missional spirituality

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?

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?

What We Need Is Adventure

Growing up, Goonies was one of my favorite movies.

It had lots of things a 10 year old boy loved - pirate ships, skeletons, sparkling jewels, funny characters, ice cream, booby traps, mean villains, and water slides.

I realize that Goonies isn't the greatest example of cinema. Sure, it has a sense of fun and a handful of good moments, but the sets look like a cheap theme park ride, the acting is over the top, and Cyndi Lauper rarely makes my iTunes playlist.

But in my book, Goonies got something dead on - the dream of many of us youngsters who longed for a good, old fashioned adventure.

That’s the only reason Goonies has persisted in my imagination. I didn’t just like the film - I wanted that film to be my story. I wanted to discover buried treasure in my backyard.

As a youngster, I spent many of my summers exploring the beauty of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, an amazing stretch of rocky wilderness in southwest Oklahoma that was haunted by the legend of folks like mobster Al Capone and outlaw Jesse James. Somewhere and somehow, there had to be gold in those ancient hills. Those short expeditions were a break from the mundane and an entryway into a world of mystery and excitement. Even as a father and minister, that longing and thirst for adventure has stayed with me.

Rabbi Edwin Friedman, in his work about family systems theory, once taught that “the only way to get a system unstuck is to go on an adventure”.

Whether it is a political system that lacks any sense of moral imagination, a church that seems to bear more witness to judgmentalism than good news, an organization that fails to protect the very people it is designed to serve, or a declining congregation that gets keeps rearranging the deck chairs rather than engage in deep discernment about their calling, there are stuck systems all around us.

I often get to speak with members of other congregations and enjoy finding out what God is up to in their community. In particular, I love to hear what is the most unique about their community. The vast majority of the time, I hear how people love their church because it is warm and caring, like a “family”. I don’t often hear about daring ministry projects, unique efforts to reach out to their neighborhood, exciting initiatives to love others, or ongoing transformation through spiritual disciplines. I know how valuable warm and caring community is for each of us, but a church without a thirst for adventure is likely stuck.

Not all churches are like this. Sometimes, adventure happens without our choosing, whether it is a devastating hurricane that forces a congregation to turn its building into a mission center, the loss of a beloved pastor that moves a community to reexamine its vision, or a grim financial report that suggests only a few months of “normal” ministry remain before bills go unpaid.

But for the rest of us, our stuck system won’t change until someone (or a bunch of someones) does something radical, more than adding a worship service, hiring a new pastor, changing the style of music, or building a website. We have to have an adventure. As Helland and Hjalmarson say in Missional Spirituality, we long to be “freed to venture out on reconnaissance with Christ on mission in the wide open expanse of God’s cathedral in creation and culture.”

Or as Jesus so often does, we have to embrace the unexpected, rounding up people from the streets, “both good and bad”, for God’s banquet (Matthew 22:10), going two by two with nothing but the clothes on our back and a spring in our step (Luke 10:1), venturing into the rough part of town to be transformed by folks different than us (Mark 7:25), or partying with people of ill repute (Luke 5:27-32).

I suppose this huge theme of adventure that runs throughout the Bible, starting with Abram’s call to go to a distant land and continuing through the Great Commission and launch of the early church, continues to feed and prick the imagination of that 10 year old Goonie inside of me.

No, there may not be buried gold in my backyard, but there is an epic story unfolding all around, the work of Creator, Son, and Spirit reclaiming, renewing, and making whole.

May we join that adventure, and in the words of Shane Claiborne in Jesus for President, “live the contagious love of God.”

Priesthood of All Believers

Some of my deepest rooted religious ideas come from my childhood. I bet this is true of most of us. It’s why I’ve had experienced ministry mentors tell me that if a church has a strong children program, those kids will likely come back to church later in life because of those warm feelings brought on by cotton ball sheep, fuzzy shepherds, and tender safety. I think my mentors have partly been right – the lessons about faith that we receive from our family, neighbors, mentors, and tradition help set the stage for how many of us come to understand and realize the importance of the spiritual journey, for better and for worse. In my case, my parents were intentional about the gifts they had to offer to others. They opened their home to kids who were in trouble and needed a temporary shelter through the local juvenile protection system. They spent their lives caring for babies, mothers, parents, and children in hospitals and schools. They lived their faith beyond Sunday mornings.

On the other hand, their understandings of religious traditions also shaped me. I can remember conversations with both of my parents about other denominations. Why are we different? Why do we do communion every week? Why don’t we go to the Baptist or Methodist church? I got plenty of answers, one to two sentences in length, which seemed to indicate, at least to my young inquisitive mind, that we went to church where we did because we had it right.

For example, the Baptists voted on new members. If the congregation didn’t like you, you didn’t get in. We believe everyone is welcome, so we don’t do that.

Or you can’t take communion at the Catholic church, because they don’t believe you really are a Christian. Our communion table is open, like Jesus would have wanted it.

The Mormons think it is okay for one husband to have many wives, and they believe in things that are not in the Bible. We believe only in the Bible and only in normal relationships.

The Methodists don’t own their building. Scandalous! And yes, if you were wondering, we do own our own building, not some overbearing denominational institution.

Our Stone-Campbell tradition had it mostly right, according to my family, though the fact that we Disciples had a general office and trappings of a denomination was borderline heresy (as my parents came out of an independent Christian background).

One of the values espoused over and over again in our tradition was the democratic process behind everything we did. It’s the priesthood of all believers! We all have a responsibility to lead our church! We all have a say in the process! We all can shape the direction that we feel God is calling us to go! We all get a vote!

When asked by a friend or stranger about my denomination, in quick bullet points, I usually include our “democratic flatness” near the top of the list as what defines us and what makes us so relevant today.

But despite how ingrained that idea is in my Stone-Campbell marinated experience, I have discovered plenty of holes in its fuzzy ideals over time.

In their book, Missional Spirituality, Roger Helland and Leonard Hjalmarson suggest that the priesthood of all believers may in fact have nothing to do with a democratic/flat church. Did Jesus hold a vote when he sent out his disciples, two by two, across Galilee or commission them to go to the ends of the earth? Since when does a democratic vote decide the will of God? Aren’t there times when a missional community must do what is unpopular in order to be faithful to the gospel they proclaim and the God that sends them?

The flatness and democratic process of a congregation can be a gift, but it puts us no clearer to better hearing or following the call of God than any other tradition.

The democratic process is also not the grand idea it once was. Like other systems, democracy can get stuck. Democracy can exclude voices. Democracy does not make a government or institution immune to bad leadership or poor decisions.

Likewise, our churches may claim to honor the priesthood of all believers and still live out a deep divide between clergy and laity. And as much as I like being treated like an expert in all things theological, it can become an idol that prevents me from learning, growing, and responding to God. Imagine instead a community where every member takes their call as minister and missionary seriously, in their workplace, home, neighborhood, and church.

As we seek then to be faithful Christians and communities in our world, it can no longer be about perfecting our system or tradition. Sure, the tools and resources we have at our disposal make a difference. The way we as communities make decisions, include and empower voices, and come to common direction is important.  Just as the early church did (looking at you, Jerusalem Council), we will have to deliberate and choose a course into an uncertain future.

I am grateful for what I inherited. I am thankful for my tradition’s rich resources, strengths, and challenges. I am honored to have received such treasures that help guide me in my faith. I plan to pass many of them on to my children and those I have the privilege to mentor.

But I recognize that those gifts are not always relevant in the ways I think. Like every generation that has come before, I honor them but also seek to discover richer meaning, to cast my net into the deep, to discover the precious jewels hidden in a field of weeds. It is not easy.

Helland and Hjalmarson insist that a priesthood of all believers, when practiced, ”suggests a missional adventure for entire congregations who have direct access to God and who mediate God to their local communities.”

Not quite the cotton ball sheep and fuzzy shepherds some people may be expecting - but something worth living into and passing on to future generations all the same.