american christianity

Love Means Attending to What is Urgent: How the “Black Lives Matter” Movement Proclaims the Gospel of Jesus.

Everyone can probably agree that the heart of the gospel is about God’s love for creation, which overflows in us loving others. Love everyone, Jesus says: friends and enemies, rich and poor, people of all races, people of all sexual identities, immigrants and natural born, people of all religions, etc. We may not agree on what that looks like or how best to do that, but most would agree that love is at the heart of the gospel message.

One of our mistakes is assuming that love for one looks the same as love for all. Obviously this isn’t true. We are at different places and that must be taken into account. If your house is on fire, love dictates that it is more urgent to get firefighters to your house than to mine. That’s not saying my house is less important than yours, just that your situation is more urgent. Showing love for those with full stomachs may not mean giving them food. Yet for someone who is hungry, love requires providing them food. Love means attending to what is urgent.

Jesus makes this clear in (among many others) the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). All are given a day’s wage regardless of how long they worked. It’s not that those who worked all day are less important, it’s just that others need to eat today also. A day’s wage allows all to eat today. Those who worked all day complained because they believed they deserved more for working longer hours. And they actually do have a point. This pay scale isn’t “fair,” because it is favoring those who worked less. But the point Jesus makes is that love means attending to what is urgent.

Systemic racism in our culture reveals an urgent situation. Blacks in the US start at a different place than whites. Some might complain that the BLM movement isn’t “fair” because, they say, blacks deserve equal-to-but-not-more-than whites. But the house of African Americans is on fire. Love dictates that it is more urgent to get firefighters there. Love means attending to what is urgent. The situation of racism is urgent.

When parents of African American boys are forced to have “the conversation” in order to provide the best chance of safety when (not if) their sons are pulled over by police, the situation is urgent (see the NY Times op-doc, http://www.theconversationseries.org/).

When 80% of police stops in NYC were of blacks and Latinos and only 10% were of whites, the situation is urgent (this and the following statistics are cited and referenced at http://www.jbwtucker.com/ultimate-white-privilege-statistics/).

When blacks are 127% more likely to be frisked than whites in Los Angeles, even though they are 42% less likely to be found with a weapon, the situation is urgent.

When blacks aged 18-25 are less likely than whites to have use marijuana in the last 12 months, but are arrested at an astronomically higher rate than whites of the same age for possession, the situation is urgent.

When African American juveniles are 16% of the US population but are 28% of juvenile arrests, the situation is urgent.

When black men are nearly twice as likely to be arraigned on charges that carry a mandatory minimum, and are 20% more likely to be sentenced to prison that whites (and receive sentences 10% longer than whites for the same crimes), the situation is urgent.

When whites are 78% more likely to be accepted to the same university as equally qualified people of color, the situation is urgent.

When black students are 3.5 times more likely to be expelled from school than their white peers, the situation is urgent.

When a white male with a criminal record is 5% more likely to get a job than an equally qualified person of color with a clean record, the situation is urgent.

When a college-educated white American has an average net worth of $75,000 while a college-educated black American has an average net worth of less than $17,500, the situation is urgent.

When a black man makes $0.72 for every dollar a white man makes (which, by the way, is $0.06 less than a white woman makes), the situation is urgent.

When voter ID laws disenfranchise millions of blacks and Latinos while purportedly preventing a kind of voter fraud that does not even exist, the situation is urgent.

Contrary to much white privilege thinking, BLM isn’t saying “only” black lives matter, but that love means attending to what is urgent. There is an urgency in recognizing the evidence that (whether we want to admit it or not) black lives actually do not matter as much as white lives in our culture. There is an urgency in giving priority to the house that is on fire; love means attending to what is urgent. Just as we would proclaim the priority that the hungry be fed and that the homeless be sheltered, Jesus’ gospel teaching on love declares that black lives matter.

The BLM movement is loudly declaring the urgency of the racism situation in our culture. When the situation is urgent, love means attending to what is urgent. In Denver, Colorado, the Black Lives Matter 5280 chapter states their mission in part,

Black Lives Matter 5280 assists in building more loving and united Black communities while eliminating anti-Black violence and racism. . . . Our work is to cultivate communities of abundant joy where all Black people are emboldened and empowered to lead, love, heal, and thrive.   http://www.blacklivesmatter5280.com/

Love means attending to what is urgent. That’s how the wolf and the lamb can lie down together. That’s how the rough places are made smooth. That’s how all earn enough to eat today. As Jesus taught, this is the gospel. And it is good news. Black Lives Matter.

Categories: american christianity, Black Lives Matter, Church in Context, missional church, racism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Emerging Neighborhoods

Well worth the read, UMC Bishop Ken Carter writes an article making the point that neighborhoods are no longer what they used to be. It is rare that people gather in their geographical neighborhood as their source of community. Now, community happens through networking, which has become the new “third place” for community (the first two being home and work).

The church must pay attention to this reality if we are to develop trusting relationships within our “neighborhoods.” People have long since given up using church (or even church buildings) as a central community place. They do not feel safe doing so. I find this tragic, but true.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg, quoted in the same article by Bishop Carter, recognizes a meaningful and successful “third place” for experiencing community exhibits particular characteristics, some of which are quite lacking in many of our churches.

Oldenburg writes about these characteristics of an inclusive “third place” community:

. . . [T]here are no economic barriers to entrance; there is food and drink; the space is highly accessible; there are regulars, who are usually present, and newcomers, who are welcomed and received with ease.  It is also often the case that a third place has the quality of a neutral space, that the dominant mode of communication is conversation, and that the mood is playful.

Coffee shops have come to fill a geographical niche here, as churches (including Sunday mornings) fail to achieve many of these characteristics. Special interests and participation in particular causes create natural networks that serve to fill our need for community in non location-specific ways.

The point seems to be that as long as churches continue to exist primarily for themselves and their members, and until we create an environment in which all are included (newcomer and charter-member side by side), our inroads into our neighborhoods seem to be limited.

Categories: american christianity, Church in Transition, missional church | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

New Resource for Congregations!

TheNeighborhoodChurch.flyer

Categories: american christianity, Church in Context, Church in Transition, Institutional Church, kingdom of God, medium church, missional church, small church, suburban church | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Neighborhood Church: God’s Vision of Success”

My new book is available, and at a discount price! Retail is $13.00, but order now for only $10.40 at https://wipfandstock.com/store/The_Neighborhood_Church_Gods_Vision_of_Success
A great resource for congregations who wish to engage more fully in being part of the reign of God in their neighborhoods.

Categories: american christianity, Church in Context, Church in Transition, Evangelism, kingdom of God, Make Disciples, missional church, Revitalization | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Caving to Consumerism: Christian Calling or Corrupt Coercion?

I’m in a bit of a quandary, and I’m not sure how to resolve it—or even if there’s anything to be resolved. Many people look to the church for practical advice on daily life. What does the Bible say about how to keep my kids off drugs? What is God’s will for my spouse? How can the church make me a better person? I need a girl/boyfriend; does the Bible give any tips on how to find a good match?

From authentic life-obstacles to a truly selfish prosperity “gospel,” there are many congregations and denominations that provide answers to such dilemmas. And usually these answers follow a particular pattern: God wants you to have “x,” so if you do “y,” God will do “z,” whereby you end up with “x,” and life is good. Because I want a better marriage, children who are more polite, a higher paying job, an easier life, a healthier body, I can go to church and get the steps from God/the Bible. I can follow them and bam! I have what I want and God’s blessings to boot.

I consider this to be, in the words of Tommy Smothers, “El toro poo poo.” It is simply consumerism at its most base level. I will go to church for the primary purpose of getting something. If one church brand doesn’t give me what I think it should, I can switch to the next one. And I can simply keep moving around until I find a church brand that gives me what I’m looking for. And if I don’t find it in a church, I’ll look somewhere else. After all, it doesn’t matter what the “dispenser” looks like as long as my life gets better, right?

I believe that God, the Bible, and the church are bigger than that and desperately more important than that. I am also recognizing I’m in the minority, a minority that is getting ever smaller. Jesus, as I understand him, goes a completely different direction. The call of Christian disciples isn’t to provide religious blessings and recommendations for a better personal life. It is to be part of God’s work of redeeming and caring for all of creation. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8.35).

Now perhaps some good, practical counsel can help us do that with deeper wisdom and fewer distractions, but improving my own life situation cannot be an end unto itself—insofar as being a disciple of Jesus and a member of his church is concerned. We are to practice forgiveness, mercy, compassion, unconditional love, and grace and carry that into our Monday through Saturday world. We are to show the world what God’s love looks like. We are to reveal the presence of God in the world. We are to point to signs of the reign of God anywhere we recognize them. We are to teach and equip disciples to be part of God’s mission according to our particular contexts (though I think we have a lot to learn about context).

Yet there is a continual call for a consumer approach to church. Generally, people aren’t captivated by being part of a renewed world free of violence and injustice, where all are loved and valued. Rather, we become excited about solving personal problems and taking steps to make our own lives more fulfilling.

My quandary is whether or not there is room for consumerism in the church. Is it sticky enough to use as a connection to people, genuinely caring for their personal needs, and then offering a larger vision of God’s mission in the world?  Is that a manipulative bait-and-switch, or an authentic incarnational approach to mission? Or something else entirely?

What do you think?

Categories: american christianity, church growth, Church in Context, Institutional Church, kingdom of God, Make Disciples, missional church | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Confessions of a Violent Person

   I regret to inform the reader that I am a violent person. Let me be clear on this; I don’t hit anyone. I don’t own (and have rarely used) a gun or any other physical weapon. I haven’t been in a fist fight since 7th grade (which I lost most grievously). I am pretty much a pacifist in theory, though I’m the first to admit I’ve never been strongly tested on that. If it were up to me, I’d repeal the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the right to bear arms. And I am sickened by the ongoing shootings, stabbings, bombings and more that are so prevalent in our local and national news.
   And yet I am violent. Even deadly.
   As a participant in U.S. culture and society, I am also a participant in a culture of violence. My own non-violent actions and intentions cannot overcome the reality of my passive support of rampant violence in this country. Because I am part of a culture of violence, I am guilty of it by default.
   My cousin Mary, who is a vehement defender of gun ownership, reminds me that guns aren’t the problem, people who misuse them are. And she is right. Therefore the problem goes well beyond gun rights or gun legislation. It is deeper, and more deadly than that. You see, the problem is that we have normalized violence to the point that we simply accept it as part of our culture, even as part of our humanity.
   When two twelve-year-olds can stab a classmate 19 times and leave her for dead, when yet another college campus can be devastated by a troubled person with an assault rifle, when the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan can continue to claim victims, and we are no longer made physically ill, something very deep is broken. When the highest grossing video games include very realistic gunplay and slaughter, when among the highest acclaimed movies celebrate the violent vengeance of the righteous, and we shrug our shoulders and watch ourselves become more deeply immersed in them, our very souls are endangered. Our most popular professional sport, football, is based to some degree on violence–to the point that professional players often suffer long-term physical and mental health issues. And still many of us rearrange our Sunday lives to watch our glamorized, violent heroes on TV. Something is very, very wrong among us.
   Turning the TV to the Hallmark channel on Sunday mornings isn’t a solution. Nor is boycotting video games and violent movies. Putting metal detectors on college and high school campuses will not change our violent hearts. And gun control measures cannot curb our cultural acceptance of violence. Teen suicide rates continue to climb, weapons present in schools continue to be an issue, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and bullying continue to keep too many perpetually unsafe. We reap what we sow. In a violent culture, violence is considered to be a normal response to anxiety, anger, depression, and frustration.
The few who are outraged are quickly painted as being outside the mainstream–radicals, socialists, or extremists to be discounted and ignored. Yet we are all guilty. Just as surely as our tax money provides for capital punishment, we are all perpetrators of violence.
   I feel helpless even to expose the evil, much less combat it (see? Even talking about an alternative to violence takes on violent terminology). I cannot change this, partly because I cannot live apart from it. Though reigning in expressions of violence (by various means–including legislation), won’t change our hearts and souls, they are necessary. Just as reigning in expressions of racism call to the fore our deep-seated cultural racism, so calling out violence reveals our normalization of violence. These alone don’t solve the problem, merely expose it. Scratching surface, the tip of the iceberg.
   So, powerless as we are, do we simply sit back and watch our children descend further into this brokenness and evil? Hell no. We face it. We acknowledge it. We admit our guilt. And we live differently.
   My own model for this, my inspiration, starts with Jesus. I’m not talking about a belief system or a set of doctrines, but a life. This is one who caught a vision of a new way of being human, a different view of how we live and relate together. Many others have been inspired over the centuries to see the same vision and live differently in the face of broken cultures. Ghandi, MLK, Mandela, and Malala Yousafzai to name a very few.
   I cannot change a culture that normalizes, even glamorizes violence. But I can live differently in the face of that culture. Some will be angry when I show up at a Gay Pride Festival, some will shout loudly when I advocate for the helpless poor among us, and others will roll their eyes and dismiss me when I stand with adherents of other religions and philosophies. I cannot alter my culture. I cannot control those around me who may respond to me violently. But I can strive to live differently. I can attempt to reveal something other than a normative attitude toward violence. Moving toward a non-violent culture won’t happen by making changes around me; only through changes within me.

Categories: american christianity, Church in Transition, faith practices, kingdom of God, racism | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

American Church: A Question of Priority

I’m writing this blog post on Memorial Day, and will confess that I have some mixed feelings about it. Not about a national day of grieving those whose lives have been lost as a result of war, but about how we in the church deal with days like today, including our views on war, armed service, patriotism, and faith.
Full disclosure: I am a Lutheran clergyperson (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), a registered Democrat (though I am considering changing that), have never served in the military, lean toward pacifism, and genuinely wonder why there isn’t even a discussion about repealing the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Though my father served in the army during the Korean conflict and I have a nephew currently serving as an Army Ranger, I have no bias toward the military. I am a patriotic American, love the freedoms that we consider our rights as human beings, recognize the role our military has played in procuring them, and am greatly appreciative. Talking about constitutional rights, I am a committed advocate for the rights of all persons, including our LGBTQ brothers and sisters as well as all immigrants, regardless of status, and I consider racism to be one of the most horrifying evils in our world. Theologically, I don’t believe in eternal “hellfire,” trust that there is a God of mercy somehow, and that for those in the church, revealing and living this mercy and compassion trumps everything else–American citizenship included. Some would call me a liberal or progressive; I can live with that, though I don’t find pidgeon-holing to be very helpful.
My profession causes me to think deeply about how the issues of our culture intersect with my theology and faith (or perhaps the other way around). The current general American acceptance of war, violence, gun-rights, and the connection of these things to “real” patriotism wrankles me. Even more so, I find it despicable that these things are viewed as somehow “faithful” or “Christian.” Many of our Christian churches recognized Memorial Day yesterday during their corporate worship. Excellent! We have a need to mourn all who have died in war, for each death is truly tragic. But how many of these same churches mourned only U.S. American losses rather than all people God loves, non-Americans included, who have died by our hands in war? How many used this day of collective grief to equate military service with American patriotism? How many connected a constitutional freedom to worship with Christianity? How many compared American service people who have died in war to Jesus’ death on the cross?
Those who serve or have served in the military are to be respected, no question. All of them that I know are courageous, honorable people who go about their work with pride and who perform their duties well. I’m just not sure how military service gets mixed so deeply into Christian piety or worship. There are many people who do their jobs well; lots of people who risk their lives in their work. Many vocations require courage and principle. Millions of people are committed to their work because of their integrity and dedication to something beyond themselves. I can’t begin to count how many people take tremendous personal risks for the sake of others. The things we honor most about military service are not exclusive to the military.
This doesn’t mean we as a culture shouldn’t honor veterans on Veterans’ Day or ignore our collective grief on Memorial Day. It does mean that we in the church do need to make clear the difference between God’s vision for peace and reconciliation and a U.S. American cultural agenda. They aren’t always the same thing. In fact, I believe they are becoming more disparate than ever.
It’s fine to have an American day of remembering and grieving death in war. Because grief and war are real, it’s also good to do so in the church. But the very identity of the church is grounded in God’s vision of redemption, mercy, and grace. In the church we claim our identity as disciples of Jesus, who brought among us God’s vision for loving enemies, forgiving all who are offensive, reaching across boundaries to those who are different, recognizing that all people from all cultures, nationalities, and races are loved and valued by God, and that those who have the most resources and power have a responsibility to love and walk with those with the least. These are the principles and values that Jesus considered to be worth dying for. And on this Memorial Day I’m not sure the church that bears his name can always say the same thing.
Perhaps we should have a day in the church year where we lift up peacemakers, honor those who have made it their life’s work to be among the poor, applaud those who are ridiculed for standing up for LGBTQ folk. What would it look like to have a day in corporate worship to recognize those who advocate on behalf of immigrants, to be inspired by testimonies of those who have struggled with forgiving enemies but have been moved by God to do so?
We are, without a doubt, Americans who happen to in the church. But I think it is infinitely more important to remember that we are church who happen to be in America.

Categories: american christianity, Institutional Church, kingdom of God, missional church, spiritual disciplines | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Atheist Churches: A Viable Option for Many

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.

Categories: american christianity, Institutional Church, missional church, religious, spirituality | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Is Liturgy Relevant Anymore?

“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!

Categories: american christianity, Church in Context, Church in Transition, faith practices, kingdom of God, liturgy, missional church | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

On the Impossibility of Revitalizing the Institutional Church

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.

Categories: american christianity, church growth, Church in Context, Church in Transition, Evangelism, Institutional Church, kingdom of God, missional church, religious, Revitalization, spirituality | 4 Comments

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