about the place but about the people I was with at the time, friends that I have kept in touch with as well as friends who have slipped away. Professors who have since retired and staff who have moved on—all the relationships I made in the four years I was there.  It is not the same, but the experiences and memories will stay with me.

I also visited the church I attended during my four years of college.  It, too, has changed—there was a building expansion and remodel after I graduated.  The sanctuary has added a stage and things have been moved around.  It is different.  Many of the people I knew have passed on, but there are still familiar names.

We all know we have mistaken the church for the building, and we continue to do so in mistaking the church for the institution.  People complain about change. Things are different. They aren’t how they used to be.  The truth is, they never will be the same, things are always changing, and most of the time, things were never exactly the way we remembered them, anyway.

In order for the church to truly be transformed—or be the church, the body of Christ that Paul experienced—we have to get away from building and institutional identity. The church is the ecclesia, the gathering of people. It is not the building. It is not the four-board structure with a moderator.  It is not the Pastor’s Bible Study on Sunday morning.  It is not the Fellowship Hall or the kitchen or the sanctuary.  Church happens in those places, but they are not the church.

In order for the church to continue to exist we must move away from this mistaken identity.  Otherwise we will always complain about things changing, especially when our roles within the institutions change and the building is changed.

Relationships, however, are things that are always changing every time we interact with someone. Friendships change and grow, sometimes they grow apart. Families change and grow. We expect this. We expect people to grow up and grow old. We expect friendships to change and strain and grow.  We take this for granted. At times we are surprised when a friendship grows cold or a relationship ceases, but I don’t know anyone who expects their relationships to always stay the same. We know that people change and grow.  However, we have put this expectation on our churches to stay the same.

Our relationship with God changes and grows.  We all experience transformation in relationship with Christ and do not expect to remain the same after we encounter God.  We hope to experience lifelong growth with God in our journey of faith.  But again, we put this expectation on our churches, to stay the same.

It is time to for us to let go of our identity as a place or a particular structure.  We are the church, ecclesia, the gathering of people.  When we remember this, we know that change will always come, and that it is welcome, it is familiar, and it is what is necessary for us to continue to grow.  Otherwise, if we remain committed to keeping our identity as a structure or building, we will continue to be disappointed, continue to sigh when something new happens, and continue to wish we could go back in time to the way things used to be.  We can be stuck, or we can grow.

Saying Goodbye, and Hello

We are saying goodbye to our church, community and state that we have lived in and been a part of for the past 2 ½ years. Goodbyes are never easy, among colleagues and friends, and also among church members. Church relationships are tricky. The old-old school of thought was that the pastor was part of the church family. If a pastor came to the church single, many in the church would work to set up the single pastor with a suitable partner for the future. Pastor’s families were expected to be in attendance and involved in the church thoroughly. My mother, a PK (Pastor’s Kid) herself, tells me of how she was expected to babysit children of the church when needed and for free. My grandmother had a china set with settings for 12 and coffee service for 16. My step-grandmother shared that in one church she was expected to serve the punch at every church meal. Ministers were part of the social clubs in town, often invited by church members, and ministers went golfing with their members on Saturday mornings. There were no days off in that school of thought—the minister and “his” family were always on.

The old-old school of thought was replaced by the old (modern) school of thought, which is that the pastor should keep strict limits with their congregation. Friendships were strongly discouraged. Professional boundaries needed to be set and maintained. Ministers were encouraged to seek friendships outside of the church, to attempt to not overwork their hours (though the hours of work were still estimated to be 50-55 hours a week) and to protect their family from the burdens of church life outside of Sundays.

I was taught in the old school, modern way of pastoral boundaries. In my last congregation I served, I was strict with my boundaries. I rarely spent time outside of meetings, worship, visitations and educational events with congregants. I protected my family’s time. When I felt a connection to church members in terms of hobbies or interests, I did not pursue beyond the church walls very often. As a result, when I left that congregation, I received a note that expressed disappointment that some felt they never got to know me as well as I knew them.

That note has stuck with me as I transitioned from pastor to pastor’s wife. While the role is different, this time around I did allow for friendships within the church. Having moved to a location where we had no family or friends in the surrounding area, friendships were a necessity. And try as I may to make friends outside of the congregation, my first friendships were within the church. And now, as we prepare to leave, I think about saying goodbye, and the ups and downs of these relationships.

As the culture has shifted, with the advent of Facebook and other social media in the last ten years, so has the dynamic of pastor/congregation boundaries. Many ministers are “friends” on Facebook with their members. Some still try to keep a professional page but many share pictures and events from family life. Our personal and professional lives are more integrated.

While this certainly can be abused, it can also lead to great connection. I think we still need to set some boundaries. I know I have made mistakes, both in being too concerned about holding boundaries and the reverse, of being too involved at the level of friendship. We need to strike a healthy balance.

My previous congregation’s previous pastor had been more integrated in the church community. Members were over at the parsonage much more often and the previous pastor spent more personal time with members at birthday parties, cookouts, dinners out and other celebrations. When I came, I set stricter boundaries for myself and for the congregation, and as a result, I received that note, which made me aware that perhaps I had been a bit too strict with the “rules” of professional boundaries.

As we move into newer ministries that are based more on relationships between people than on traditional commitments to institutions, we need to shift our thinking on how we relate to our congregations, in ways that are safe and healthy, but not restrictive to genuine interrelationship with Christ and the community.

As my husband and I say our goodbyes, and both of us prepare for new pastoral ministries, I hope to shift safely into the newness of both relationship-building and ministry, letting go of old “rules” that were so strict as to stifle genuine relationships, and embracing new ways of fostering relationships that are healthy and generate authentic connections in new ministry.

Pastors On The Move--5 Tips to help your new pastor in their transition

My family is preparing to move again, for the third time since my son was born, and he’s not even four.  We have moved from Massachusetts to Oklahoma, moved in town, and now are moving to the Seattle area.  These are big, traumatic changes for one so little, even more so as he has autism. Clergy families have an undo amount of pressure placed upon them from many angles.  There are expectations placed not only upon the pastor who is called to a church, but upon their spouse and their child.  Family life is more public than other families.  Relationships outside of the church, while vital, are hard to maintain, and relationships within the church can be complicated.

As we are preparing to move again, I have been thinking about ways that a church community can help welcome a new pastor and their family who have gone through such a transition, especially if they are moving to a location where they do not have family or friends in the area.

1. Welcome them, but don’t overdo it.  Don’t show up on the day they have arrived.  They may be tired or even exhausted from their travels. If they have young children, they may be weary of strangers. Often how churches like to welcome people is with food.  Ask ahead of time what they would like—if you want to bring them dinner, ask first if they would like this now or another day, or if they would prefer a gift certificate for a restaurant as they may not even have their dishes unpacked.  If you are going to provide food, ask if they have any dietary restrictions (and ask what their children would prefer—some children are picky eaters and no matter how wonderful your casserole may be, a child may not be up for trying something new after arriving to a brand new place).  Give them space and time to move in and adjust.

2. If they have children, ask if they would like help connecting with the local school district. For our family, as we have a child with special needs, this is extremely helpful and can help ease some of the transition challenges.   If your pastor has pets, create a list of local veterinarians and/or dog parks.  Pets are family, too.

3. Also if they have children, ask if after they arrive if the family would like some free child care provided so the parents can unpack or run errands.  This is a big help when trying to set up a household within the first few days of arriving.

4. Don’t assume the pastor is going to start work the very day after they arrive.  Give them some time to help their family adjust and unpack.  This is a way you can minister to your new pastor.  And if your pastor is single, also give them space and time to unpack.  This goes beyond moving—never assume that a single pastor doesn’t have other things they need to do because they don’t have an immediate family.  I know in my first church, I often resented the assumption that I was free to stay longer on Sundays because I didn’t have children or a husband.

5. Related to #1 and 2, create a list of local favorites—restaurants that deliver, local parks for children, museums and art galleries, and other local places of interest.  Encourage your pastor to take some time in the first few weeks to visit these local favorites (and count that as part of their work time, getting to know the community).

The most important thing you can do for your pastor and/or their family before they arrive is to ask before making assumptions of what their needs are.  I know for myself and my family, in the times we have moved, before and after having our son, there were times assumptions were made that ended up complicating the moving in process rather than helping.  There were also wonderful people who asked what we needed ahead of time and eased our transition.  But it is always best to ask first.

Shaping Authentic Ministers

A few weeks ago I wrote about why I as a young adult stayed in the church—because my small hometown church was authentic.  They knew who they were and didn’t pretend to be something they weren’t.  They didn’t go all out in trying new programs and investing in recruiting young people—they simply tried to meet the needs of the people already within the church, as well as recognizing the needs of the larger community they were part of.  I also reflected on the church I attended in college, how while I was there they recognized the best way to reach out to the college students was to be authentic—to welcome the students and their gifts and abilities, to not pressure students to come every Sunday, but to welcome and invite students to participate in ministry with their gifts and time as they could, and to care for the students in their needs.  For me, I remember not feeling guilty about skipping church during finals—instead I remember a wonderful gift basket during final exams week with snacks and a note of encouragement.  I have never forgotten the care and compassion. I was asked in response to that article what role authenticity in those congregations played in shaping my call to ministry.  As I think back to my home church that included me from an early age and to the church I attended in college, here are some ways being in a church that valued authenticity helped shape me in my call to ministry:

1. My home church recognized and valued my call to ministry.  I felt God’s call to ministry when I was thirteen, sitting in my grandfather’s church in Pennsylvania, and felt something inside me say “That will be you someday” as I listened to my grandfather preach.  When I shared this with my pastor a few months later, he was delighted, and made a point of including me in the worship leadership throughout my youth, in varied ways.  I was invited to preach on occasion, and not just on a special Youth Sunday or when we came back from summer camp (although I was asked to preach then).  In the church I attended in college, I was not only invited to preach, but asked back after my initial sermon which I know was terrible.  I was given another chance, and I remember my religion professor who attended that church telling me how much I had improved.  My first sermon there really was that bad, but this church loved me, encouraged me, and kept inviting me back.  They truly were authentic in who they were, and they were loving, forgiving, encouraging people.  Maybe my first sermon wasn’t as bad as I remember, but I know I was anxious and nervous, and this church continued to see a call from God in me and nurtured that call.

2. I learned first-hand about the challenges facing small churches and the reality that many mainline churches face today.  I was asked to serve on the Deacon board in my home church when I was thirteen years old, and I already understood how many who serve in the church as laity become overworked and burned out.  But I also learned how to become refreshed and that sometimes we take church life way too seriously and need to step away for a breather.  We do have a life outside of church, laity and clergy.

3. Church does not have to happen in an old building that has been in the same spot for 200 years.  Church can take place in a rented church space, in the basement of a house, in the back booth of a coffee shop, in the bowling alley, in the kitchen of the pastor’s house (where we made excellent homemade pizzas as youth).  Church happens where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name.   My home church changed locations a few times before settling in their current location (a house that they purchased and converted into a Meetinghouse; several AA groups and other organizations also use the building as part of the church’s ministry now).

4. Vision is something to be embraced, and vision can be renewed.  In my home congregation we went from trying to be a church in the traditional sense, of looking for land to buy and a building to construct, to renting space in another church and deciding that maintaining a building was not part of our ministry, to a future where in a nearby town we did decide to own a building and give space to other ministries.  But the vision continues to grow and change.  It made me less afraid of the major changes a church may go through in deciding to sell a building or move or changing its vision of pastoral ministry.  It’s just part of the vision process, part of change that all churches must go through and it is not necessarily negative and can be quite positive when the congregation embraces the process of co-creating vision with Christ.

5. Bending/breaking “the rules” and taking risks are necessary parts of the journey of ministry.  Chucking the sermon and having a genuine conversation.  Suspending/ignoring the bylaws because they don’t work anymore and no one remembers anyway.  Having church at the home of your eldest member because they can’t drive in the snow to get to your place of worship.  Being spontaneous and moving worship outdoors because the day is just too beautiful to spend inside.    Letting go of an idea for youth ministry and instead supporting another church’s youth outreach because it is effectively meeting the needs of the youth in the community.  Abandoning plans to buy property and build a church because you recognize the needs of mission and ministry are done beyond the walls of any one building, and yet are often done within the walls of the homes of the members of the church community.

These are just a few of the ways growing up in authentic community helped shape me.  To sum it up, I learned that by being authentic, there is little to be afraid or ashamed of.  Instead, all moments can reform vision, create new opportunities, and encourage spiritual growth.  It may sound cliché or even too enthusiastic to say that, but when people, a congregation, a church, is authentic, they are not afraid to voice both their concerns and their hopes and dreams, both their worries and their prayers and new ideas.  Authentic vision is created and something new is given root.  Even if that authentic vision leads to a church closing, resurrection is always possible—something new can be born.

All too often, churches put on blinders.  For churches that have existed for many years, a decline in attendance or membership can lead to panic or anxiety that leads to creation or adaption of programs without vision.  Often this manifests itself in creating programs to attract young adults or young families in hopes of recruiting the next generation to take the place of the declining generation.  It is a true bait and switch—the church puts out the message that they are welcoming of families and young adults but then wants them to conform to the ways they have always been.  It’s not always conscious it does this, but I have seen many churches attempt to grow by just trying to reproduce what they have always had.

The other most popular way I have experienced this is in churches that have tried to take on contemporary worship when it obviously does not fit.  If your church has primarily used the organ for the past one hundred years and within a few months you want to switch to guitars, I can tell you most likely it will not work.  Mainly because you are fooling yourselves.  Now if your congregation has been experimenting with different kinds of music over the past few years, it might not be such a jump.  But more importantly, if you have young families attending your worship already, it is not so much of a stretch to assume that they might actually like the traditional music.  And even if they don’t, they obviously don’t mind it so much as to leave and find another congregation—they have come to your congregation for a reason.  Find out why.  I can guess that it is probably because they have established relationships there—authentic relationships with others.

As a pastor, I have done my best to be authentic in my ministry, to not pretend to be something I am not and to not portray a church as something it is not.  But one thing I have consistently done is sought out young people who have gifts for ministry and encouraged them in using those gifts, both within and beyond the congregation.  I have encouraged preaching and worship leading among my youth and not just on Youth Sunday.  I have invited youth to attend pastoral visitations with me.  But more importantly, I have encouraged the congregation to embrace these young ministers as ministers—not just youth who are dressed up cute and have a nice message to give—but as called by God to be ministers.

I was one of three straight-from-college young seminarians during my first year.  Over my three years of seminary there grew to be more of us, but I found from talking with my peers that few of them were nurtured in a call from their home church.  They may have felt the call as a teen or even as a young child, but their home church did not give them opportunities for ministry.  They were taken out of the service to be with the other children because they weren’t old enough.  They were invited to participate in worship as a teen but only on Youth Sunday.  Their pastor rarely talked to them except to ask them what college they were going to.  So many felt called by God, were inspired by their churches, but then were not given the opportunity—and so they assumed maybe they weren’t called.   Went to college and tried something else.  Fortunately, a lot of them made their way back to seminary and ministry, and some of them made their way back to church.

We need more authentic churches, not only for the sake of Christian ministry in the future, but for the sake of nurturing authentic pastors and ministers.  Kids see right through us when we aren’t authentic.  When we say “Jesus welcomed all the children” and then shuffle them off to another program, we aren’t authentic.  We have blinders on.  We are baiting and switching.

Look to your children and youth.  Where do you see ministers?  Where are they ministering?  Open up the opportunities for them.  Encourage them.  Invite them to grow on the journey.  Remind children when they dream of what they want to be when they grow up that ministry is a great and wonderful calling, and that chances are, one of them is called to be a minister.  Be real, and real ministers will blossom.

Tickets Please?

AJ, my three-year-old son, and I went to the museum in Fort Worth recently, because his mom (my wife) was out of town.  We got to the entrance and purchased our tickets and I asked about the children’s section.  The woman helping me probably assumed AJ was older as per his height and certainly did not know about his autism.  I politely listened to her talk about an exhibit that I knew was beyond AJ’s attention and comprehension.  So we went onto to the children’s section, and to my disappointment most of the items were too complicated for his interest, but he seemed happy to be among the energy of the children.  He does not interact with other children but he does enjoy the energy.  We then went to the water area, and if you know anything about AJ, water is as exciting as letters and numbers.  AJ ran around in circles and got soaked.  AJ was ecstatic and so was I.

After I got him into the dry clothes I decided to go by the exhibit that was recommended.  I bet we were the quickest through as it was all much too complicated for this tall non-communicative three-year-old.  So we went on to the store where AJ was again happy to be among the energy of a crowd.

I share this story because I have read many discussions about what the church should or will look like in the future.  I believe it is an important conversation--a conversation that has occurred since Paul.  We all know there is no formula for church success, and if one thing works for a specific community, it will not necessarily transfer to another, even if the communities look similar.  I am sure most reading this are saying that I am stating the obvious--I am because I keep running into people who write or talk about church as if they were the ticket sales person at the museum.  The generalizations and assumptions seep in even to the best intentions.

I must admit for a moment out in the water area, I felt awkward because AJ did not play with any of the water things properly.  I then noticed his smile and heard his squeals of joy as he splashed in the water.  Those moments are wonderful, such are the moments when he writes letters and words, and recites the alphabet.  These are not normal for his age, but it is what we utilize with his teachers and specialists to encourage better communication.  We go through a lot of hard work to truly share these happy moments with him, for he now lets us into his enjoyment and we have great hope.

As church, we need to do the hard work of discernment and research for each community, new and old.  We need to encourage each community to work for its own vision, finding its joy, its specialties, and work as a community to discover God’s vision for each community.  It is hard work, especially because it is too easy to see programs working at other congregations, especially in churches that look similar, or too easy to depend only on leadership, be it pastor, board, or just the key active lay leaders, to “sell” the vision to the congregation.  New church plants are clearly individual and unique, but humans often look to others for ideas, and that is fine for established and new church starts, if you are honest about your community’s vision from God.  What are your community’s unique gifts and joy?  The answers will lead the church toward the work needed for discernment, and it will be fun.

It will be hard and unique work and the result is a vision that truly calls out of the normal, secular, world, and the Body of Christ will run around influencing the world, for we will be following the “happiness” that surpasses all understanding.

Kegger at Jesus'!

When I was in high school, I lived for someone's parents to leave and for the house party to go off. I was part of that group that played the music or threw the parties. I was not musically inclined outside of the random hardcore and punk groups I got to front. I was a really big fella. So, I got to bounce all the parties. When someone's parents were planning that weekend getaway, we were playing that weekend's kegger.

I get butterflies just writing about it now. So and so would inform someone that their parents were going out of town and that they would be left 'home alone!" That someone would call another person and soon the bands were organized, the kegs procured and the buzz spread. This was how our emerging suburban Los Angeles scene flowed.

That Friday after school we would show up to the "abandoned" house with sound equipment. We would set up and do a sort of silent sound check. Folks would arrive with the kegs (The funny part is that we used to buy Near Beer cause it was cheaper and we made more money from it. Nobody knew the difference.) The kegs would be iced and we would set a perimeter for security.

Then as evening approached the car loads of teenage boys and girls would park and walk up to the party. I would collect money from them and mark their hands with a marker. We could make a couple thousand of dollars from the five-buck admission we charged for Near Beer and "decent" angry youth music. Every once and a while I would let a cute girl in, hoping that would better my chance of her thinking I was cool and I could ask her out.

The backyard would fill up. Every nook and cranny would be filled and they all awaited the stage to light up and the band to play. We were kings of our little fiefdom fueled by punk and hardcore, all of us looking for something to be angry about or someone to listen to our anger.

The band would take the stage and unleash a massive wave of shock and awe upon the Near Beer soaked crowd of kissy-faced teens and macho shirtless, mohawked man-boys. We would storm our anger in to the pit and smash each others faces as we fought the changing world around us. Gone was the safety of Big Wheels and comic books. This was the post-Reagan era in an area roughed up by cuts to the Military Industrial Complex. We knew a few of us had a future; we just were not sure of who those few were. Our dream was to graduate high school and maybe get a job at SEARS fixing washer and dryers. We might be considering college as a way to escape the uncertainty but tonight we had the "pit."

Then, just as we really started getting in to it and that cute girl I let in for free was going to give me her number the COPS showed up. A neighbor had called the police and demanded they break up the party. There was a mass exodus from the backyard. Sweaty mohawked teens jumped fences carrying their teenaged angst with them. The "drunken" teen girls sat dazed and confused, only to be pulled up by their friends and make a mad dash to the other door. The police, almost lovingly, flashed their flashlights on the exiting crowds making sure they dumped out the beers and walked home.

The band tried to pack up really quickly so their gear would not get confiscated. The someone whose house it was cried inside as they saw their social life waver. I was gone when we saw the police pull up and shouted out to the others, "POLICE!" We were already a block over before the mohawked kids jumped the fence.

The parents are called and the someone is reprimanded. That someone has the potential to be legend. The parental fears are stoked and they never go on another vacation again.

I fear that the church looks at the younger generations with this kind of dread. "If we leave, they will mess it all up." True, we are excited and do not look at the world with the same kind of eyes. We are uniquely ourselves. We have different values. We have different priorities. We have different dreams and hopes for our lives. We have different pressures and woes. We are different.

Almost 20 years later, if left with an empty house I am more likely to got to bed early than throw a kegger. My youth is fleeting. I am nearer to 40 than I am to 30. In my youthful sunset I hear "We need young families/young adults/youth in the church" a lot. It seems to be all over the church profiles out there.

Every church is looking for a 30-something pastor. He is white, tall with a nice build. He has a beautiful wife that studied music in college and they have three lovely, well behaved children that angelically glide around church without a sound.

He is great with youth, can preach like Craddock, tell stories like Hemingway, is the best counselor, can fundraise blood from a turnip and will get butts in the seats to continue the ministry of the church just as it always has been.

The problem is that that guy no longer exists. No one can do everything.

There are countless folks out there searching for a place to serve. Every year we graduate another class of hopeful ministers in to a system with no room for them to serve. As the church wrestles with what to do many creative, young ministers leave ministry for "a job." They leave the church.

These are folks that our institutions have invested time, money and hope over a three to four year period. We have encouraged them to follow a discernment process towards a vocation that may or may not be able to embrace them. Our system is broken.

The brokenness of our church institutions and the slow moving process towards change has disabled our efforts to be the pioneering voice we once were. We exist primarily for ourselves. If your operating budget exceeds your mission budget you are inward focused. Jesus calls us to go out in to the world and make Disciples.

Have we abandoned this work? I hear "I love your ideas but we don't have any money." as much as I hear "We need to do something." What are we going to do? The angry, punker inside me demands more for this community I have aligned myself with.

You promised to walk with me in community and support when I took my vows of ordination. When I was baptized you as the church promised to raise me in the ways of Christ. I am weary of the inward focus. Who will stand up and be evangelized by the Millennials? Who will answer the call to receive the missionaries from Gen X?

There is a better way to be "church" in this world. The brick and mortar spaces we lovingly tend to may be hedging us in. How do we liberate ourselves from yesterday that we may die and be born again for tomorrow?

Who will join the party? Our parents are out of town and there is a raging party set to go off! Who is going to be there? All are invited. All are welcome. You just have to show up, be willing to rage and clean up afterwards.

Honesty Isn't Our Policy (Part 2)

(This is the second of two parts, the first appearing yesterday.)

That being the case, Christians have a stake in the practice of truth-telling, which, as we have said, presupposes a life sustained by practices that embody truth.  In other words, you can’t be a Christian and a liar.  Now, to say that is not to say that Christians don’t lie; they do.  In fact, Christians are just as capable of lying as anyone else.  Rather, to say that “You can’t be a Christian and a liar” is to say that the life lived by a Christian can no more be shaped by deceit than the life of a United States Marine can be shaped by pacifism.  Obviously there are situations when a Marine can choose non-violent resistance over violence.  But always to live non-violently would be to betray the very oath taken upon becoming a Marine in promising to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic,” presumably using violent force if necessary.  To live self-consciously non-violently in the face of every threat would, by definition, make a person something other than a Marine.  How much more so for Christians who speak baptismal vows about following the God of truth to have lives characterized by untruthfulness?

In fact, the early church was so convinced about the need for truthfulness and lives lived in congruence with the truth that they included the odd and chilling story of Ananias and Sapphira in their scriptures.  At first glance, it seems, Ananias and Sapphira are being punished for keeping back from the church a portion of the sale of some land.  In many cases this passage is used by the church today to inveigle a larger pledge on Commitment Sunday or to convince people of the ramifications of selfishness—as if to say, “Don’t hold back on the church (and by implication the Holy Spirit)—the life you save may be your own.”

However, the word of judgment Peter speaks to Ananias and Sapphira deals not with their tightfistedness, but with their duplicity.  Peter says, “While it [the land] remained unsold, did it not remain your own?  And after it was sold, were the proceeds at your disposal?  How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart?  You did not lie to us, but to God!” (Acts 5:4).  The question to modern Christians is, “Why would the early church want to include such an obviously threatening story in its recounting of the birth of the church?”  To convince parishioners of the need for consistent and unselfish giving?  No, the church has held up this story as a way of underscoring the need to ensure the integrity of the body of Christ as a truthful community.

From our reading of Acts at this point we are left to conclude that the early church, especially as it was being established in a less than hospitable environment, believed that truth-telling was essentially a matter of communal survival.  That is to say, they understood that in a pluralistic Greco-Roman world in which truth claims were as thick in the air as they are in popular modern culture, and in a sociological context in which the church appeared to many to be a threat to the stability of the established order, the church knew that its claims about Jesus would ultimately be judged by whether its followers lived truthfully according to the claims they advocated.  That being the case, the early church rightly understood that truthfulness, from the perspective of the body of Christ, is always a matter of life and death.

Is honesty always the best policy?  From the perspective of the church, honesty, truth-telling, truthful living is the only policy—but it’s more than just a policy, a strategy for staying out of trouble.  Saying that honesty is the best policy in the abstract, of course, requires no real moral courage.  Who would argue in the abstract against honesty?  In real life telling the truth is a risky venture.  Jesus wasn’t killed, after all, because he was nice, but because he couldn’t shut up.

Our modern response to the story of Ananias and Sapphira is telling.  Peter seems to most modern ears not to be particularly pastoral to Ananias and Sapphira, but rather abrupt and judgmental.  However, the problem may stem from our misunderstanding of the word pastoral.  A pastor, evoking the image of a shepherd, isn’t a personal masseuse, or a self-help guru—someone whose sole purpose is to make the flock feel good regardless of how it behaves.  A pastor, like a shepherd, is charged with the duty of helping the flock navigate the dangers of the world around them, so that the flock can find sufficient food and water in order to reproduce.  Not speaking the truth to the flock about the perils that face it for the purposes of keeping the peace, far from being a virtue in a shepherd, is in fact unfaithful, un-Christ-like, un-pastoral.  Peter sees the dangers of the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira and speaks a word of truth in the face of it.  Based on that particular way of thinking the church has a sacred responsibility to name dishonesty when it occurs—even at the short-term expense of a peaceful environment.

The church orders its life, and therefore the life of its members, around the truth of Christ.  Christians are honest, not because it works, but because as followers of Jesus, we have no other way of being.  Our willingness to live like the one we follow bears out the value and veracity of our truth claims.  Honesty isn’t our policy; it’s our identity.

Honesty Isn't Our Policy (Part 1)

Honesty, as the saying goes, is always the best policy.  If we believe that, the question is: Do we practice it?  Do we live our lives truthfully?  Now, someone might object that telling the truth and living the truth are two different animals.  That is to say, the question of telling the truth without living that truth begs the question about whether it is possible to be Charles Manson (i.e., a complete schmuck) and still speak something approximating the truth, inasmuch as it is argued that the truth is not contingent on anything outside itself to be true.  In other words, one account of the truth maintains that there is something that exists independently, objectively “out there” that is called the “Truth.”  What one needs to do when there exists competing truth claims, goes the thinking, is to appeal to the “objective standard” of “Truth.” This formula works serviceably well when the question has to do with whether or not 2 + 2 = 4 or whether the population of Louisville is larger than that of Lexington.  If, however, the question raised is whether or not University of Louisville fans are less dedicated fans than University of Kentucky fans or whether or not Christianity is true, to what uncontestable “objective standard” does one appeal?

Absolutism, or the belief, not merely that there is an “absolute truth” but that that “absolute truth” can be apprehended by human beings—if they only “try hard enough”—is a difficult argument to sustain, just to the extent that it is possible to have two reasonably intelligent, reasonably passionate, reasonably sincere individuals disagree on where to go to find the absolute truth that will settle their argument.  Should they look in the Bible?  The Koran?  The Bhagavad-Gita?  The DaVinci Code?  Dr. Phil?  The periodic table of elements? Who gets to decide what’s true?  Or where do we expect to find the true account of truth to which everyone will defer?  Absolutism runs the risk in the end of only being able to communicate by monologue.

“Does that mean,” as many will quickly ask, “that everything is relative?  That there are no standards of truth to which we may appeal?  Do we throw our hands up in the air because there is finally no way to adjudicate between competing truth claims?”  No.  Relativism, as a set of truth claims, collapses under its own weight.  As James McClendon has pointed out: “As a general theory [relativism] seems to ask us to believe (a) that it is (in general) true, and (b) that nothing is (in general) true—and both can’t be the case” (Ethics: Systematic Theology, Abingdon, 1986, 350). Relativism as a theory of knowledge is logically absurd—or should we say, it’s only relatively true—whatever that means.

Therefore, to assert that honesty is the best policy is only to have begun the discussion, not to have settled it.  If absolutism is problematic and relativism is logically indefensible, how are we supposed to talk about truth?  Or as Pilate put the question to Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)

When asked “What is truth?” how did Jesus respond?  We are left to assume that Jesus said nothing, because Pilate immediately left Jesus and went outside to address the Jews.  Why didn’t Jesus say, “The truth is x, y, and z, and you would know that if you only studied your _______?”  Or why didn’t Jesus say, “Truth is such a slippery subject, I’m not sure we ought to waste time trying to nail it down to a single definition.  After all, all definitions are ultimately equal?”  In fact Jesus let the silence hang in the air, as if to say, “If you want to know what truth is, look at me.  I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

In a world in which we seem incapable of sustaining a conversation about truth between faith systems, perhaps the only way we have of judging their truthfulness is by observing the kinds of people they produce.  It seems to me that the only way we have of judging the truthfulness of a particular set of truth claims is by examining whether, and to what extent, there exists a people capable of embodying those claims.  That is to say, are the people named by a particular truth claim living the truth to which they appeal, or more to the point, are they living truthfully?  Do people who claim to follow Jesus, for example, live in ways that honor Jesus’ commitments?  Or, as Samuel Wells remarks: “Pragmatic tests of Christianity focus on Christian tradition and the ‘richness of moral character’ it produces in much the same way that science judges its theories by the fruitfulness of the activities they generate, and significant works of art become so in the light of the interpretation and criticism that surround them” (Transforming Fate into Destiny, Cascade Books, 1998, 86).

If I am right that the only real way to decide between two truth-claims from competing systems of belief is to look to the sorts of communities of character they produce, and if the only way to judge communities of character is by whether they produce people capable of living the claims they espouse, then living truthfully is the only way to establish the truth of those claims.  Put another way, brick-layers lay brick, cooks cook, and Christians live like Jesus.  Clearly, not everyone who wears the name has mastered all the practices necessary to be named a master craftsman in these crafts, but the shape of one’s life is determined by one’s commitment to living faithfully with the name—brick-layer, cook, Christian.  It is, after all, possible to take any of those names in vain by failing to practice, or practicing poorly, the disciplines of each craft.

However, when practiced well the very product of the craft (i.e., the wall, the cake, the life) stands as legitimating evidence of the value and veracity of the craft.  Consequently, for Christians, living truthfully isn’t only a matter of practicing the craft of Christianity well; it is the very means by which the truthfulness of Christianity is judged in a world where truth claims abound and compete.  In other words, speaking the truth is the product of a truthful life.


(The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.)

Poured Out -- A Lectionary Meditation

Each week, as I sit down to write this lectionary meditation, I look at the text to see if there is something that connects them in one way or another. After all, the creators of the lectionary have tried to some extent to bring some thematic unity to their choices. It doesn’t always work, but often something sticks out, something catches the imagination. As I looked at these three texts, which in some ways are quite distinct, a phrase stood out in two of the passages – the words “pour[ed] out.” In the Joel passage, the Spirit is poured out on the whole people, empowering and equipping them to bear witness to the things of God. In the passage from 2 Timothy, the author (assumed to be Paul in the text) claims to have been “poured out as a libation.” That is, he is being offered up as an offering to God. The words don’t appear in the Lukan parable, but consider the cry of the tax collector, he pours out his heart before God, seeking forgiveness. It could be that the Spirit is being poured out upon us, or it may be that the calling of God has led to our being poured out as an offering, or perhaps it is the need to pour out the heart to God so as to receive God’s gracious offer of forgiveness. Whatever is the case, we are being called upon to rest our lives in the hands of God.

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Confessions of a Dinosaur

Am I a dinosaur for thinking the Bible is divinely inspired, true, and important for Christian living? Knowing that I feel that way tells you nothing about my opinion on anything else. If you don't agree, then knowing the text will at least give you ammo against its misuse -- which might prove more persuasive than to simply denigrate its authority. And if you do agree, then please don’t jump the shark to conclude that you have perfect understanding and are therefore right in every opinion based on Scripture.

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Speaking the Truth in Love or The Cost of Doing Business

At the heart of [D]mergent burns the desire for the church to take on the difficult demands of a dialogue about where God is leading. What kinds of new ways does God seek to open up to us the grace of God’s reign? What traditions must we cling to as important expressions of our common life? What cherished orthodoxies must we be willing to set down as tools for a different time and place? These are difficult questions for us to ask, let alone to be called to answer. But the luxury of avoiding these thorny conversations has long since passed. We have no choice. The question is not whether we will have to confront change, but how will we do so in constructive ways? What follows is my small contribution in trying to set a loving framework for the conversation.

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There is a problem

I often hear this: "There isn’t a problem."  I hear of churches that are “open,” and from that perspective alone I’m told there is no problem.  It is nice to know that there are churches that are welcoming to all, and that there are churches that allow people to be people, but I still hear a denial.  Based on experience alone people have decided one of two things: 1) There isn’t a problem, or 2) It isn’t their problem, because their gathering is welcoming.  When I hear these words I get frustrated.  I get frustrated because experiences of LGBTQ people are overlooked.  Some have had true and deep hurtful experiences at the hands of those who call themselves Christians.  There is a problem. I got a lot of attention from my last post.  It touched a nerve.  For some it touched a nerve because their church is welcoming and they only hope for me that I find that.  Then came a woman, I don’t know her, but she commented on my blog.  She said something that rings in my ears.  She said that her bad experiences were enough to keep her away from the church.  She said that it wasn’t fear and it wasn’t her responsibility to deal with the box.  In her opinion it was the church's responsibility to deal with.  She had suffered greatly at the hands of those who call themselves Christ followers.  Here is what she said, “My trust with the church has been shattered as that is where the damage was done for me. It not only closeted me, but made me acutely aware of what happens behind those doors. Now, I choose not to hide who I am and feel like I have no interest in changing the minds of a community of people so strongly opposed to me as an individual. I agree with the part about accepting the whole person and not compartmentalizing, but to me it’s not fear that holds me back but experience.”   You see, there is a problem.  She's not alone.  Sadly, she has a lot of company.  Having a little bit faith in God’s people just isn’t enough.  That faith and trust was damaged.  There is a problem.

For all the churches and people who say they welcome everyone to their gathering there is still a problem--a PR problem and a denial problem that must dealt with.  I admire Rich McCullen.  I was privileged to meet him at Transform back in May.  I listened to his story which included his gathering reaching out to those in his area with a public apology on behalf of Christians who voted for California's Proposition 8, calling for a redefinition of marriage to include only a man and woman.  They put up the following billboard that says, “MissionGathering Christian Church IS SORRY for the narrow minded, judgmental, deceptive, manipulative, actions of those who took away the rights and equality of so many in the name of GOD.  Our hearts are with you!”  We are sorryRich and his gathering got something right.  They knew that there was an apology and acknowledgment that needed to happen and they did it.  They knew of people who were pushed further away from the gospel by the approval of Prop 8.  They knew, as the commenter above said, it was beyond fear; it was experience that drives the hurt.  MissionGathering took a chance and decided to acknowledge that there is a problem.  They decided to get past the PR and denial problem, they embraced it.

Can we admit there is a problem?  Can we, for a second, say that although it is nice that we have been given a gift of inclusion, there are way too many gatherings out there that don’t have this gift?  I don’t want to denigrate the idea that we should celebrate gatherings of inclusion, but there is still much work to do.  There still are those out there, like the commenter, who need for gatherings to testify and to embody the gospel.  It isn’t just about me, but about two communities I believe in--the LGBTQ and Christian communities.  I don’t want LGBTQ Christians out there to be the focus of whispers, or worse, to be ignored.  One's faith is too valuable to put up in a shelf.  I want the silence to become a roar, but one that envelops the whole church, so that we might walk held hand-in-hand with all members on the journey.  We can’t do this unless we acknowledge that there is a problem, so that no more will the experience of our youth push them into the closest, but will let them celebrate the community of Christ.

By Jules Kennedy

Julie Kennedy lives in the bootheel of Missouri.  She works with special needs students and a full time student at Southeast Missouri State University. She is a constant spiritual wonderer with a never ending love for the gathering of Christ followers.