Tag Archives: church

When Being Weird Is Good

WeirdChurchA review essay of “Weird Church: Welcome to the 21st Century, by Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon, (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2016).

A good bit of my reflecting time and my conversation time these days is taken up with trying to figure out a way into the very uncertain and ambiguous future of congregational ministry. So many cultural shifts have taken place over the past 25 years that the context in which the local congregation does its ministry is hardly recognizable compared to the context in which I entered parish ministry 29 years ago. There’s no time to waste in engaging the challenge of adapting the form, structures, and practices of parish ministry. I’m so grateful for colleagues, congregational leaders, and indeed, a whole congregation willing to enter into this uncharged territory with me.

As we embrace the conversation and try to figure things out, we are always looking for dialogue partners who can help inform our own hunches about what lies in the future. Yes, I believe they are really little more than hunches; no one has firm, well-shaped answers for what’s next.

I most recently found a worthy dialogue partner in the book Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century, by Beth Ann Estock, and Paul Nixon. I know that I’ve uncovered something useful when a book pushes my thoughts in multiple directions, and when I can’t wait to talk about what I’ve read with colleagues and other lay leaders.

Estock and Nixon begin their book with a brief explication of Spiral Dynamics, a theory of human bio/psycho/social evolution. The theory suggests that throughout human history the species has followed a particular pattern of change and growth in human and cultural development. In these opening decades of the 21st century we are witnessing a transition from the rigid rules of character and morality, through the secular organization of society for the sake of the individual, and into a values system that goes beyond the needs of the individual and begins to focus on the needs of the larger community. In part, they suggest, the convulsions the church is currently experiencing is because our model for ministry is still focused on the spiritual needs of the individual, and we have not until recently paid more than lip service to the communal work of caring for all people, issues of equality, consensus, reconciliation, and care for the planet. I’m not enough acquainted with Spiral Dynamics to make any evaluation of its pertinence to congregational ministry; however, I’m also not sure that one has to buy into the theory to find value in their analysis and provocations for thinking about ways to move forward in fruitful congregational ministry.

The first half of the book offers a brief explanation of seven shifts that the authors believe are essential if Christian congregation ministry is going to be viable and sustainable in the coming decades.

  1. Let go of our fears of decline as measured in the things the church under Christendom has measured — attendance, members, budgets. Move into the freedom of a hopeful future guided by the Spirit. Clearly this is an attitudinal shift more than a behavior shift.
  2. Shift the focus from seeing the congregation and the current members as the primary constituency for ministry and  move towards seeing the neighborhoods and other people gatherings that our members are a part of as the primary constituency and location for ministry.
  3. Give up the illusion that the society in which we live is a Christian society; the society in which we live is governed by economics and politics that are in contradiction to a Christian understanding of the world and human community. Instead, adopt the mindset of the early church of going into that world as subversives for the sake of God’s rule.
  4. Give up the mindset that views people as either in the church or out of the church. Rather begin to view all people as God’s people; the witness of the church is to accompany people in trying to make vibrant and living the relationship with God that they are already seeking and yearning for.
  5. Give up the notion that the ministry of the church is to give people the right knowledge about Christianity. Rather, our ministry is to draw people into a lively relationship with God which is more a matter of the heart than the head.
  6. Shift from trying to control how things work and develop through an institutional structure (the local church) and just start stuff and let it go, giving our work the permission and the freedom to grow organically in ways that we can’t predict.
  7. Shift our understanding of leadership from skillful managing of an institution to incarnational leaders who enter into relationship with others and mentor them to do the same.

Even as I write these down for this review, it strikes me that no one of them is unrelated to what I’ve come across before. Still, I found it helpful to have them stated clearly and succinctly. (I’d encourage taking a look at the book to get the full treatment of each of the shifts.) I’m interested in having the leaders of my congregation take a look at these chapters and engage in conversation of the implications for this little corner of God’s kingdom.

The second half of the book is a collection of 18 short examples of how congregations and ministries around the US have experimented with these various shifts. I’m grateful that the authors explicitly offered these examples not as blueprints for what any other congregation should do, rather as examples of the creativity of faith communities seeking to do God’s work in the world and respond to the cultural changes going on around us. I can’t wait to lift these up with my leaders and see what creativity it might spark among us.

Here again is a hopeful treatment of the church today, a book that isn’t forecasting the complete demise of Christian congregations in the US. I also do not think that’s where we’re headed. With the authors of Weird Church, I, too, am tremendously hopeful for what will emerge and tremendously excited to be part of both conversation and action as we seek to do God’s work in the world in our very specific corner of the kingdom.

In Praise of Church Being Church

GWOH worshipAbout that tricky, risky relationship between pastors and congregations? I often hear a tale of dysfunction, hurt, suspicion, betrayal. . . you get the idea.

I have a different story to tell.

When our granddaughter, Eliana was born on February 17, the elation at her birth quickly turned to uncertainty and concern. When our son first texted us with the message of her birth, he told us that she had been transferred to Lurie Children’s Hospital; there was something wrong with her skin. My immediate reaction was concern, but only mild. “Probably something minor that will be taken care of in a few days; she’ll be home soon.” That’s what I told myself. It wasn’t true. Eliana was born with epidermolysis bullosa, a rare and serious skin condition. Eliana died on April 16, a day shy of her 2 month birthday.

Those two months were filled with a range of emotions, uncertainty, heartache, exhaustion, anger, sadness. . . Through it all, the people I serve with at Faith Lutheran Church demonstrated to me what church is.

When I first announced to the congregation Eliana’s condition, and especially that it was serious and potentially life-threatening, I asked them to give Sheryl and me some space as we tried to process and come to some understanding and acceptance of what this all meant. While they were curious and wanted to know so much more, they honored that request. A few weeks later when I indicated that I was ready to talk about things, they reacted in such a caring way, offering kind words of support and  constant prayer. On the Sunday that I first announced Eliana’s condition, our retiring congregational president emailed me with words to this effect: “you take whatever time you need. Let go of little things; not everything needs to be done. And we will cover what has to be done that you can’t do.” We had a council retreat just 10 days after Eliana’s birth, and the council surprised me with a collection of gifts for my wife and me, for our son and daughter-in-law, and for Eliana. Our newly elected council president said to me in front of the whole council, “You need to know we have your back. This is an important time for you. Do what you need to do. We have your back.” (It brings tears to my eyes remembering that moment.) Through weeks of trying to be present at the hospital and also keep up with my work, members of the council provided gas cards, train tickets, gift cards for meals and coffee, cards, letters, notes, emails — so much that I can’t even remember it all.

And the staff that I work with? Simply amazing. Nearly daily, my co-workers stopped by the office with a hug, a kind word, a card or note, a Starbucks card, and the never-ending assurance that they were praying for me, for our family, and for Eliana. And they spoke her name to me. That became more important than I knew at the time. More than words and gestures of encouragement, they took over things that I normally do. We have two midweek bible classes and I usually teach at least one of them each week, often both of them. They completely took those over. They offered to do Sunday preaching. We were entering into a major discernment campaign, a project with which I intended to have close involvement. One of our staff members and a lay leader completely took over that planning. Those conversations have start this week, and what my colleagues in ministry have planned is bearing fruit in powerful and meaningful gatherings.

Eliana lived her entire life in the Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit at Lurie Children’s Hospital. I am not privy to what her medical bills were, but it must be extraordinarily expensive. A couple of staff members set up a Go Fund Me account so that people had a vehicle for helping Chris and Liz with their medical expenses. The people at Faith were generous beyond my imagination.

After Eliana died, it became clear that my relationship with the people of Faith was anything but superficial. People here grieved deeply with us. They cried with us, they shuddered with us at the death of an infant; they helped carry our sorrow, our sadness, and our anger.

What happened at the funeral was a moment full of light in the midst of deep darkness. Though my son is a pastor, he and our daughter-in-law asked that the funeral be held at Faith. We anticipated a large attendance, larger than his small congregation would have been able to host.  When the people of Faith got the news that we would be hosting the funeral, they went far beyond what I could have asked for or imagined. We had teams of ushers, communion servers, acolytes, greeters, altar guild servants, who made sure everything for the service was just right. Our music director recruited a choir and made sure the music was excellent. People were volunteering to help with the reception even before our funeral coordinator could send out the request. My staff colleagues took care of details to make sure I had time and energy to prepare for the service and be with my family.

And they showed up. For the funeral. Nearly four hundred people showed up for the funeral. It was a mix of people from the many relational circles of Eliana’s parents and grandparents, including people from the congregation that my son serves with. So many people from Faith came. It was our time together. It was our time to bear our burdens together, to sing together, to pray together, and to hear the word and promises of God together.

There are a thousand more things I could name.

I am by nature an independent person. For most of my life, when I have a problem, my default position is to solve it myself. Add to that the fact that I am a problem-solver and will help others solve their problems, even as I sometimes ignore my own. When I am hurting, it has been difficult for me to ask for help and difficult for me to receive care from others.

Somehow this was different. I don’t know that I explicitly asked for care from the congregation I serve with, but they gave it and I received it. The love that I believed they had for me as their pastor was demonstrated in such depth and concreteness that it has taken me by surprise. They have loved me. They have cared for me. They have carried my burdens and made them their own. They have shown me what it means to be church.

Something that I’m having a hard time putting a finger on has happened in our relationship. There is a strength and trust that is palpable. I am so grateful beyond my ability to express. I didn’t know that church could be this good or this meaningful or this sustaining.

I want the whole world to read this word of tribute: Dear People of Faith Lutheran Church, “I thank my God every time I remember you.”

Because Resurrection Is More Than a Metaphor

resurrection.jpgYesterday I posted this on my Facebook page: it seems to me that the challenge of preaching on Easter is to preach resurrection as something that God really did and still does without turning it into a metaphor for stuff that was going to happen anyway, with or without Christ’s resurrection.

Too often, I think I’ve missed the point in my Easter preaching. In 25 years of Easter preaching, I think I’ve preached a few of those Easter sermons where I talk about our own experience of resurrection.  Someone experiences a reconciliation in a relationship; it feels like a resurrection. Someone is told that they’re cancer-free; it feels like a resurrection. One year, we had come out of a pretty serous congregational conflict; Easter that year felt like resurrection, and I’m betting that’s what I preached. In those cases, I was using resurrection as a metaphor. In a sense, they were resurrections.  A metaphorical sense. I’m not denying God’s presence in those experiences, and I’m not even going to deny that God might have had something to do with them, though I’m less certain about that. Regardless, they aren’t the point of Christ’s resurrection. Those things would have happened whether Christ rose from the dead or not. And if Christ’s resurrection is the game-changer that the New Testament tells us it is, then it has be be more than a metaphor for the places in our lives where we experience rebirth.

In that great chapter that interprets the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15), Paul begins by simply stating that the resurrection happened, that it’s an historical fact. He doesn’t begin by explaining it, but by proclaiming it. He then goes on to say that Christ’s resurrection from the dead means that there will be a general resurrection from the dead; Christ is the first in a long line of those who will rise from the dead. But even that isn’t what Paul is getting at, I don’t think. It’s an aside; not unimportant, but not the point.

What lies closer to the center of what Paul is getting at is embedded in these words:  Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:24-27)

God’s work is on a trajectory. The kingdom is coming. The work is happening. God is working to foil the powers of evil and sin, to bind the powers, to lay low the authorities. Christ’s resurrection was the decisive turning point in the work of bringing all things to their fullness, to that restoration that God promises, the endgame to which all things are moving.

To do that God has made a people. That’s not our usual language to take about the fruit of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We’re much more likely to talk about personal salvation, of the implications of Christ’s resurrection for me personally. But I don’t think Christ’s work has ever been about personal salvation. It’s been about calling and creating a people.  It’s been about a body, a qahal, an ecclesia. It’s been about  forming a royal priesthood and a holy nation (not to be confused, fellow Americans, with a nation-state).

So, the connection of Christ’s resurrection to our own baptism is not that we have now been saved, it’s that we have now been joined to a body through whom God is working to bring redemption, healing, and reconciliation to all creation.

Here’s why I think it’s important. There’s enough bad stuff going on out there to make any reasonable person give up on resurrection and just let it be a metaphor for nice stuff that happens regardless of whether or not the tomb was empty on that first Easter morning. Truth is, I don’t guess that there is any more wrong with the world than there usually is when Eastertide rolls around. But it seems like it to me. I’ll own that. The bombings in Brussels aren’t anything new. But they are fresh and raw. This crazy circus that we call a presidential campaign has moved from the sublime to the ridiculous to the downright scary. My heart aches at the way we polarize and demonize each other and perpetuate structures of oppression. These are the front lines of the rulers and authorities and powers.

Most personally, for the last month our family has been trying to support each other and find light in our own darkness. Five weeks ago, our grandaughter, Eliana Frances was born; she’s a precious, beautiful little girl. Eliana was born with an extremely rare skin disorder, epidermolysis bullosa, and has been in the neonatal intensive care unit since her birth. EB is a very nasty disorder in which baby Eliana’s skin is deficient in the proteins that allow the layers of skin to adhere to one another. The doctors and nurses work tirelessly to manage her severe pain.

The resurrection of Jesus is not immediately going to change any of that stuff. The presidential campaign is what it’s going to be. Turning around the structures of oppression will take generations. ISIS isn’t going away and there will be more loss of life in terrorist incidents. And the resurrection of Jesus isn’t going to cure Eliana.

So, what does it mean? I think it means that in the midst of all the shit, in the damn middle of all the obvious signs of sin and brokenness and darkness and evil, God is at work. If the resurrection of Jesus was a game-changer, then I have to believe that in the same way that God was at work in Jesus’ death, so God is at work in the midst of the contrary bringing life in the midst of death. It’s a bit of a misnomer to say that death has been defeated; there’s too much of it hanging around to believe that. Paul reminds us that one day it will.

Here’s where we get at what I think is the heart of the game-changing action of God in Jesus’ resurrection. If God is at work in the middle of it all, then the body of Christ must be the incarnation of that work, a body called to live differently.  We are called, reborn, and empowered to be a people who live as if that defeat has already taken place. The powers and authorities are at work: anger, rage, oppression, vengeance, retaliation, fear. Those are the ways of death and they eat away at the human soul. They are the ways of death that God intended to put to rest in Christ’s resurrection. In it’s place a people was created who love without condition, who serve without counting the cost, who honor every human life as a brother or sister made in the image of God.

A people who have been raised from the dead. Not metaphorically. Literally.

Into the Streets

ethiopiancross.jpgIn my life and in my vocation, I am deeply committed to the Christian Church and what it stands for. I find deep meaning in the understanding of that a life with God comes to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I also find meaning in many of the rituals, symbols, and traditions of the Church.

I also stand as an insider looking out on a world that seems increasingly uninterested. It feels like being the proprietor of a shop that only sells winter clothing in the middle of May. I know what I have is useful, but no one seems very interested, at least not right now.

Recently my wife and I had lunch with a couple who recently retired and has spent a good portion of the last year traveling.   The wife grew up in a Jewish family; it sounds like she does not particularly practice her Jewish faith, nor her husband’s Christianity. She said, “I have not felt particularly drawn to Christianity.” With passion and intensity in their voices and a sparkle in their eyes they told us about a recent trip to Ethiopia. I wish you could have heard her describe their participation in the Epiphany celebration of the church in Ethiopia. Epiphany is perhaps the most important celebration in the Coptic Church, the time when they celebrate Christ’s birth. The celebration has the people dancing through the streets in procession to the church. The people are all dressed in white, many of them in robes; they carry crosses decorated with colorful fabric, and they twirl colorful umbrellas, part of their liturgical decoration. She told about how they were invited into the procession, joining with the Ethiopian Christians in their singing and dancing through the streets of the town; they were a bit of a novelty as the only white faces in the processional crowd. When they got to the church, she was hot and tired, and found a place to sit just outside the church door. One of the priests came and sat next to her and engaged in conversation, taking delight that she lived in the midwest, where he had spent time in theological training. She was dumbfounded that on this most important day of his religious year, a time when he clearly had many things to think about and do, he would take the time to engage in conversation with a stranger he would likely never see again.

As a token of their visit, she bought a cross pendant. She said, “I feel a little funny wearing a cross around my neck, but in that moment, I was drawn to Christianity.”  That Ethiopian Christian cross had become for her a sign of life, not as a generic religious symbol, but as a reminder of the warmth and hospitality she had experienced.

I find a pretty striking lesson for me in my own life as a Christian and as a pastor in the church. The theology, ritual, and symbol that I find so meaningful will not likely be meaningful to anyone outside the church unless and until they experience the love and grace of God embodied in the warmth and hospitality of people like me. Fewer and fewer of them are coming onto our turf to give us a chance to demonstrate that love and grace. The chances are slim that it will be through Epiphany celebrations that wind through the streets of our communities. But it will be important (dare I say essential?) that we find our own ways to get the Body out of the building and into the streets.

Of Lila, Love, and Misfits

lila.jpgBrian was one of the most interesting parishioners I have ever served. A blue collar guy in a community and congregation of the wealthy, Brian often turned heads. He’d come roaring through the parking lot on Sunday morning on his big Harley, black boots, black jeans, black leather jacket, long streaming blonde hair and beard. He’d park the Harley next to the wide portico leading to the entrance to the church, and before shutting the engine off, he’d give it one last twist of the accelerator, making sure the loud roar of the engine reverberated under the cover of the roof, startling those poor souls who somehow hadn’t noticed his arrival.

Years earlier, Brian had been on the street for a while, his life a mess as a result of alcohol and drug addiction. By the time I met him, he had found sobriety and was making a good living working in his father’s manufacturing business. He was an odd evangelist, but evangelist he was, telling everyone he knew — and often those he didn’t — about how Christ had turned his life around. He’d often bring new friends with him to church, sometimes guys, sometimes his new girlfriend.

When Kristy (not her real name) started coming with Brian, her presence turned a few heads. Her dresses were quite a bit shorter, her heels quite a bit taller, and her hair quite a bit more dazzling than what we were used to. Turns out Kristy was a dancer at a gentleman’s club (an oxymoron if ever there was one), and Brian was trying to rescue her from that life and get her a “real” job. She came with him pretty faithfully. I had a few conversations with them about church and Jesus and getting on the right track. Kristy decided she wanted to be baptized; I was never very sure whether it was something she really wanted to do or something Brian was pushing for her to do. I’m guessing it was some of both.

She showed up that morning in her Sunday best — actually her Saturday night best. Short skirt, tall heels and a top with a deep v-neck. It was quite a thing to have to decide where to have Kristy stand as she bent over the font to be baptized, a choice between having the congregation look up her skirt or down her sweater. Made me long for the old days of baptismal gowns. Regardless, it was a day of great joy and celebration. We didn’t do a lot of adult baptisms.  And we didn’t do a lot of baptisms where the contrast between the life behind and the baptismal life into which Kristy was being born was so sharp.

We didn’t see Kristy much longer after her baptism. After talk of marriage, Brian and Kristy suddenly broke up. Brian didn’t want to talk about it. I’m not sure what happened. She came a few weeks by herself and then nothing. When I asked, Brian told me she had moved back north, went home, he said. I’ve always wondered what happened to her. Did that short connection with the church mean anything, have any impact at all on what came later?

Kristy came to mind as I’ve been reflecting on Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel, Lila. Once again the story takes us back to Gilead, Iowa and to the characters we’ve already met in her previous two novels, Gilead and Home. In the first two novels, we encounter Lila as the young wife of the aging minister, John Ames. Now, we learn her story and the unlikely meeting and marriage of John and Lila.

Lila is born into a family on the very edge of survival in depression era middle America. She is taken from that family of neglect and abuse to be cared for by Doll, a loving and resourceful drifter. Doll is the only one she can trust, the only from whom she experiences love. They are virtually inseparable until Doll runs into trouble and lands in jail. Lila then has to fend for herself. While living in an abandoned shack on the edge of Gilead, she comes into contact with Rev. Ames, his church and the members of his church. What commences is an extraordinarily odd courtship and marriage. Only gradually does Lila come to know love; only gradually does she come to trust her husband and the church people around him. Constantly fearful of abandonment, she doesn’t even trust herself to stay, wondering when she will walk out the door with her baby and return to the hard life of a drifter.

Robinson captures so poignantly the cautious entry into the church by one who has learned to be suspicious of the church and church people. For those outside the church, and maybe especially for those on the edge of survival, the church can be a place to be afraid of, where those who desire to do good end up doing harm. There’s a scene when Doll temporarily leaves the loose group of itinerants, saddling them with one more mouth to feed. When they decide they can’t keep Lila, they abandon her on the steps of a church; there she is most afraid that church people will “steal” her away from Doll and that she will never again see the only one who has really cared for her, difficult though that life may be.

We get ringside seats into Lila’s struggle with the theology of exclusion so associated with the church. In particular, Lila simply can’t accept a God who would leave Doll out of heaven. Though she never got connected to the church and never was “saved,” it was Doll who saved her. We also get to see how Lila grows into the love of her husband and to some strange peace about her own part in the church. There is nothing fancy about their lives. Their love is deep, yet imperfect, hers seemingly tentative, as if that’s the only way she knows how to love. By the end, Lila seems to relax into the love of both her husband and her husband’s God.

Which brings me back to Kristy, to wondering what ever became of her. I know that wherever she is, she is still in God’s embrace. I just hope she has found a community that keeps on reminding her of that.

Save It for Monday

As I sat in a sticky booth at IHOP, talking with a pastoral colleague over pancakes and scrambled eggs, I heard a familiar story. A Sunday morning service just finished. Pastors standing at the door greeting parishioners. Some folks always have comments about the service, usually good, mostly generic. And then comes the occasional verbal hand grenade, set to detonate right there in the line out of church, just after the service.  In this case, my colleague had done the prayers of the church and had prayed for peace, for an end to the war in Afghanistan and Israel/Palestine, Syria, and other places around the world. And one of the congregants assailed him in what my colleague characterized as harsh language and a harsh tone of voice, “Why aren’t you praying for our troops? We’re working trying to bring democracy in places that have only known tyranny, and you’re praying for peace. Why don’t you try praying for. . .”

For now, I’m not interested in the substance of the comments. But I do have something to say about that kind of harsh criticism immediately after a service, even when the message has a modicum of truth.

Years ago, I heard a seasoned and highly respected pastor say at a workshop about building a cohesive church staff, “On Sunday everything is perfect. Not until Monday do you even think about addressing what went wrong or what could be improved.”

The truth that stands behind his sound bite is this: every professional church leader and every lay volunteer who is involved in Sunday morning worship pours his heart and soul into what he does. There is no professional detachment. It’s personal. What she does and what she says comes from a deep place of her own calling, her picture of God and how God has called her, and her best efforts at using her gifts and talents in God’s service. Because it comes from such a deep place and is expressive of something so closely tied to our very identity, and because we’ve worked hard and are just now taking a relaxing breath, any criticism, even if constructive, will likely be heard as a personal attack in the few minutes after a service. Those few moments are moments of vulnerability.

I have tried to follow my wise colleague’s principle in my own ministry with both staff and volunteers. In those moments immediately after the service, I try be effusive in sharing my gratitude for those who have contributed to Sunday morning. I try every week to thank my professional colleagues, trying to mention something specific they have done that I have appreciated. I have attempted to thank all the volunteers, from ushers to altar guild to lectors to assisting ministers to acolytes. “Thank you for your service” or “Thanks for sharing your gifts” or “I really appreciated the way you read that second lesson this morning.”

Because worship always involves human beings and always is messy and always includes mistakes and other distractions, it’s never perfect. So, there are always things to address that could be improved. And I always, I mean ALWAYS, refuse to even mention them on Sunday, but address them during the week that follows. When both staff and volunteers have had a chance to sleep on it and are a little more detached, they are much more able to hear criticism as constructive and not personal. We can acknowledge the good things they did. And we can talk much more calmly about what went wrong or what was a little weak and how to make it better next time.

So, if you are a person sitting in the pew Sunday after Sunday, and you have some thoughts about what went wrong or what could be improved, file it away. Don’t lose track of it. Make sure you make time to offer your feedback. Just don’t do it on Sunday. On the way out of the service, you have no idea what a world of good you will do even if all you can say is “Thank you for sharing your gifts today. I’m grateful for you.”