emergent

Ceremony Seeking Meaning

By Colton Lott

I graduated from college this past May, joining about 1.9 million other students who were conferred a bachelor’s degree this year.[i] Like many of these students, I went to my commencement and heard words of life, wisdom, and foo-foo as we were set off into the sunset with shards of hope, crystalline dreams, and massive amounts of student debt (but hey, who’s counting?).[ii]

While I was decompressing in a school sponsored reception, I began talking to my favorite professor. As we were chewing the fat, one of the topics we touched on was the odd phenomenon that is graduation, especially how students in the United States make such a hullabaloo about commencement. And sports. And church. And weddings. And lots of things.

So I’ve been obsessing on why the culture I was born into obsesses about pomp and circumstance. Why is there a cavernous drive to have ever-expansive ceremonies to mark the turning points of life? Big graduations, expensive weddings, and elaborate celebrations for birthdays and anniversaries dot the landscapes of our lives, mostly without critical questioning. Kindergarten graduations are becoming formalized and holidays are becoming holimonths. This is without mentioning in detail the ways we sincerely celebrate relatively meaningless accomplishments, such as dating someone for a few weeks, doing well on a required task for school or work, or a pet’s birthday.

Capitalism drives much of this “biggering,” but to have expanded consumption serve as the only answer for this phenomenon seems stunted. A surface response is that our society is starved for true and/or profound meaning and we try to fill this hole with ever-enlarged celebrations as a supplement or substitute. But the question I’m more interested in is: “Why are we so famished for a true and/or profound meaning to enter into our lives?”

One of the biggest contributions made by the emergent church movement is it attempts to detail why and how our culture is being unanchored from what was previous understood as a “given.” Phyllis Tickle identifies our questions du jour as revolving around our collective source of authority and lack thereof; what constitutes true “human-ness;” and how we relate to other systems of life, especially other religions.[iii] Just as has happened, and will happen, we have become untethered and are desperate for a rock on which to rely.

The disciples of Jesus offer us a poignant analog. As followers of Christ, they were drawn into an alternative lifestyle that required them to live without traditional boundaries, without the culture’s guideposts that could sustain, correct, or reassure them. They were untethered, unanchored, and forced to seek new meaning for the time and place they were situated in. In Luke 9, we see Peter, James, and John following Jesus up the mountain for what will be the transfiguration of Christ and the appearance of Moses and Elijah.

When things started really happening, Peter jumps up, johnnie-on-the-spot, and wants to “construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Luke 9:33, CEB). Before Peter could even cease speaking, the other two figures leave, a voice from the cloud speaks, and they are eerily back to their regular programming.

What a celebration! What a ceremony! Like Peter, we want to capture the holiness that comes through in the flash of light, but like Peter we are powerless to do so. We cling to the hope that if we could just make these shrines bigger, just a bit bigger, we could hold down something deep, we could examine something true. But the ceremony, the pomp and circumstance, is heartbreakingly ephemeral.

The wish is that the celebration or the ceremony holds the meaning, but that is not what we experience. When Christ is transfigured, there is no significant change within him, but only the disciples’ understanding of who Jesus is—the ceremony offers only a glimmer of what the profound and/or true meaning is. Birthday parties don’t magically make someone have a year’s worth of wisdom and growth, but the celebration serves as a pause to merely recognize what has happened in the past year. One of the common critiques of marriage is that a piece of paper doesn’t “mean anything;” there is something true to this contemporary argument, as the formality and ceremony doesn’t make a meaning, but the wedding points to the change that has, is, and will be happening between two people.

As hard as we try, we can’t find solve our dilemmas and problems of the twenty-first century by making ceremonies and celebrations more spectacular in the hope that they will be more meaningful. While it would be easier, we can’t substitute the party for the cause of the party. We have to continue struggling and asking the hard questions of meaning, even though the progress of answering such questions can be frustratingly minimal. Just like Peter, James, and John, we have to follow Jesus back down the mountain into a very messy, unknown world. Just as Jesus wreaked havoc for the original disciples, we are living in holy disorder, too. We live in the tension, both desperately waiting on something profound and/or true to come our way and rescue us from our insecurities and angst, and also realizing that in following the radical Jesus we slowly gain something meaningful and get to glimpse something ultimate.

 

[i] https://www.naceweb.org/press/faq.

[ii] The servicers on your debt. That’s who’s counting. And, like the undead or crab-grass, they never go away. Ever. 

[iii] This thought is detailed most accurately in her book The Great Emergence (2008).

How do we let go of Sunday morning?

By Rev. Mindi

One recent Sunday morning, I looked out over the empty pews and I thought to myself, “what can be done to get people here?” Then I thought of all the “regulars” who weren’t here, and I thought to myself, “What can be done to get the ‘regulars’ to come back?”

Then I wondered why am I so worried about Sunday mornings?

I’d fallen into the Sunday morning trap again—the idea that “church” is the thing we do on Sunday mornings only, that “church” is the place we go for an hour on Sunday.  We’ve known, from the beginning of our movement, as Paul talks about us in 1 Corinthians 12, that the church is the body of Christ. It’s like that old song we sang in Sunday School: “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people…”  We all know this, and yet, we fall into the trap again and again and again.

When I looked beyond the empty pews, beyond Sunday, I remembered all the volunteers we had for the last two weekends for our annual Rummage Sale. I recalled all the neighbors who came out, who not only perused our “treasures” but also sat down over a hot dog and chatted with us about their lives. I remember the people who lined up for pies on Saturday morning. I also remembered the Women’s group that gathered earlier that month for lunch, the two Young Adult Pub Theology gatherings, and the bags of donations that appeared in the office for the local women’s shelter.

Why are we so caught up on Sunday morning? Why is Sunday morning still the litmus test as to whether or not a church is healthy or viable?

Money.

Sure, we receive money at our Rummage Sale or other events, but the main way we keep our lights on, pay the pastor (me) and fund the missions and ministries of the church is through the Sunday morning offering.  And if people don’t come on Sunday, they are not necessarily going to give financially—mainly because we don’t ask.

What if…

We offered other ways for people to give to the church—online giving, card readers, QR-codes on the bulletin?

We encouraged giving at other times, at other opportunities, to share in the ministry and fellowship of the congregation?

We counted our blessings in the people we reach out to, the small groups, and the missions and ministries we offer instead of persons in pews?

And what if… dare I say it?

We changed everything.

What if we weren’t as concerned about being financially viable as we were about the ministries and missions we share in?

What if we sold our buildings, moved to partner with other congregations, or started meeting in public spaces such as schools, libraries, coffee shops, or other locations?

What if we all, when we pledge our finances to the church, also pledged our time, our gifts, our talents? What if we took a share in the work of the church, each of us?

This might mean that…

Pastors could no longer survive on a congregational salary alone. Let’s face it—a number of our pastors are already bi-vocational and many of us do not meet denominational standards for compensation.  It would mean that seminaries would have to completely change because those going into ministry wouldn’t be able to afford the three-year master’s degree, knowing that they would be coming out with debt (five, but often six figures worth of debt). And this is already happening—seminaries are closing, or completely going online. Students take one or two classes at a time while working a full-time job. I’ll say it again: this is already happening.

We would have to all change—the church, the pastor, the body of Christ.

We would have to change everything. But we might be able to do something radical.

We might be able to follow Jesus differently.

I’ll raise my hand: I’m scared of this. I have loans to pay off. I have other debts. I need to provide for my family. But as it is, I serve two congregations part-time. I am surviving. I also love what I am doing. I have begun to change. But it’s time for the church to recognize this isn’t temporary.

This is the new normal.

Unbox Church

By Rev. Mindi

As she poured me a drink, she asked me, “Are you really a pastor?” I smiled and nodded to the bartender. Only two of us regulars made it for our Pub Theology at a new location tonight, but along with the bartender and a few others who happened to frequent here, we had a great discussion about what it means to live out one’s faith. We didn’t talk specifics about church, and it wasn’t until I brought up Matthew 25 as a discussion point that we even got into the Bible or Jesus, but we had church tonight.

I lift this up as an example of church unboxed. I think that in church talk, we are quick to make assumptions about the “unchurched.” We make assumptions about those who have no church or religious affiliation. We assume we haven’t done a good job of selling the church message, or haven’t done a good job of raising our kids, or that we aren’t preaching the Gospel.  Our assumptions also lead us to call people who have no affiliation “unchurched,” which is an unfortunate term based on the assumption that “churched” is the preferred category over “unchurched” (and I wrote about this last spring in “Becoming Unchurched”).

Sure, lots of churches are doing Pub Theology and having Bible studies in coffee shops. But rather than trying to use these as avenues to get people into the church building, what if we were to already recognize the community that exists and meet them where they are at? What if pastors started to see themselves more as freelance ministers sent out from the church to be pastors to those who need spiritual support? What if our churches understood that an important part of our ministry was not to work to get people in on Sunday morning but to minister to people in their own communities?

As I left tonight, a woman asked me to pray for her. I was happy to do so. I also tipped the bartender very well because I wanted her to know I appreciated and valued the service she gave as well as her interest in what I do.

What can you do to unbox church? This isn’t to say to stop having worship on Sunday mornings and go into the coffee shops and bars, but what can you do to minister to those outside of your box? What can you do to meet people where they are at and be the presence of Jesus among others? Can we unbox our assumptions that people do not have community or are in need of specific church community?

No more Either/Or; Now Both-And

By Rev. Mindi 

“The world has changed.”

I hear this all the time in the church: “The world has changed.” And of course it’s true, and of course it’s the same. Nothing new under the sun. World without end. And we don’t like change.

I think one of the most difficult changes for people, however, has been this shift from Either/Or to Both-And. This is within the church and within society in general. And perhaps the shift has come in waves across generations, through Women’s Rights, Civil Rights and in GLBTQ equality; and this wave of Both-And is just finally smacking the shore and changing the Either/Or landscape forever.

Church doesn’t look like it used to. Church was in a big building with a big committee and the most important thing were two-parent-heterosexual young married couples with children coming through the door.

Churches now have a building and don’t have a building. Churches now have heterosexual and homosexual couples and single people and no children and children and couples not married and older people bringing their grandchildren and animal blessings for pets in October and they meet in traditional buildings and coffee shops and movie theaters and homes and schools.

Even in the SBNR (Spiritual-But-Not-Religious) debate the wave has drawn over the conversation: Church now is full of religious and spiritual people, and so are coffee shops on Sunday mornings and bars on Tuesday nights. The either/or dichotomy is not working.

It’s not working among families where dads stay home and moms go to work or *gasp* both parents share parenting and work roles. Or parents partner with other adults to co-parent and form relationships beyond traditional models. Or among people who are genderqueer and do not claim a traditional male or female identity. Either/Or thinking does not work in families or churches anymore.

And while we have a long, long way to go, many of our churches are starting to look different among the younger generations as multiethnic families grow up. We all have heard the statistics: White-Euro-Americans will no longer be the majority racial/ethnic identity among those under 20 by the year 2020. Everything is changing. Our identities are going to be changing, and this will be huge for traditional White-Euro-American churches. Some of our traditions and cultural practices will change and I don’t think we’ve recognized that yet. But it’s coming.

Either/Or isn’t working anymore.

And in fact, I’m not sure it’s never worked, if we believe in the fully-human-*and*-fully-divine Jesus. Jesus was not Either/Or. Jesus was Both-And.

Jesus ate with the leaders as well as with the poor. Jesus welcomed the children and welcomed the adults. Even when Jesus said, “You cannot be my disciple if you do not hate father and mother,” we know James and John loved their mother and Peter his mother-in-law and we know they were flawed people who still were Jesus’ disciples. Even when Jesus used either/or language with the disciples, we know that Jesus still came to that group who had utterly abandoned him to the cross and said, “Peace be with you.”  Even Jesus cannot be bound to the Either/Or. It’s Both-And.

Both-And gives us room for tradition and innovation.  Both-And gives us room to teach our history and embrace the newness of change. Both-And says all people are welcome, whatever kind of family or no family.  Both-And says traditional pastoral ministry and new community ministry are needed by the church.  Both-And says yes to traditional church at 10am on Sunday and yes to new ways of being spiritual community. Both-And says that our understandings of gender and sexual orientation and race and culture are all being challenged and are more fluid than we had thought. Both-And says we have more than one option when it comes to challenging the human rights abuses in Syria and in other parts of the world. Both-And says there are many options for peace.

We’re moving to a Both-And world. That’s not to say it isn’t scary. The things we once knew we don’t anymore. The world is changing. I don’t have all the answers. And I won’t say it’s always a good thing, but it is what it is.

Everything is changing. Let’s be sure we’re alert, aware, and ready for the wave coming. World without end.

A Spiritual Routine

By Rev. Mindi

This post originally appeared on Edge Pieces, the blog for Open Gathering, a new Disciples of Christ Church plant on July 9th, 2013. It has been adapted slightly for [D]mergent for a wider audience.

One of the concerns I have as a pastor, and a parent of a child with special needs, is bringing spirituality into AJ’s daily life. As for many parents, church can be hard work. Sometimes people at church do not understand and can make church an unwelcoming place for those with special needs, who cannot sit still or stay silent. Sometimes sensory issues make it difficult to attend worship, and sometimes the older buildings are not fully accessible to those who have mobility needs. Traditional church, because it is only once a week and not every day like school or other activities, and it is not primarily focused on a specific person like once-a-week therapy sessions are, can be difficult to add into one’s weekly routine. We know many families for whom going to church is such a struggle, they do not even bother.

While I am at Open Gathering now, I also serve a small church in Burien, WA.  AJ goes to church most Sunday mornings with me to Burien Community Church. When I was not serving as a pastor when we lived in Oklahoma, I was able to sit with him and try to help him understand the order of service—now we stand, now we sing, now we sit quietly and pray, etc. Routine for many children with special needs is important, and in many of our church worship services, we can establish a routine more easily as the service usually follows the same format every Sunday.  I no longer am able to sit with AJ every Sunday morning as I am pastoring a church now, but I still try to help him understand the routine.  Because I cannot sit with him, sometimes he only understands the greeting time, and I let him use his iPad to stay quiet in the pew until the Children’s Message.  But he understands the routine: he puts the iPad down and comes to sit next to me on the chancel steps.  Then after the prayer, he can run down the aisle to the back and go downstairs for Children’s Church at my church in Burien.

But at home, spirituality is just as important. We try to model that God is in our lives everywhere, not just at church. Church is often just one day a week, and while we may be at the building during the week at other times, we do not have the same routine there.  So at home, we at least say prayers every night, something I have been doing with AJ since he moved from a crib to a bed. We read a book, and I try to read a child’s prayer book or baby Bible as the last story, then I say a simple prayer but fold his hands as well, and I close my eyes. Then I tuck him in.

During Advent, we began a routine of lighting the Advent Candles at home every night and doing a short reading and prayer. We did this at the dinner table so AJ was already sitting. We made sure the TV was off and no other distractions were on. It was a nice ritual of quiet time and reflection for our family during the Advent Season, but it also introduced something new for AJ. While I’m sure he didn’t understand the complete significance of it, he seemed to enjoy us sitting together and lighting candles.

Routine is important for many children with special needs. Establishing a spiritual routine, just like establishing a hygiene routine or any other practice takes practice.  Some families say grace before meals, and that is another wonderful (and traditional) way to introduce spiritual practice in the home.

At Open Gathering, what makes us unique is that we have made worship even more accessible for those used to routine because, while doing emergent-style worship, we have kept the same routine every time we gather: Music, Wondering, Table.  During Music we sing five or six songs from our songbook, songs that become familiar (we usually do two or three that we did the week before).  At Wondering, all are invited to come sit near the table for the Story—in which the Bible Lesson is shared in a Montessori-style storytelling. As part of the Wondering, we also do Work, in which we respond to the story. One can do Work by sharing one’s perspectives on the Bible lesson in a dialogue-sermon (often many of the adults do this in a corner of our shared space), or by staying put at the table and responding with art, crafts, and play. Then we all return to the Table for prayer, offering, and communion. We end by singing our benediction song together “Peace Before Us.”

Because our routine is simple and not a long list in a printed bulletin, Open Gathering is more readily accessible to those with special needs because it becomes familiar more quickly. We also have fewer “rules.” People are invited to dance and move as needed or desired during the Music time. During the Wondering time, we are invited to sit closer for the story, then during work we can sit or stand or move about as necessary.  We gather at the Table again for the end. We are invited to pray together, sometimes to sit together, but we are also invited to be ourselves.

***** 

Church leaders, there are many different ways to do worship. Perhaps you can inspire others to begin a spiritual routine at home, establishing a semblance of spiritual life that works for them and their family’s unique needs.  Perhaps there are families who simply are not able to attend worship due to unique needs or work schedules, but maybe there is still a way to reach out and include others by inviting them to begin a spiritual routine at home.