An Open Letter to Church Shoppers

By Rev. Mindi

Dear Church Shopper,

I hate the term “church shopping.”  Shopping implies casual browsing, sampling, purchasing, consuming, returning and exchanging, etc. I know that you have been brought up in a consumer culture, and this is the language you are used to. You want to find the right church like you want to find the right pair of shoes: you want to make sure they are a good fit, and that they feel on the inside as good as they look on the outside. You want to find the church that feeds your needs, your desires, what you imagine church should be. And if your desires are not being met, if you are not being filled, you will move along.

The church is the body of Christ, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 12. It is a body. It is an organism. It is something you become part of and participate in, not sample and browse, consume and leave behind. Church is something you belong to, become part of, and it becomes essential and integral to your life. As Paul says, the hand cannot say to the foot, “I have no need of you.”

Unfortunately, for many churches in the United States, they have also bought into the consumer culture. They try to put on a good show to feed your entertainment needs as well as your spiritual needs, but often the spiritual need they fill is to make you feel good about yourself. We all like to feel good. But at times we also need to be challenged and have a kick in the pants when we are not doing our part to help the poor and the oppressed around us.

Sometimes the mainline liberal church has bought into the consumer culture as well. Sometimes we use phrases like “social justice” and “missional” as catch phrases to lure you in to doing work in the community to help others, but we aren’t always good about it. Sometimes we are helping ourselves. Sometimes we don’t listen to the needs of the community and continue to do the same things we have always done rather than meeting the needs of those around us.  Sometimes what we are doing is not social, is not justice, and is not about serving others. Sometimes the church has used bait and switch tactics, without realizing it.

Church is not the pastor. Church is not the building. Church is the people, the body of Christ, coming together to be one. We shouldn’t be church because the building is pretty. We shouldn’t be church because the pastor is inspiring. We should be church because we recognize that we are the body, together, and we have need of each other. And our money shouldn’t be the most important thing—whether it is our individual giving or the church budget. Sometimes, I think the real problem in all of this is that we have given money power over all of us. That is consumer culture in a nutshell.

So please, stop shopping. Join a church community and belong. Of course that might take a little time finding—there is something to be said about theology and mission that connects you—but don’t go for a while and then leave because you hope to find something better elsewhere. Become part of the community. Belong to one another. Be the church. 

(And churches, let’s be the church, too. Let’s stop trying to show up one another. Let’s actually focus outward to do that social justice thing in being part of God’s beloved community on earth. Let’s worry less about entertaining and feeling good, and more about being the church together, beyond our building’s walls).

Be the body. Belong. Become.

The Wrong Question

By Rev. Mindi

A post on CNN’s Belief Blog by Rachel Held Evans on “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church” has gone, as they say, viral. There are several posts out there responding to Evans as well, ranging the gambit from she’s absolutely right to completely disagreeing with her reasons of why they are leaving.

However, I think it’s the wrong question. Maybe it’s the right question from her point of view—growing up in the South, coming from an evangelical background—but for those of us coming from the mainline, it’s the wrong question for us to ask.  Because Millennials, like many Gen Xers before them, haven’t been in the church to begin with.

I’m one of those stuck-in-the-middle generations, on the late end of Gen X, but if you ask my husband who is five years old than me, especially when we reference music tastes of the 80’s and 90’s he sees me as more Millennial than Gen X, whereas people a few years younger than me see me as Gen X and not Millennial. Us late 70’s babies are caught in the gap, but we have experienced what has happened in both generations to some degree.

Most of us in the gap have parents who are Boomers or late-Boomers. Other Gen Xers parents were from the Silent Generation or early Boomers. While we don’t all stick with our generation typecasting, people who grew up in the Silent Generation and Early Boomers still went to church on a regular basis and raised their kids to do so.  During the Depression and WWII, church was the refuge for the poor and the place to pray during the ultimate crisis of war.  The church had a prominent role in people’s lives because there was nowhere else to go. People who grew up in those years turned around and raised their children in the church. Church was steadfast. When the world didn’t make sense, the church made sense of the world. Church was the center of hope.  The Silent Generation that suffered together during the Depression and sacrificed together during WWII was loyal to the church that had remained.

But the Boomers grew up without that connection to the suffering and sacrifice, without the recognition of the church as a beacon of hope and steadfastness in a time of utter turmoil and hopelessness of the Depression and the War. Church was something they had to do because their parents raised them in it. Church became the place of conformity, of rigidity, of unchanging in a changing world. In fact, many of the reasons shared in Evans’ piece of why Millennial are leaving remind me of what I have heard from those growing up in the 60’s in mainline, mostly white churches in the U.S., perhaps only to a slightly lesser degree. The church of my grandfather that had been a place of hope and encouragement and where people banded together to know they weren’t alone in life’s struggles, was a place of stifling conformity for my mother and her generation.

And what I know of many of my peers, us late-GenXers and into the Millennial, is that our parents decided not to raise us in church (my mother changed her mind when I was nine and brought us back to the church). Our parents decided they didn’t want to force on us what they felt was forced on them. Our parents wanted to give us the freedom to choose, and in doing so, we opted out. But we were never really given the option of staying in because, except for Christmas and Easter and maybe other special occasions, we never went. Or, if our parents had a better relationship with the church when they were growing up, we were given the option upon our baptism or confirmation. So ironically, we would make our statement of faith in the church and then never return.  The option of staying was never really taken serious enough by our parents to begin with.

I think the challenge for many of us in mainline church leadership today is not how to keep Millennials from leaving the church, nor how to get Millennials back into the church, but rather, how do we pass on our faith in ways that don’t repeat the mistakes of the past two generations? How do we pass on a faith that allows for questions and exploration while at the same time gives a grounding for hope and assurance?

Thankfully, and hopefully for our future, we won’t have another Great Depression followed by a World War that would cause our country to be in such upheaval that everyone’s daily lives are affected by it. There probably won’t be another scenario in the U.S. in which so many people felt the pressure of the depression and then the war, including the notion of self-sacrifice, in which people felt like they were connected more deeply together in the well-being and survival of the country. The church was a centerpiece of hope, a stronghold in the community for grieving, a place where one another’s burdens were shared in a real and tangible way.

But somehow, after the War, we shifted away from this. Instead of the church being the place everyone turned to for stability, the church became a place of control and conformity, at least among Euro-American white churches (note the very different role of the black church in the Civil Rights movements during the same period of time, and that assumptions made about who is leaving the church are generally speaking about Euro-American churches).  And it’s no wonder that our parents didn’t want to bring us up in a church that was conforming and boring, or at least wanted to give us a choice about it because they felt they did not have a choice.  The church had lost out being a beacon of hope and steadfastness in a world of change, and instead, to keep that image up, turned to control and conformity within its own structure.

I’m not a church historian. But it seems to me this great shift happened more than a generation ago and is not a Millennial issue.  And if we want to know how to reach out to those who have had little or no grounding in the church and do not seem to see any reason at all to attend church, perhaps we need to rethink church (again, a topic of many viral posts, including posts on this site).

When we look back at Acts 2 and 4, we see a model of a church in which people come together and share what they have with each other.  Worship was not a separate act of their daily lives, but rather a communal act in which prayers were shared, bread was broken, and possessions shared with those who had need. Perhaps we just need to dream it up again, a way of being community that is beyond what we are doing now but not so far out of reach. And, as I’ve shared in my own thoughts on this matter here before, I hope we don’t make the assumption that those outside of the church have no community, let alone a spiritual community. Let’s not go rush out and offer community without observing the community that may already exist.  Instead, perhaps we can come together, insiders and outsiders, church and unchurched, and dream something new together, and find a way to pass down our faith that includes opportunities for change and choice without having to chuck the whole thing. We need to build up that kind of community together that withstands the challenges of the world and offers hope, a sense of belonging, and is steadfast in a world of constant change, without changing steadfastness into conformity.  We need to live out our theology in a way that shows hope, faith, and love, that also does not require conformity, rigidity and condemnation of others. 

Unfortunate Assumptions

By Rev. Mindi

“You have to be in community in order to experience God.”

“You have to be in a covenantal relationship in order for true community to be upheld.”

“To be spiritual but not religious is just a cop-out.”

“We welcome everyone who welcomes everyone.”

All four of these sayings I have heard uttered by more than one progressive, liberal, open and affirming, postmodern pastor or church leader.  All four of these sayings, sadly, make assumptions that actually keep people from wanting to go to church, which I am sure is not their intent.

“You have to be in community in order to experience God.”

When we look at the Bible, we do find many examples of community: the early house churches, the Disciples, the communities of the Hebrews after the exile, Israel and Judah, the twelve Tribes, the band of wanderers in the desert—even going back to Jacob’s family, or Abraham and Sarah and their entourage—there was a community.  However, the statement implies usually that those outside of the church seeking spirituality are not in a community. All too often, we assume someone is not part of an existing community. And I’m not talking a church or Bible study. I meet people all the time who are in community, even spiritual community, without necessarily setting foot into a church or existing church community: book groups, 12-step programs, coffee shop gatherings, the local diner where the locals gather, the Farmer’s markets, the picket lines—there are plenty of places where community happens that has spiritual components. I’ve been part of many communities outside of church where prayer, questioning, meditating, social action, concern and care take place. We need to strip away the assumptions that those outside of the church are not in community already.

“You have to be in a covenantal relationship in order for true community to be upheld.”

What that sounds like to someone who doesn’t use covenantal language on a daily basis (and trust me, fewer in the church actually do than we think they do, but I digress…) is that there is some sort of contract, some sort of membership clause that makes everything official, and if you don’t sign on the dotted line, it’s not official. I’ve had pastors argue this with me all the time. We need to unpack what it means to be in a covenantal relationship. When God makes a covenant with the people of Israel in the wilderness, God does not require them all to sign a contract. Rather, they make an affirmation of faith in the community, together. I’ve seen some churches do this better—a yearly affirmation of the covenant, rather than a one-time membership course and public declaration of membership.  But the assumption is again that people on the outside of the church aren’t in a covenantal relationship, or that those who visit church but haven’t joined aren’t ready for that kind of commitment. They may be ready for that commitment, but don’t want to join through an outdated “you’re in the club” membership system that too many of our churches use.

And there’s also the assumption that some kind of commitment needs to be made verbally or in writing. More and more often, I am meeting couples who are choosing not to get married, or choosing to wait to get married. Like it or not, this is happening more often.  There is a culture shift about what that kind of covenantal relationship means. For some, it is a way of not making such a deep commitment without serious thought and time to be sure this is what they want. For others, they don’t have the same need for themselves to make a legal, binding, contractual commitment—they see their relationship commitments differently. We need to understand this cultural shift, because it also applies to whether or not people want to join a church or any other organized way of being in spiritual community.  While I still uphold the tradition of covenantal relationship in the church, I also understand that others do not have the same need for making a commitment in the same way to an organization—they prefer to be in the group when their heart is in it, and to move on when it is no longer living up to what it claimed to be or fulfilling their needs. 

This attitude is not new—how many members are on your roles who never come to church?  Just because we may claim that covenantal relationship is key for true spiritual community doesn’t mean we’ve been particularly good at it ourselves.  We may need to reexamine what we mean by all of this commitment business anyway.

“To be spiritual but not religious is just a cop-out.”

Our saying this publically is not going to get those who feel spiritual but not religious to engage in any kind of conversation with those who claim to be religious. While you might roll your eyes at the “spiritual but not religious” claim, you’re not doing anything to invite those who feel that way into a conversation.  What we might do is ask them what it means to be spiritual for them, and if there are spiritual practices they engage in. Make a few friends who are spiritual but not religious. In my time as a pastor, I have found them to be my very best friends—people who understand my faith but don’t want to be part of organized religion. They are the ones I can confide in, turn to with my own questions and wonderings. And sometimes they see that we on the religious side can be spiritual, too.  And you might just find that SBNR folks do gather together in their own communities, or come together at prayer vigils, book groups, and other such gatherings.

“We welcome everyone who welcomes everyone.”

In other words, we welcome those who think and look like us. Yup. I’ve heard this from so many liberal/progressive leaders over the years who don’t seem to hear what they are saying. There is no discussion, there is no room for dialogue. And I’m not talking about only welcoming people who disagree with me, but also welcoming people who have been abused and wounded by the church. They may not be the most welcoming people. They may not ever feel comfortable setting foot inside a church. In the SBNR discussion, one thing that gets overlooked is just how many people have been hurt by the church in general. So many of my friends who claim SBNR grew up in a church where they were taught to be ashamed of who they were, where they were made to feel guilty for choices they made as a teenager, who experienced the loss of trust of a leader, who were the victim of gossip and lies in the church.  I know one experience where a child’s parents were divorced in the church, and the gossip and backstabbing that happened in the life of the congregation discussing her parent’s divorce has made her adamant to never set foot in such a place again.

So what do we do?

For one, I think we have to stop speaking such assumptions. I think as church leaders, we need to become more involved in the community around us, specifically finding who and where the SBNR folks are around us. Secondly, we have to stop the public judging. Third, we need to simply stop making assumptions about why people don’t go to church, because those assumptions are what drive every single program designed to reach the “unchurched,” every single change that a congregation makes that is not something they would normally do but in hopes that it might bring in younger people who don’t go to church.  Those changes and programs do nothing but burn us out even more in the long run.  Fourth, we have to have vision.  And that vision has to include the very real possibility that church as we know it, church the way we grew up with it, isn’t going to exist in the next generation.

This is not easy. But I think the stripping away of our assumptions is the first step towards moving forward in this new world as the people of God, followers of Jesus, Christians. If church truly is a people, as the old song says, and not the building, the steeple, the resting place, the programs, the worship service, the coffee hour, the youth group, etc., then we must go and be with the people, and we must listen and learn from them. In order to do that, we must let go of our assumptions: about what people are looking for, about why they don’t come to church, and also, the main assumption that we know better than they do. Because if we did know better, we wouldn’t be in this place, would we?

Rethinking Routine

By Rev. Mindi

As a mom of a child with special needs, I understand the importance of routine, stability, and predictability. It’s comfortable, it’s familiar, and it’s simply what one knows. But over time, even the routine needs a little mixing up now and then, because what ends up happening is not the routine you first established, but a second routine that emerges. This second routine creeps up on you out of nowhere. One day you have activities scheduled out—a good healthy mix of physical play, one-on-one learning, quiet time, therapies, etc. You bring in music and reading and flashcards and the latest technology. But over time, quiet time turns into putting-on-a-DVD-so-mom-can-take-a-shower, music time turns into putting-on-Steve-Songs-because-it-makes-my-child-happy, physical play is going-to-the-park-and-running-while-mom-checks-her-emails-on-her-phone, and so on and so forth. There are some things still established: regular appointments with therapists, regular play groups, etc, but other things fall through the cracks over time. The second routine emerges accidentally, without thought, and while it resembles the intentions of the first, it is not the first.

This is what I believe happens often in our churches.  The first routine that was established: the worship service, the education programs, the outreach opportunities, the fellowship events—these were all great ideas and worked well at the time. But over time, the routine has slipped away into finding a program for our kids and filling teaching positions with volunteers that are reluctant to step up, dropping away from outreach unless someone can come up with a new idea, reducing fellowship to coffee hour and doing the same order of worship that we’ve done for the past forty years.  At times we manage to shake up one thing—try moving the Sunday school hour, try contemporary music instead of traditional hymns—but we haven’t looked over the whole routine.

When I realize as a parent we’ve gone into the second routine, I try to go back to the beginning—not to the first routine, but I try to go back and see where things started to slip up and look at the root of routine change. It may be that the first routine set up was too rigid, too structured. It may be that what once worked for my son (such as a particular CD) has become boring and he won’t pay attention any longer, or a certain system for communication isn’t working any longer. We have to rethink how we do that part of the routine, and in rethinking that part, I may have to rethink the whole thing.

As a church, it may be it’s time to rethink the whole thing. Is worship really the central part of who we are? Do we still count attendance by how many are sitting in the pews on Sunday, or do we think of all the people we’ve reached out to during the week (which also leads us to ask the question, should be concerned about numbers anyway)?  What is our goal, our purpose, our vision? If it is to share the message of God’s love through Jesus Christ, is that best done through a worship service on a Sunday morning, or through volunteering time at a food pantry on Saturday afternoon? Does Christian education have to take place on a weekly basis in classrooms or Children’s Church, or can it take place alongside parents and other adults volunteering, or at a playground, or at a coffee shop (or ice-cream parlor—I used to do my Baptism classes at a local frozen yogurt shop!)

What is your church’s routine? What was its original intention, and what does it look like now? Is it time to rethink your routine?

Becoming Unchurched

By Rev. Mindi

When I was in seminary, I remember attending denominational events for seminarians and new pastors in which we talked about the “unchurched.”  Questions were asked in workshops and seminars about how we were going to reach the unchurched. Friends were being called to positions such as Ministers of Outreach whose primarily function was to seek the unchurched and somehow get them to come to their church.

Though the language may have changed over the past fifteen years, from referring to those who don’t go to church as the “unchurched” to the “nones,” the terms we use are all based on old, and often false, assumptions. We assume that the “unchurched” have never been to church and just don’t know what it is we have to offer.  We assume that they don’t know anything about the Bible, God, Jesus, or church.  We assume that the “nones” have no spiritual or religious background and were not brought up with any traditions and that they are out there, lost, and in need of what we have to offer.  Notice that there are an awful lot of assumptions made in this paragraph about the church, and the last, big assumption, is that we have what others are looking for. 

Okay, wait, there is one more assumption: we assume that in bringing people from the outside in we are doing the best thing for them: to make them “churched.”

We want others to conform to us. We know what’s best, because we’ve been doing it this way since before we can remember.  This is how you are Christian, this is how you do church.  If you are on the outside, you are not churched.

It’s time to become unchurched.  It’s time to remove the divisions, that somehow those on the inside have it right. Becoming unchurched doesn’t mean that those outside have it right, either, but rather we are removing the distinction of inside vs. outside, churched vs. unchurched, spiritual vs. religious.  It is time to take off the lens of church that we see everything through.  It’s time for us to do our part to break away from the old assumptions held deep within the walls of the concept of church.  It’s also time for us to stop assuming that people who aren’t in church or affiliated with a local institution of faith are not spiritual, are not religious, and are lacking something in their life.  Maybe it’s less about what we have to offer and more about what we can learn from listening to each other.

Let us become unchurched.  Let us listen to other’s stories and share our stories.  Let us focus not on bringing others in but on breaking down divisions.  It’s not about closing doors and emptying buildings as much as it is removing the barriers that have been put in place.  For there is no Jew or Greek, nor slave nor free, neither male nor female; neither is there church or unchurched, spiritual or religious, haves or nones; for all are one in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Get Out of the Office

By Rev. Mindi

In my last two pastoral positions, I was an office worker, or I worked from home once my son was born.  I did emails, prepared sermons, counseled members, met with people and did most of my work from the church office. 

This time, I wanted to be different. I wanted to get out of the office, which is in an out of the way place on the church property, and away from the church building, which is in a residential area behind a school and not something most people see and notice.  I wanted to read and do work in a public space, where I might engage in some pleasant conversation that might lead to an invitation to my church.

I’m in the Seattle area, so of course the coffee shop seemed the natural place to go (If you want coffee in Seattle, all you have to do is point and walk a block or two in that direction).  I have friends who love doing their work in the local coffee shop, and they know their baristas by name.  But the coffee shop I went to was too sterile for conversation—people were engaged clicking away on their Macbooks or reading magazines I had never heard of.  The few that were talking were in private conversations or talking about gossipy news.  I was able to get work done, but I was not able to engage others in conversation.  Staff were always busy behind the bar and working the drive-through.  Plus, I saw I wasn’t the only one with the idea.  One time, a man was sitting at his table with a very large Bible open, which he pretended to read and then scan around the coffee shop hoping someone would engage him in a conversation. I’m quite certain that had I attempted to, I would have heard more about the Bible’s “plan for my life,” and would not have actually had a theological discussion but a one-sided lecture.

Then I heard a story of a pastor who would set up in a local bakery once a week in the morning with a sign reading “The Pastor is In” (think Lucy from Peanuts).  I thought the bakery in my town might be more of a suitable location.  After indulging in chocolate croissants and cookies, though, I also found it hard to engage others in conversations.  Again, staff were always busy, often having to work in the back to prepare the delicious food that was served, and most customers did not stay long.  I still go there now and then, but more for a publically private place to read and work.

Then I found the diner. The hole-in-the-wall, greasy spoon dive place.  Where the booth seats squish down and do not spring back up.  Where there are bowls of creamer and bottles of Tabasco sauce on every table.  I brought in a couple of books to read and some light work to do. The hostess begins a conversation about what her horoscope says. The waitress asks me about what I am reading.  Every time I am in there, I see the regulars—lots of seniors who come for a cup of coffee and conversation, some truck drivers and other workers who gather for breakfast every morning, and some young couples, just off the night shift, getting in a good meal before they go to bed.  It’s a mix of class and culture, with a table of women in scarves and dress shoes next to a table with two fresh-out-of-high school workers on a breakfast date with paint on their pants.  Across from me sits Jack, who must be in his 80’s and has old faded tattoos on his arms, who comes every Tuesday to meet his Navy buddy, and at the next table another man also introduces himself as Jack, and he is a local pastor.

In one hour of having breakfast and reading at this diner, I made more ministry connections and new relationships than I had in the first four months of my ministry here.

It’s important to get out of the office.  While there may still be some who expect their pastor to be in the office, most understand that we need to be out in the community.  Sure, there are times we need to buckle down and get some things done in the office, but more and more, we need to be out and about, making connections and engaging in conversation, getting to know the people. 

Find your space in the community: a diner, a bakery, a coffee shop, a pub or an ice cream parlor (another friend I know holds office hours at an ice cream shop!).  Find the place where people more naturally engage in conversations with strangers. Get to know the regulars and the staff. Bring some work, but understand that by being a customer there, you are engaged in ministry already.  Enjoy it!

A Tale for Our Time

I want to tell a story about Haggai. It’s pretty easy to feel sorry for Haggai, one of the minorest of the minor prophets. Kind of pitiful, really, when you set it next to the majesty of Isaiah, or the sheer bone-crushing length of Jeremiah. Haggai operates as the twelfth man on the J.V. canonical squad, just kind of sitting at the end of the bench, hoping one day to get into the game—you know, a blow-out or something.

On the other hand, Haggai does provide an interesting snapshot of where things stood for the people of Judah after returning from exile in Babylon—interesting in the sense that there might be something this story of resettlement for our times.

Remember what had happened to God’s children? The cream of the crop of the land of Judah had been force-marched across the fertile crescent almost seventy years before, finding themselves twiddling their thumbs in refugee camps over in Babylon.

Then came along Cyrus, king of Persia, who not only defeated Babylon and freed the exiles to return home, he also gave them government contracts to rebuild the temple that had been bull-dozed when the Babylonians first put on war paint.

As you may recall, dear reader, the weary exiles returned home to Jerusalem, only to find that things had not gone particularly well for the old hometown during their extended absence. The fields and vineyards were overgrown, the animals scattered and wild. Some of the wells had gone dry. Jerusalem looked like the set of some sort of apocalyptic Mad Max movie, all dirty and ruined.

So the returning exiles had their work cut out for them. They began the arduous process of clearing the land and scraping the dust off of three quarters of a century of neglect.

Eventually, things evened out a little for those who’d returned. They got the big clock at city hall running again; trash pick-up had resumed a limited, once-weekly collection on Tuesdays; they were talking about starting classes back up at the elementary school in the fall; and one guy was even organizing a t-ball league.

Things weren’t normal by any stretch, but they were looking up a little.

Then somebody brought up the temple. When were they going to get started rebuilding the temple?

“Well, that’s a pretty big job. We shouldn’t rush into a job like that.”

“Yeah, but we already cashed the check.”

“True. But we don’t even have enough food yet to feed our kids. Things are pretty tight right now. Why don’t we hold off building the Lord’s house until we’re a little better financially situated?”

After some wrangling over whether it was appropriate to start rebuilding the temple before they had even gotten everyone’s cable hooked back up, the people of Judah decided—with considerable prompting from Haggai—that they’d put it off long enough; they’d better get cracking on that temple. So they started the work.

However, problems arose. Some of the folks who’d been around to see the old temple in all its splendor, started telling the folks who were breaking a sweat rebuilding the new temple that this current enterprise was but a pale imitation, a mere shadow of the old temple.

Solomon’s temple, the one the Babylonians knocked down, was spectacular with all that gold and sparkly stuff, all that imported Indiana limestone and Italian marble. But this one, the new one, wasn’t nearly as impressive. This time around they had to settle for plywood and tar paper, getting all the fixtures on clearance from Home Depot, buying a few pieces at a time as the money came in.

The new temple didn’t appear very inspiring to those who’d witnessed the former glory of God’s house. And they weren’t timid about shuffling out to the worksite and regaling those who were busy sawing and hammering with tales of the beauty with which God had once blessed them.

And the folks who were new on the scene, who’d never witnessed the beauty of the old temple started to grumble among themselves: “What do these people expect? Look at the material we’ve got to work with. It’s not our fault we only have plywood. We’re working our tails off, and look at the thanks we get. We didn’t get ourselves in this mess. This is what we inherited.”

The danger facing them as they rebuild is twofold: First, obviously, the danger for the folks who’d been around to see the former glory was that they would persist in the notion that nothing could live up to their memories, that no matter what God was doing in the present, it could never measure up to what they remembered. God’s best work was already in the past—which is a tough place for God’s best work to be.

The second danger, though, wasn’t quite so obvious. The second danger was that those who hadn’t seen the glory of the old temple, those who were now trying to live faithfully in less than optimum circumstances would begin to despair, thinking that they weren’t doing something important because they were working with scrap lumber instead of the high end stuff. And this danger was perhaps even more perilous, in that those whom God had called to take courage and work might begin to believe that God was unable to use the new unpromising circumstances for as great an end as the former glory. Such thinking was corrosive just to the extent that it took all the focus off of God and God’s ability to secure the future and put it squarely on the backs of those who were feeling defeated by their situation.

Despair is the ultimate sin for God’s people—because it says that circumstances are such that even God can’t make a difference.

Children of God are children of hope, who believe that if God is sovereign, God’s desires will ultimately come to fruition. We can question it and argue with it, but we had best never give up on it.

It would be easy to chuck it all and say, “You know what, we’re tired. We’ve been dealt a crappy hand. If God really loved us, God wouldn’t have let things get so run down and out of control. As it stands now, though, the best we can hope for is an occasional moral victory and the knowledge that a long, long time ago we were a part of something great.”

But here’s the thing: God’s best work is never a distant and ungraspable memory. God’s vision is planted in hope—not in some gauzy idealism, and certainly not in a gilded scrapbook of past glories.

God’s people trust that there’s a place for them in the future not because of their ability to secure it, but because God has promised to be there with them.

Sometimes old structures get torn down. Sometimes they wear out. Sometimes they just don’t serve the same purpose they used to serve and need to be replaced.

What the structure looks like is largely irrelevant, since what is being worked out is God’s vision of the future and not a monument to our own glorious past.

The Hyphenateds

Check out The Hyphenateds, our new sponsor from Chalice Press, edited by [D]mergent contributor, Phil Snider.

Can emergence Christianity help established denominations understand that radical transformation means more than a new worship service?  When hearing complaints that church is irrelevant, can mainliners understand that reclaiming relevancy means more than changing meeting locations from church buildings to coffeeshops?  Yes, say the writers of The Hyphenateds, as they show you how they've done it.

(From the back cover)

Includes contributions from such heavyweights in emergence Christianity as:

Click on this link and buy the dang book!

Change by any other name...

Missional, Transformational and Emergent. Lions, Tigers and Bears oh my! There are so many words swirling around the change we see in Christ’s Church. It can be overwhelming. It can be confusing. It can also be to easily narrowed into the type of change we personally have prayed for. “I want less structure! I want change!!” “I want to serve more people outside the church! I want change!” “I want to do Bible study in a bar! I want change!” “I want to sit in a bean bag and play x-box while I worship! I want change!”

Too often emergent Christianity is narrowed down to the concept of change. Many who identify themselves as emergent define it based on the change they want to see. Emergent Christianity, despite what many have claimed, is not a liberal movement. Emergent Christianity, despite what others have claimed, is not an evangelical movement. While issues such as gender identification, poverty and the global water crisis are often discussed by emergent Christians there is not an orthodox emergent answer. While living out the example of Jesus Christ in daily life is a common emergent theme, there is no emergent need to convert the world.

In reality, we are just barely aware of a movement that is historical, cyclical and not yet done with us. In reality, we are grasping at words to name and claim the Holy Spirit’s movement among us. In reality, there is no name or adjective to fully describe that which we can never fully know and at present barely grasp.

What I have come to know is that the generations before me passed on the faith they received in the most effective way they knew. Like so many other aspects of our society in the past 100 years, an institution was built to preserve and protect the faith. Now, we have to unwrap what we have received and use it, then figure out the best way to pass it on. We can’t, like my uncle at Christmas, get so caught up in preserving the wrapping paper that we disrespect or altogether miss the gift. Faith is a precious gift and those who have received it carry a great burden to share it.

Not only do we share our faith, we live in it. We live in faith – unafraid of change. We live in faith – trusting that God has better answers than us. We live in faith – assuming that justice is worth the effort. We live in faith – demanding love and offering grace. We live in faith – knowing that one day we will know and be known beyond words.