This post was written by a young woman in the congregation I serve. This is why the church is here. Supporting and encouraging this type of vocational ministry is our purpose in God’s mission. Read and be inspired.
This post was written by a young woman in the congregation I serve. This is why the church is here. Supporting and encouraging this type of vocational ministry is our purpose in God’s mission. Read and be inspired.
It’s time to quit making disciples. At least, in the way we’ve recently come to understand it. In Matthew 28, Jesus does tell us to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Let’s be honest, we’ve historically took that to mean “converting” them, getting them to believe what “we” believe, getting them to come to church and become one of us. Is that what Jesus really meant? Or is that our own cultural self-righteousness and judgment oozing forth–quite in contrast to pretty much everything Jesus said and did.
The church’s typical understanding of making disciples sounds more like the Borg–”We will assimilate you. Resistance is futile.”
Instead, I think, Jesus lived and spoke about loving people. It would seem that authentic, caring relationships do that best. If we approach the people of the world with an attitude of changing them, “saving” them, or making them somehow better if they believe a certain (my) way, we are in opposition to the gospel that Jesus was all about. And in opposition to him.
Loving them, however, looks much different. Typical discipleship-making serves the church, loving others serves the world. Consider the difference in the following statements, and see which way best conveys your approach to making disciples.
–Get them to serve the church, or get the church to serve them.
–Change their beliefs, or see God already present in their beliefs.
–Point out the errors of their lack of faith, or listen authentically while they point out the errors in yours.
–Preach to them, or get to know them.
–Continue to refer to them as “them,” or recognize the ever-blurring lines between those who serve with a church community and those who serve in other ways.
–See boundaries between who’s in and who’s out, or see all people as created in the image of a God who loves all of us.
So, how’d you do? See the difference? Something to think about, anyway.
It seems to me that following Jesus means going where he goes. With his love. For all. Unconditionally. Period.
I’ve long been a proponent of the benefits of a church community. Nowhere else can you receive identity, support, encouragement, and companionship on the journey of life. Those who gather in the name of Jesus, regardless of belief about him, are influenced by him. Therefore, I’ve said and written, as we follow him and are changed by him, we reflect the kingdom forgiveness, grace, compassion, and justice he brought into this world.
So we teach/learn, pray, sing, hang out, and serve–all in the name of Christ. We’ve got the corner on that stuff. These activities reflect our Christianity and discipleship to a world that needs to see it, hear it, experience it. Recognizing this, we can be somewhat comfortable in our attempts to follow Jesus into the world. Our identity as Christians is clarified, honed, and practiced “in church,” and then lived “in the world.”
All this unique to us, the church.
Until now. A recent movement with its genesis in the UK is Atheist Mega-churches. These weekly gatherings are gaining ground in the US, and provide a communal, supportive, beneficial gathering with music, inspiring speakers, and more. All without God or religion. And it seems to be catching on.
And I wonder, for many of today’s church-goers, if this could be just what we’re looking for. All the benefits of church and religion without all the problematic things like “Jesus” getting in the way. No, I’m serious about this.
Let’s face it, the biggest problem for the church is Jesus. Not only are there all the difficult demands like “love your enemies,” and “give to everyone who asks,” which most Christians conveniently opt out of, but there’s the whole divinity/resurrection thing. Not to mention bloody internal battles about such basics as baptism, Holy Communion, the Bible, worship, and ordination.
Many Christians, with nowhere else to go, endure the difficulties of arguing about Jesus and church doctrine. They put up with the inconvenience of feeling guilty about not being generous enough, holding grudges against evil-doers, questioning their faith, and inadequate biblical interpretation. They also are forced to put up with hypocricy, self-righteousness, and power struggles that pervade the local church. All this for the sake of being part of a church community. Apparently, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages for many, as churches continue to permeate the American landscape.
The atheists have provided a solution for many. Individual beliefs don’t matter, doctrine doesn’t enter in, and there are no difficult mandates regarding accountability of behavior. If you are confused about whether the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus, represents the presence of Christ, or somewhere in between, the atheist churches welcome you. If you disagree about your church’s stand on homosexuality, the atheist churches probably don’t care. If Jesus’ concern for the poor and the marginalized cause you too much discomfort, the atheist churches aren’t likely to hold you to an impossible standard of generosity.
So I say, go get ‘em, atheists! For all those in Christian churches who have difficulty with Jesus, thank you for providing us with a community, a sense of unemcumbered belonging, and freedom to feel like church without the difficulties. You are the new American Civil Religion, where we can maintain our individual preferences without having to be challenged by a mysterious higher authority. You allow us to make sense of the world on our own terms without concern over ancient doctrine or empty faith practices. We can follow our own agendas, free from guilt, compromise, or accountability. Community without the cross. Encouragement without the need for forgiveness. An inspiring presentation without preaching. Great music without praise.
I’m not kidding when I say it sounds like what many current church-goers are wanting. Thank you, atheist churches, for giving us a viable community experience with the ability to opt out of Jesus–and all the messiness and conflict he brings. There are days when I’d think about being part of you, when being a Christian is just too hard. There are days when I doubt, when I am helpless, when I am frustrated, when I am in dire need of forgiveness. You provide a way out: by side-stepping all that religious piety.
Perhaps I might join you one day. But for now, I guess I’ll stick with the hope recorded by a line of people seeking meaning and purpose for thousands of years. I’ll endure the mystery of contemplating something that is outside my ability to understand. I’ll trust in some mysterious author of ultimate goodness, who steps into my life and my world with mercy and unconditional love. I’ll face the presence of evil with the hope that it is not the final word for the world. I’ll take the grace that comes in the experience of deep-down, soul-wrenching forgiveness. And I’ll do it all as part of a messy, broken, hypocritical, sometimes judgmental community that doesn’t always represent Jesus very well. I guess, when I’m honest with myself, I fit there better.
“Because it’s always been the bedrock of worship.” “Because it’s scriptural.” “Because it’s trustworthy.” “Because we’ve been using it for centuries.” “Because if we don’t use it, we’ll descend into chaos.”
These are some of the answers I found when asking the question, “Why do we use a liturgy for our Sunday corporate worship?” Some answers were really helpful, such as, “Liturgy passes on the faith,” and, “Liturgy connects us to something larger than ourselves.” Others were less so, like, “We’ve always done it that way,” or, “It’s what makes us Lutheran.” But underneath all the answers–helpful or not–it seems to me that liturgy, as rich and full as it is, doesn’t do anything that can’t be done by other means equally well. Many things pass on the faith–some much better than liturgy. Actually mentoring a young person in the faith comes to mind. And there are lots of things that tie us to the church catholic–scripture kind of being an obvious one.
So, “Why liturgy?”
I have a nasty habit of questioning things that sometimes seem to be taken for granted. “In the Lutheran tradition, we talk a lot about trusting the priesthood of all believers. So why should I wear a clerical collar when it’s origins are all about separating clergy from laity?” (Scotland, 17th century). “Why is some level of understanding a pre-requisite to receiving Holy Communion? I don’t understand gravity, but it still works.” “Since the efficacy of the Eucharist rests in God alone (again, Lutheran tradition), why does an ordained clergy-person need to preside?” It gets me into trouble sometimes, but launches some great conversations. I keep asking and studying and listening until I am satisfied with an answer that seems to work scripturally, missionally and contextually–at least for now. If I can’t discern a legitimate answer, I tend to do what makes sense scripturally, missionally, and contextually. Just so, “Why liturgy?”
Here’s where I am today: the great ordo around which liturgy is framed (gathering, word, meal, sending) makes sense because it is real life. We gather at the breakfast table, talk about our plans for the day, eat our pancakes, and send each other off to work/school. Then we do it again at work/school, then we do it again when we get home at night. There are innumerable “mini-ordos” that happen throughout the day as well, e.g., water-cooler conversations, meetings, homework study groups, and so on.
If liturgy is to be part of our daily discipleship, it should reflect daily life. The ordo does that. But it needs to go both ways. Our daily life needs to inform our liturgy as well. Together, our Sunday gathering and our daily living need to form a continuum that relates one to the other at a deep and significant level. When there is a disconnect between liturgy and life, Sunday corporate worship becomes irrelevant (anyone every hear that criticism before?). When the order or form of liturgy takes on a life of its own apart from Monday-Saturday, that liturgy has failed. It serves only to separate God from our lives instead of reveal God in the real rhythm of daily living. Unfortunately, too many of us have come to revere (or even idolize) the comfort of classic liturgy for its own sake.
So what would liturgy look like if informed by daily life? How about using the language of daily life as our liturgy. Try this on for size.
In my tradition, the “Gathering” of the ordo includes an invocation, kyrie, gloria patri, and prayer. What if the invocation served to simply ask God to be with us? Like a prayer we could say when we first get out of bed Monday morning, “Bless our day, Holy God. Help us serve you and follow you today.”
“Kyrie,” Greek for “Lord” (and short for Kyrie Eleison, or “Lord, have mercy”), could allow for individuals to bring into the assembly those things causing them anxiety, stress, or concern. Those who wish could say out loud, “Today I’m really worried about [the health of my Aunt Sylvia]. Lord, have mercy.” And the assembly responds, “Christ, have mercy.” A real-life Kyrie.
In the same way, a “Gloria” could follow a similar pattern, “Today, I’m grateful for [my homeless friend Henry moving into his first apartment]. Glory to God!” And the assembly responds, “Glory to God in the highest!” Get the picture?
In the “Word” portion of the ordo, centered around scripture, there is a gospel acclamation, a fanfare revealing the importance of the gospel being read among us. How about everyone shouting (or singing), “Get ready, everyone! Jesus is entering our conversation! Let’s listen!” Be sure to invite households to do something similar at home when they are planning their day ahead.
During the “Meal” part of worship, we often utilize a Great Thanksgiving, including the words of institution over the bread and wine. What if, as the Great Thanksgiving, we together prayed, “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed. Amen!” What would happen at home the next time children prayed that table prayer?
The “Sending” at the end of liturgy includes a benediction and a dismissal. Can we consider as our sending making a bunch of peanutbutter and jelly sandwiches to distribute to the homeless?
If we step back a bit, acknowledge the false idol many of us have regarding a particular form of liturgy, we can use this ancient corporate worship framework to actually help us live as disciples, joining God in the world during the week. Liturgy informed by daily life according to the rhythm of the ordo: gathering, word, meal, sending.
But, again, this has to go both ways. If life informs liturgy, liturgy must also inform life. What would daily life look like when informed by, rather than separated from, liturgy?
We could wake up and ask for God to be with us today (invocation). We could automatically plead for Jesus to have mercy when we are anxious (kyrie). We could thank God for working in the world without even thinking about it (gloria patri). We could recognize the presence of Jesus in our everyday conversations (gospel acclamation). We could be aware of God’s grace and presence in the school cafeteria (great thanksgiving). We could plan, as a household, a day to volunteer at a local homeless shelter (sending), or together collect a portion of our allowance/salary to help eradicate malaria (offering).
When our Sunday corporate worship gatherings become part of the purpose of the church rather than a separate, sacred silo that cannot be touched, liturgy is doing what it was intended to do. When the lines between our secular, daily lives and our sacred, Sunday morning time become blurred, liturgy is serving the church well. Alleluia, Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia, Alleluia!
More and more, denominations are coming to the realization that starting new ministries is the most effective way to reach more people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. And in this era of “nones” and declining church participation across the board, reaching more people is in higher demand than ever. Regardless of what we may say to the contrary, church is still primarily a numbers game, and bigger certainly wins.
They may be right.
But for good or for ill, as a pastor, that isn’t what I’m called to do. Instead of forming a new ministry with no weirdness outside of my own, I’m called to deal with decades of previous, overlapping, compounded, criss-crossing weirdnesses in addition to my own. Instead of energy put into mission in the world, I’m called to deal with energy around preserving what has been. Instead of shaping a ministry from the outset to deal with the realities of 21st century culture, I’m called to deal with memories of church in the 1970s and 80s. Although I have never been a new mission developer, I have overseen that work, admired (envied?) those with the gifts to do it, and have an understanding of the intensity of work involved. I have celebrated with new mission developers who, in part because of their exhaustive work and dedication, have seen their ministries explode in growth. I’ve wept with new mission developers who, despite their exhaustive work and dedication, had to shut down their ministries before they ever got off the ground. By and large, developing new ministries is a pretty effective way to reach new people we haven’t been able to reach before, e.g., ethnic groups, LGBTQ folks, and Millenials. It’s exciting, invigorating, and exhausting!
And yet, I’m called to reach those people through the ministries of existing congregations. I don’t have the gifts, the aptitude, or the extroversion to start a new congregation. Since I believe with all my being that the church–whether 3 minutes old or 3 centuries–is created and called by God to proclaim and participate in God’s mission in the world, I have a choice to make. I can work to preserve and maintain an institutional congregation or I can attempt the impossible–revitalize one so it can embrace the LGBTQ community in the neighborhood, the Spanish-speaking in the neighborhood, and a new generation of those largely uninterested in anything the institutional church has to say in the neighborhood.
For me there is no real choice. I’ve spent almost 30 years feeling like Don Quijote, jousting at windmills. Many say the work that I (and any number of others) are trying to do is a waste of time, since it is so rarely successful. Sometimes I agree. I can’t begin to count the number of sleepless nights I’ve spent because my congregations have chosen status quo over mission. My wife still experiences post-traumatic stress at congregational meetings because of the hateful and anti-Christian comments that have been said about her husband over the years. I believe I could fill a lake with tears spilled over people we’ve hurt in our stubborness, neighbors we’ve neglected in our obtuseness, Spirit-given opportunities we’ve missed because of our institutionalization. My children have seen the dark under-belly of the church, and have no illusions about how badly we can behave. I’ve yelled at God until I’m hoarse, begging for some tangible sign of success or mission advancement.
Is revitalizing an existing, institutional congregation impossible? I will never believe that. The God who raised Jesus from the dead is the same God of these status quo fortresses. Some of these institutions will die in the next generation. Others will manage to hang on. And a very few will be moved by the Holy Spirit to die to themselves and be raised again as communities boldly overflowing with mercy and grace in their surrounding neighborhoods. A very few.
And I want desperately to be part of one of those. I want to be in a faith community that uses its tradition and heritage as tools to be fully present in a broken world. I want to see the lights come on in the eyes of an 80-year-old guardian of the institutional church when he passes on his great faith to a teenager in baggy pants with his belt below his butt. I long for this.
And I’ve seen it.
Glory to God, I’ve been part of it. It doesn’t happen every day. It doesn’t get the glitz and the press of new mission starts. But I get glimpses of the reign of God present in the institutional church. I’ve seen a martriarch who fought me over every little change put her arms around a single mother and hold her. I’ve seen a stoic defender of the status quo mist up when serving holy communion to a disheveled stranger. I’ve watched as neighborhood children suddenly have advocates, as a quiet young mother prays with a sick and elderly woman, as a child actually shouts for joy after taking bread and wine with the rest of her congregation. I’ve been part of a church community where the mentally ill are accepted and the differently abled are treasured. I’ve been partners with the most disagreeable alligators who serve food in a homeless shelter every week, offering dignity and grace in addition to a plate of food and a warm bed.
You have too.
Honestly, there probably won’t be a lot of existing, institutional congregations that will look like exciting new mission starts. And some of our existing congregations need to recognize that their days are coming to an end. But God will not be denied. Resurrection is real. Perhaps our success isn’t to be measured in bunches of shiny new participants but in the straggly and disheartened ones who are touched by Christ’s love through us but will never step into our old buildings. Maybe the conflicts over carpet and wallpaper don’t overshadow the foundational love and compassion that are often shown in the neighborhood but even more often go unnoticed.
And, perhaps most importantly, we battered, bloodied, and sometimes exhausted clergy-types need to support one another in seeing God at work in our midst. Attempting to be part of the revitalization of an exising church is lonely, difficult, and endless work. The rewards are few and far between. The glamour is usually non-existent. So perhaps it would be a good idea to call a pastor in your neighborhood and take them to lunch. Listen and find ways to affirm what they are doing. Ask them to do the same for you. God’s reign is happening all around us–let’s make sure we don’t miss it due to weariness or discouragement from attempting an impossible job.
Finally, some in the church are getting it. People aren’t looking for a church with great youth programs, good education, relevant preaching, historic liturgy, or a solid band. No, they aren’t looking for a church that will support them in difficult times. And, no, they arent looking for a place from which to be buried. The fact is, they aren’t looking for a church at all. Period. That is all.
Once we get that, we are free to be an authentic church, in relationship with our neighborhoods. From there, we are best equipped to participate in, and reveal, the reign of God. It all starts, however, with listening–something at which the church has been historically bad.
Check out this outstanding blog post by Laura Everett to get a clue about how different the future of the church is looking if we are faithful.
Listen, listen, listen to those outside the church. People don’t want a church. At least not the way we’re presenting it. Perhaps not at all. Can we live with that? What does that mean for how we see ourselves? For our measurements of success? For our relationships with our neighbors?
I suspect you are reading this post for one of three reasons. One, that you follow this blog and find it interesting enough to continue. Second, that you read the title of this post and were hoping for more reasonable arguments you can use against your persistent church-going friends. Or, third, you know I like to play with the titles of my blog posts and were curious where I might be going. Well, you decide as you go along.
Our culture (U.S. American) is changing, and quickly. The Generation that was going to save the world–the Baby Boomers–is now retiring without having saved much. GenX is now middle aged and, by many accounts, hasn’t lived up to the hype. The Millennials are now the hope for the future, with a Generation Z (sometimes referred to as the “Homeland Generation”) being born right on their heels.
Lots of research is being done in church circles as to how to “reach” the Millennials. Some of it is helpful–especially when it comes from those who are of that generation. And some of it is unintentionally humorous, especially when it comes from Boomers who are struggling to make sense of people so different than they are. Millennials are not coming in droves into our churches, and with good reason. Our churches are not for them.
I am a late Boomer myself, so I’m part of those struggling to present excitingly good news to people who aren’t hearing it that way. My generation is now famous in the church for “seeker worship,” “entertainment evangelism,” and “safe anonymity.” Come and watch, keep to yourself, and see if there’s enough in worship to hold you. The generations above me, the Silent Generation and the Builders, put up with this–but not happily. They’ve had their own struggles with church.
The point that has often been made from generation to generation is that “the church’s worship isn’t relevant.” Pardon my cynicism, but it’s kinda trendy now to talk about being “spiritual but not religious,” and to avoid the church because it is “judgmental, hypocritical, narrow-minded.” Or tout new ways the church can look, e.g., “emergent church,” “ethnic-specific ministry,” “age-specific ministry.” It’s not uncommon now to even refer to the church as the source of all manner of evil. I’m not disagreeing, I’ll just deal with that in a different post. The point being that we struggle so deeply to connect to our culture to our worship (or theother way around) that we lose our anchor in the storm, i.e., the church’s purpose.
The other side of that involves churches who claim the high road of continuing the way they have been “doing church” for decades and expecting those who aren’t inside the church to connect to liturgy. Again, cynicism, but sorry; 17th century hymns and chants don’t automatically reverberate in the hearts of those not brought up with them (or even some who were).
It seems to me that we keep struggling to help the church meet every new generation in worship. What will they like? What will appeal to them? How can we get them to come? How can we convince them that what we’re doing in worship is really appealing? And so, in our desperation to be relevant, we’ve missed the point of being church. We’re still focusing on getting those outside to come “in,” even though our purpose has always been getting those inside to go out.
So how about if, instead of starting with worship as the focal point, we began with what God is doing in the world. Instead of discussing which form, style, emphasis, music, ritual, tradition, or volume of worship was better, we discussed how our worship connected those present with God’s mission? This is dangerous talk, because if we take this seriously, the church becomes less about “me,” or more about “the world.” My agenda and preference for worship style won’t be what decides how we worship. Those who control what happens on the inside of the church won’t get their (our) way. If our emphasis is on connecting worship with God’s missional activity, we don’t pick songs and hymns based on what those who come every week prefer.
For many congregations, this is scandalous at best, and a declaration of war at worst.
So, typically, my congregation is stepping in to this quagmire. This is one of our summer projects. We have had two forms of worship for about 13 years, and although there have been real benefits (including an expression of the gift of diversity), one negative outcome has been a container to hold a divided congregation. “My” worship vs. “your” worship, and never the ‘twain shall meet. For us, our disunity has affected our vision and ability to support one another in missional movement forward. So we are stripping down worship and starting over. We will pack everyone into one worship service each Sunday to express the reality that we are unified in Christ with one purpose. Our first week will be bare-bones, deliberately not appealing to “early” worshipers or “late”worshipers, but a simple service with (gasp!) no music at all. Based somewhat on congregational input, it will evolve over the summer (music will be added the second week–whew!) but the emphasis will deliberately be on unity in purpose. We exist not for ourselves but to be part of what God is doing in the world.
Worship should never have become the barometer for measuring a successful church. If we want to measure worship, it needs to be how what we do corporately on Sunday connects people to God’s missional activity around us. The church is not for me. No, it is for (and has always been for) the sake of the world. And that includes worship.
Since we are unclear as to what worship will look like at the end of the summer, I would value input and conversation around what the intertwining of God’s mission in the world with Sunday worship looks like for you. I believe we would all benefit.
The Church as a whole is bemoaning its inability to keep — much less attract — ”Millenials,” those born between 1980 and 2000 (plus or minus). Basically, this means teens and young adults. Guest blogger Pastor Brigette Weier points out some of the hard-to-hear reasons for this generational gap and what the “typical,” i.e., Baby Boomer, congregation can do to turn this around. If the gospel of Christ proclaimed by the church is for all people, the Church of the Baby Boomers has some changing to do. For more about Pastor Brigette’s cross-generational ministry, see her web site at http://faithformationjourneys.org.
On Sunday evening, I worshiped and ate with Pastor Zach Parris and the young Millennials of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) Campus Ministry at the University of Colorado. I had brought two of my high school youth, one of whom will be attending CU in the fall. We listened to guitar music, heard the scripture read, listened to a pretty darn good sermon, heard words of love and forgiveness, shared in the bread and the wine, as well as pizza, salad, cookies and soda. It was the last such gathering of the semester and five young adults in the group who were graduating. Through tears and laughter they reminisced about what it meant to be part of this small, but impactful group. They had traveled on service trips together, braved snow and cold to hand cookies out to fellow students studying for finals, gathered for meals, teased one another, and prayed for each other. This is not a large ministry. At a major university that serves tens of thousands of students, only about 8-10 consistently gather in the basement of Grace Lutheran Church in Boulder each week. It’s such a breathtakingly beautiful and authentic community that I can’t help but to wonder why isn’t this room packed to the ceiling with young adults?
I began to reflect on how different this “worship” experience is from what we in the “traditional” congregations offer for worship. There was casual conversation, interaction, REAL FOOD, authentic emotion, and integration of daily life with this sacred time set apart. Many youth (my own teenagers, as well as youth in my congregation) probably would not say that these are experiences that they have in their Sunday morning experience where adults lead worship (except the acolytes–confirmand rite of passage, you know), adults preach, adults administer the sacraments, adults shuttle them upstairs (or downstairs) for age segregated “education,” and most of the morning is spent being told to sit and listen and to act a certain way. No wonder by the time they are seniors in high school looking at going away to college, the last thing they will consider is where to go to church on a Sunday morning. We have trained them to not be too engaged in their own faith and that church is not really for them.
And then consider that when these young people do graduate from college, the norm in today’s economic reality is to move back home for a period of time with mom and dad–therefore back to the home congregation. So for the small percentage that does participate in four-or-so years of active engagement and involvement in campus ministry (that is not “to” them or “for” them but BY them), the church that they grew up with will indeed be inauthentic, irrelevant and not desirable.
How should experiences in campus ministry inform what congregations offer this generation? How can all generations be truly integrated on a Sunday morning? I believe that it is possible for our congregations and for our Church to take a cue from these young adults who faithfully gather in Boulder, CO at 5:11 p.m. every Sunday evening. We need to consider what it is to be affirming and authentic community that builds everyone up so that no one is excluded or felt to be on the outside. While I appreciate and am grateful for the work that some of my colleagues do around creating a space to welcome back those who have become disenfranchised from the Church for one reason or another (what I call “recovery ministry”), I can’t help but to think-what if they were never disenfranchised to begin with? What if they felt that this Church with her message of eternal love, radical inclusivity and abundant grace and forgiveness from an ever present God was always for them, by them and with them? What if we as a people of God really decided to live this out? What if we declared that there would no longer be a need for “recovery ministry” because all people would experience church as a real home-safe, freeing and full of unconditional love? For me, it would be the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.
Like everyone else in the country, I’m angry, confused, sad, frustrated, and grieving. The evil revealed in Boston this week cuts deeply. I was born in Boston and have family there. I’ve been in contact with several of them and they are overwhelmed in the throes of this tragedy.
How many other parts of the U.S. have undergone similar experiences? I live in the Denver metropolitan area, and know this terror and anger firsthand. April 20, 1999 is forever etched in our hearts as we went through the shock of a massacre at Columbine High School—the same school district where my children were enrolled then. Then less than a year ago—July 20, 2012—a deranged young man enters a movie theater in another nearby suburb of Denver and opens fire, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others. Oh, yes, the emotions are powerful.
Inevitably, religious zealots appear on this Boston scene of horror and chaos. Some come with further hatred, but they are more readily dismissed. More difficult are the naïve religious zealots who talk of forgiveness. Really? Forgiveness for brutally killing 8-year-old Martin Richard who was guilty only of eating an ice-cream cone and watching the marathon with his family. Forgiveness for murdering Lingzi Lu, a 23-year-old mathematics and statistics graduate student from China? Forgiveness for cruelly slaying Krystle Campbell, who was planning to celebrate her 30th birthday with her family in a couple of weeks? Forgiveness for the countless injuries—both physical and emotional? Forgiveness for callously hurling so many into the depths of fear, grief, and turmoil? Forgiveness for changing the lives of those who lost limbs, who were first to respond and help, who lived in abject terror as their city was locked down in martial law until a semblance of order could be restored?
Forgiveness? You’ve gotta be kidding. How can anyone realistically talk about forgiving that which is unforgiveable?
Which poses a bit of a dilemma for those of us in the church. Forgiveness is, in fact, the very cornerstone of our faith. It is our foundation, our identity; the core characteristic of the God that Jesus came to reveal in our broken world. We talk about the cross of Christ as the height of God’s commitment to forgiving the world. Granted, some talk about God’s forgiveness being conditional, based on one’s act of repentance and/or making a declaration of Jesus as savior. My “brand” of Christianity isn’t among those, however. I have preached with enthusiasm and vehemence that God’s forgiveness—like God’s love—is unconditional. It is simply who God is.
Now I, and others like me, have to again reconcile what we’ve been proclaiming with the reality of Boston. I find it less-than-compassionate to impose in Boston the extra burden of attempting forgiveness when the rawness of this tragedy still pains wounded hearts and limbs. So what can I say to those who take Christian faith seriously and—on top of everything else—now experience some sense of guilt for an inability to forgive the evil perpetrators of this horror?
Right now I say, “Don’t worry about it. God understands. God is as angry and as pained as you are. God is walking in the midst of the agony and the devastation with you. God holds you as you get through today.” I believe that is the Godliest thing to say and to do. Hold and comfort and walk with those who are hurting and trying to make any sense of what their lives now are. As long as it takes. With whatever it takes. Boston, we walk with you in your pain and in your grief.
And someday we’ll also walk with you in the difficult journey of forgiveness. Before you quit reading, it’s relevant to say that we’ve been misinformed about forgiveness. It doesn’t mean we pretend all’s well. It doesn’t mean we forget what has happened. It doesn’t mean we ignore the hurt and the grief and the loss we’ve experienced. The surviving perpetrator will never be our friend. We can feel angry, and in fact ought to. We can seek justice, and in fact ought to. Forgiveness doesn’t negate that, nor should it cause us to feel guilty for experiencing anger and justice. But it does mean that there is more than those feelings.
Forgiveness begins by recognizing that what has happened cannot be changed. There are those who’ve died, who’ve lost limbs, who have suffered loss. That is real. That is permanent. It is now part of our future from this day forward. Yes, anger is a necessary part of coming to terms with all that. Working to ensure those responsible are kept apart from society while attempting to keep such atrocities from happening again is what responsible people do. But nothing we do will ever change what happened this week in Boston.
I believe the hardest part of forgiveness (and the part that makes it divine—and therefore foreign to us) is the acceptance that God still loves those we hate. It is recognizing that the image of God is still in the other who has shown everything contrary to God in our midst. Those responsible for all this pain and terror in Boston were created by a God of love and life. That is hard to swallow. Accepting that is also not immediate. It is also not within our ability to choose. It is God’s work within us; and like so many things God does, it can take a long time.
I don’t think it’s helpful to be in a hurry to get there. God will work in us according to our own journey. That’s up to God. Where we fail isn’t in being angry or seeking justice and safety, it’s in clinging to our anger once God begins that work of moving us past it. Though the loss is permanent, the anger is not. Forgiveness means that we allow God to do what God does. It is God’s work in us; we do a disservice to those in Boston by suggesting they try to drum it up from within themselves.
A few weeks ago, I posted on this site that my congregation is no longer going to emphasize “welcoming.” Instead, we are going to emphasize “inviting.” This is a move from passivity to activity, and was to be done in keeping with God’s missional activity in our neighborhoods. Get the vision, theology, and definitions that are the foundation at: We-Will-No-Longer-be-a-Welcoming-Church. There, I wrote that we are making this change with three emphases. The first of those is Motivating-for-Invitation. The second emphasis is Inviting-in-Bite-Size-Chunks. This post is the third emphasis, “An Inviting Environment.”
It started with coffee. Very few worshipers were staying on Sunday to share a cup or a piece of cake or a slice of cantaloupe (we always have good treats!). Virtually no visitors in worship stuck around. Granted, our “coffee area” was less than conducive to invitation. It was pushed into an available corner back by the kitchen. Though visible from the worship area, it was small and not very accessible. If one person filled their cup and then began a conversation while still in front of the urn (because there was no other place to move), the coffee’s availability to anyone else was cut off. Because we have no narthex (lobby) area, this was really the least bad option for the placement of our sacramental coffee. Yet it obviously wasn’t working.
As our council talked through our “Invitation Initiative,” it became clear to us that our environment was far from invitation-friendly. Some changes in our worship/fellowship space would be required if all those people being invited were to feel welcomed.
Now I know this sounds like “welcoming” instead of “inviting.” And, in fact, that’s partially true. Bear in mind, we weren’t giving up on welcoming; we were just placing invitation as a significantly higher priority which would get our best energy and focus. Beyond just the “welcoming” aspect of our space, however, there was a genuine invitation issue around worship and the follow-up coffee and treats.
For us, relationships are everything. We believe that the Triune God is God-in-Relationship. We believe that as beings created in God’s image, we are relational people. We believe that authentic relationships in the broader community are the best way we can reveal the reign of God and participate in God’s missional activity. Relationships are key in our congregation’s statement of purpose. Therefore, this “coffee time” comes out of our core identity. It is here that we have a chance to share, to talk, to get to know new people, to laugh together, to strengthen relationships. It’s not the only way, but it is an important way. Our configuration wasn’t allowing this to happen. Invitation, particularly to the relational coffee urn, was being unintentionally discouraged. We needed a more invitational environment.
So we looked at our overall space and considered where the most invitational place for coffee et al would be. For us, it turned out to be in a large open area that was adjacent to our worship space. By adjacent, I actually mean included. Right up the right hand side. That would be fine, except for setting up coffee and the treat table toward the end of our first worship service each Sunday would be a bit distracting, to say the least.
Someone asked why don’t we reconfigure the worship space so that new coffee area would be in the back rather than along the side. That would be fine, but now we’ve got a back lighting issue from large windows there. Plus the projector and screen used for portions of worship would then be in the wrong place and not easily visible. Lots of other small issues kept emerging.
It was discouraging. These obstacles could have piled up and overwhelmed us. But instead, we took this as an opportunity to enhance our worship space, making it work better, be more inspiring, and be more attractive than before. With some imagination (and some unused memorial money) we have a much more attractive worship space and a much more invitational coffee space. The difference in the environment—physically, spiritually, and invitationally—was amazing.
On the Sunday morning when this was all unveiled, we pointed out that the change in environment also serves as a tangible reminder of our emphasis on invitation. The environment wasn’t changed just for you, it was also for those who aren’t here. Our environment is invitational for the neighborhood’s sake, so each of us could invite others more freely. Oh, and as long as you’ve invited them to worship, make sure you invite them to coffee, too.