Tag Archives: religion

Want to Be Relevant? Quit Trying So Hard

Last week I finished a seven-week class on the history of Lutheranism for the members of the congregation I serve.  Admittedly, in seven weeks, we didn’t go into a lot of detail. Rather, we tried to establish the long narrative arc, the view from 20,000 feet.

To be honest, I’m not sure what possessed me. In people’s busy lives, who would come? I was certainly under no illusion that people would be knocking down the doors to learn about stuff that happened centuries ago. On the first night, I got there early, was setting things up, and kept wondering, what was I thinking? Who will come to this? Why would anyone be interested? I am, but so what?

Yet, over the course of teaching the class at three different times, over 50 people have attended. Astonishing. That’s way, way beyond what I expected.

Why’d they come? I’m not sure, except that it’s part of their story, and a part that most of them don’t know very much about. Most know the rudimentaries of Martin Luther; maybe Western Civ. classes do a decent job of situating the Protestant Reformation as a significant movement in European history. Most of us in the Lutheran tradition still observe Reformation Sunday; if nothing else, we know the 95 Theses and the castle door in Wittenberg and A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.  For most folks it doesn’t go very far beyond that. But they’re interested.

What most surprised me most was how engaged people were in the whats and whys and hows. Far more often than I expected, our treatment of highlights from the dustbin of church history led to fascinating conversations about life in the world and in the church today. One class used a conversation about the emerging church structure in the transition to Orthodoxy in the early 17th century to launch into a conversation about social media and the church. Don’t ask me how we got there. But of all the conversations about social media and the church — and I’ve had quite a few of them — this was one of the most interesting and stimulating.

I would never have thought about this class as an attempt to make the church relevant in contemporary culture. In fact, my gut told me I was going in the opposite direction. Yet  my impression is that people found it wonderfully and surprisingly relevant. Why? I’m still trying to figure that out.

I have some hunches. I’m wondering if relevance is one of those things that remains elusive as long as we are seeking it. That relevance is the by-product of something else, not a a goal that can be sought for its own sake. My son reminded me that relevance is related to meaning and we can’t impose meaning for people. They will find it on their own. We can provide context and information and a good setting for conversation. But meaning — that’s something each of us will find.

Furthermore, I’m going to try this out for a while:  relevance and meaning will come when leaders and congregations are interesting and interested,  engaged and engaging, and just plain foster a spirit of curiosity about this pretty danged awesome world God has placed us in. I don’t think every pastor ought to teach a class on the history of Lutheranism. If you’re not interested in it, don’t do it. But I am. I suspect that curiosity and my firm belief that our history does have something to say to our life together right now probably showed through. On the other hand, I’m not that interested in the intersection of religion and science. maybe you are. And if so, that interest and curiosity would, if I’m on target here, translate to a very relevant class for your parish.

Here’s what I’m suggesting as a working hypothesis: when the church accepts that gifts are given and assumes that they are to be used for the sake of God’s big thing in the world and takes action, then what we do will be relevant.

Why We Have To Be Political

As the passing days move us closer and closer to election day, the whole notion of politics and politicians becomes more and more distasteful. My last blog post was political. I tried to expand the definition of what it means to vote pro-life. While the response was overwhelmingly positive, some of the feedback took on a subtle apologetic tone for appreciating something so blatantly political. For instance, there was this Facebook comment from a wonderful 15-year old:  “I am not one to get into politics, but. . .”

We live in this culture where to be political is somehow seen as a character flaw or worse. “I’m a normal person; I wouldn’t be caught dead being political.” To admit to being political is almost like admitting to something seedy, something your mother warned you about.

I admit the sleaziness of what passes for politics; the demagoguery of far too many politicians give politics a bad name. Especially at this time in our national calendar, I think many people just want politics and politicians to go away. Last night The PBS News Hour aired a piece in which their reporters had spent some time interviewing citizens outside Lambeau Field in Green Bay right before the Sunday afternoon Packers game, Wisconsin being a closely contested state and all. Over and over, the response was a variation on the theme, “I just want this to be over.”

But I’d like to work on redeeming that word. See, political is not a four-letter word. My 15-year old respondent IS political because she cares about what happens in her community, in her country, and in her world. Anyone who cares at all has to be political.

A long time ago as a young pastor, I really did believe that I could remain apolitical. Separation of church and state and all that. Just preach the gospel and leave the politics to the pros.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand that our faith has to be lived out in the world and that necessitates that we be political. To be political is to care about the places where we live, our families, our churches, our neighborhoods, our towns and counties and states and country, wherever we are in community together. To be political is to care about the issues that matter, the policies being debated, the decisions that are being made, and how those decisions will impact not only our lives, but the lives of the most vulnerable and those who have no voice.  To be political means somehow acting on what we believe.

Politics, unfortunately, has been confused with partisanship. And the partisans among us too often descend to the sliminess of demagoguery. Partisanship is when I am more concerned about my own party winning than I am with the larger common good. Demagoguery is when I appeal to the basest emotions — fear and suspicion of the other — to get my own agenda pushed forward. Demagoguery will allow any means, including patent lies, to get a win in my column. (It’s been refreshing to see President Obama and Governor Christie eschew partisanship and demagoguery as they respond to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Now they’re being politicians in the best sense of the word.)

A month or so ago, over a thousand pastors ascended their pulpits and used their preaching as a platform to instruct the members of their congregations who they should vote for. That’s not being political, that’s being partisan. As a minister in the church, if I’m doing my job, I can’t help but be political, including the content of my preaching. But it’s not my job to tell people what to think on the issues that affect us or who they should vote for. It’s my job to encourage people to reflect on and pray about, to engage in conversation and action about how our faith informs those issues. It’s my job to encourage people to take their civic responsibilities seriously and not to check their faith at the door of the church as they leave on Sunday morning.

So, let’s identify partisanship and demagoguery where they exist, call it out, and reclaim the task of engaging our responsibility to be political. We care about our communities. We want to appeal to what’s good and right in our communal character. A pox on the name-calling and fear-mongering and all the tactics that appeal to what’s most base about the human animal. Let’s be political and be proud of it.

If there is any hope for a bright future for this nation, indeed for the entire world, that hope lies in people of faith taking seriously their call to engage the world.  In an informal conversation about mission, one of the bishops of our church was asked why it’s so important for congregations to be involved in evangelism. His response was wonderfully expansive and hopeful. “Because Jesus Christ working through the church is the only hope to save this broken creation.” And that’s precisely why we simply have to be political.