Posts Tagged With: cultural trends
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?
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.
Last week, I posted on this site that my congregation is no longer going to emphasize “welcoming.” Instead, we are going to emphasize “inviting.” I encourage you to get the vision, theology, and definitions that are foundational in that Part 1 post at: We-Will-No-Longer-be-a-Welcoming-Church. There, I wrote that we are making this change with three emphases—this post is the first of those three: Motivation for Inviting.
The fact is that you can encourage, threaten, explain, and even manipulate all you want. But if people aren’t motivated to invite others, it pretty much isn’t going to happen. Especially when it comes to church, because—let’s face it—we’ve done a poor job of making the church a desirable (much less helpful) community of which to be a part. My congregational folks know it and so do yours. That’s why they rarely invite. Isn’t there a statistic somewhere that says the average mainline person invites someone to worship once every fourteen years? There are reasons for that! Yes, our folks are happy to welcome new people if they happen to show up at church, but the vast majority of people in our congregations just aren’t motivated to invite others.
We can work really hard to try to get people to invite anyway—attempting to explain that a lot of people actually are open to coming to a church if invited (there are statistics on that too; again, not the point). But they aren’t going to go for it. Probably just like you, we’ve worked that angle too. Folks aren’t willing to take that risk. To me, that approach has, by and large, been a waste of time.
So rather than continue to push water uphill, we are going to try a different approach. We will simply raise the motivation to invite above the reluctance to invite. Sounds simple, right? Here are some ways we are attempting this:
Discover Your Ministries.
My congregation is not a large one. In my denomination we are pretty much a medium sized church. And yet, even in a place where people think they know everyone and everything that goes on, we find that no one knows all the ministry that actually is happening through our congregation. It’s surprising, actually. It turns out that lots of people in our church are doing some pretty exciting things—and hardly anyone knows about it. Sure, there’s all the normal (and wonderful!) things that are in the monthly newsletter: the food pantry drive, the youth mission trip to Tijuana (BTW, watch for a future blog post on why calling these trips “mission trips” does a huge disservice to our theology and purpose as church!), and the dedicated crew that works with Habitat for Humanity. But when you take the time to listen, people in our churches are living their faith in the broader community in amazing ways! Find those hidden gems; the reign of God is being revealed in ways that haven’t had much press. So, we are discovering these ministries and finding ways to highlight them. Awareness of what we, collectively, are actually doing is a must in order to be motivated to invite. Who knows, in a conversation with a friend, you may discover that an already existing ministry in your church actually would benefit them.
Articulate the Passion.
We are asking people in our congregation what they love about it. We are videoing any number of people asking that question and will be using our social media sites, as well as other ways, to share the answers. There are people who are committed to your congregation, right? Find out why! Give them an opportunity to say it out loud—let them articulate their passion. Helping people vocalize their love for their church not only concretizes those reasons in their own minds, but gives them good practice in saying it out loud. Young, old, male, female, straight-laced, free-spirited, etc.—the more diverse you can make the answers, the bigger a picture of the giftedness of your congregation will be revealed. Again, use whatever means you can think of to highlight these things that make your congregation special. Write them up, make posters, presentations, put them on your web page, and more. It is important that all these reasons for being part of your congregation be known to as many as possible. Enthusiasm is contagious. Let it work for you!
One of the big surprises as this process unfolds is that it is becoming apparent that our church is actually more than any of us thought. Instead of being a small, typical, 50-year-old mainline church, we are closer to being a well-kept secret gold mine. So we are making our giftedness public. Sure, we have a web site and a Facebook page. But they are pretty underutilized. We are making social media our best friend. You’d be surprised how many 80 year olds have a Facebook account! So we are asking all our ministry leaders to take photos and/or videos of their ministry in action (or inaction), and post them on our congregation’s Facebook page. Most people have a cell phone with a camera on it, encourage them to use it! We have someone monitoring these posts just to make sure that everything up there is more or less appropriate (we are getting written parental permission for kids’ pictures to be on our social media sites), but pretty much anything goes. We are also asking members to encourage their Facebook friends to “like” our congregation’s page. We’re considering having a “1,000 new likes in the next month” or something like that.
The reason for all this social media stuff is partly about getting helpful information about our church into a public arena. But just as importantly, it’s about getting our own members to be more aware of all that is happening in their own church! The Holy Spirit is at work among us in ways we may not see. Social media is accessible, instant, and already utilized by many people in our congregations. And even if you discover there aren’t that many on Facebook (though you’ll be surprised how many are), teach them how to use it. I needed someone to show me how to post pictures to the church social media sites (and need periodic re-training), but any twelve year old in your church can teach that. And what a wonderful way to help younger members understand that they have something valuable to offer. The technology they take for granted is important to the rest of the church! While you’re at it, have that twelve year old link your church’s web page, Facebook page (start one today!), and Twitter account (start that one too!).
Social media is great for instant communication, connection, and information. But don’t stop there. Collect all the pictures and videos that people are taking and put together PowerPoint presentations to show after worship on several Sundays. Emphasize different aspects, e.g., “why I love my church” one week, “little known ministries we do in our world” another week, and “one thing I’ve learned about my church in the last month” on another week. The more people know about their church, the more amazed they are and excited they become. And the more excited they become, the more motivated they are, perhaps, to invite someone to experience the faith community they love.
The basis of our identity as people of God is our new life given to us in Jesus Christ. When we quit pushing that on others and simply “be” that through caring relationships with others, we reveal the love of God. And who knows? Those that are invited might reveal something about God that we didn’t know before. Oh, but wait. Remember? This isn’t about how the church can benefit, but how our neighbors can. Jesus Christ is alive and creating new life in the world—including in our congregations. How life-giving it is when we notice that, articulate that, and thereby are motivated to share that.
The next post will be about “Inviting in Bite-Sized Chunks.” In the meantime, join the journey. Post comments, questions, and insights. Let’s share this together.
There are many who would agree with me when I say I don’t talk right. No, nothing as trivial as grammar or syntax, I’m talking the language of the theological (which is often accompanied by the political) right. I find it difficult—sometimes impossible—to engage in conversation with those whose faith perspectives are so vastly different from my own as to appear poles apart. It is not dissimilar from times I’ve tried to converse with someone who doesn’t speak English (the only language in which I can claim any level of competent communicative skill whatsoever). I know a few phrases of conservative evangelical-speak, enough to get me into trouble, really. Kind of like being at a church in Mexico and asking someone in Spanish where the bathroom was. I got an answer, in Spanish, and though I tried to follow the directions given, I really had no idea where the bathroom actually was. I think I ended up peeing in a closet.
I’d like to be able to have a conversation with my right-leaning brothers and sisters. I really would. Well, I think I really would. But there are, I believe, some significant reasons why I’m not optimistic about doing so.
First, in order to have a conversation, there has to be authentic listening. I’ve snarkily quipped on more than one occasion that when you’re right, you don’t have to listen to anyone else. Both right and left are guilty of this; at least I think I am. And I know many on the right are. No listening, no conversation, no understanding; just opposition, ridicule, and self-righteousness. And that’s a poor expression of our unity in Christ. The world notices.
Second, we refuse to understand the perspective of the other. I think that to do so, we’d have to admit that the other side might have some valid points. I know that Jesus agrees with me, and that’s as far as I need to go, right? I’ve got proof-texts. I’ve got lots of like-minded people who affirm that for me because Jesus agrees with my friends too. So we avoid the difficult conversations with those others, choosing instead to remain with our own kind. It’s safe here with Jesus.
Third, we are often starting in different places. What each of us assumes to be foundational may not actually be the case for the other. We all talk about the Trinity, about the cross and resurrection, about mission and ministry, even about the Bible, but sometimes have vastly different understandings about what these things and their purposes are.
This was driven home to me recently in some blog discussions about spirituality. I’ve taken for granted that spirituality is lived communally, in the world, as an expression of the compassion and service to which we are called in baptism. Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet in John’s version of the Last Supper is the height of spirituality for me and many on the left. That simply doesn’t register in conversations with the right. Rather, they seem to mean by spirituality one’s relationship with God on an individual level, including personal prayer practices, meditative Bible reading/memorization, retreats, and being in love with Jesus (I hope that doesn’t come across as snarky). To me, that’s more personal piety and less spirituality, and runs the danger of turning in on one’s self at the expense of “true” spirituality—serving the poor and oppressed (OK, that was snarky). See why I find the conversation difficult?
Learning to converse together in the throes of disagreements, yet still united as the body of Christ, will make us more open to conversing with brothers and sisters beyond Christianity. The art and skill of listening, of understanding, of learning from each other make us better Christians. That, it seems to me, is something Jesus would want us to do.
But then again, that’s probably a left-leaning value that I’m imposing on the right. And they’ll likely take offense. Then become even more judgmental. See? There’s just no talking with those conservative, narrow minded, self-righteous . . .
It’s evening, and you’re finally settled at the dinner table. Just as the first spoonful of long-awaited yam and celery soup is approaching your mouth, the doorbell rings. You aren’t expecting anyone, but you experience a sinking feeling in your stomach because you strongly suspect who it is. It’s someone with an agenda that isn’t yours but who will insist that their agenda become yours. Yes, it’s someone selling something.
The single-pane aluminum frame windows in your house have been a virtual neon sign inviting every construction company and window pane producer in a five-state area to ring your bell. A recent hail storm has every roof inspector in existence descending on your neighborhood. The initiative on the next ballot will apparently affect your great-great grandchildren, either making or breaking their very lives. You will be condemned to an eternity of suffering unless you accept the religious message of the young zealots on your porch. Household break-ins are on the rise, and your only hope for securing your valuables—and maybe your life—is through signing a multi-year contract tonight with a particular home security company.
You know how it goes. These interruptions are annoying at best, and rarely have anything to do with your actual needs. Yet they keep coming. People come to your door uninvited and hope you will alter your schedule for them and their product. And they expect you to pay them for the privilege! There are even a few who will use high pressure, manipulative techniques, telling you things that may or may not be true just to get you sign on the dotted line tonight.
Not surprisingly, this is often how the residents of neighborhoods see local congregations. Our neighbors perceive a local congregation as yet one more entity primarily seeking its own profit and benefit. And, to be honest, there is good reason for that. As the church, we often are more concerned about selling our product than in being in relationship for the sake of our neighbors. We justify this by saying that what we are selling is exactly what they need. Though that may actually be true, that isn’t the issue here. No one likes someone else’s agenda imposed on them. Whether the church goes door-to-door or offers great youth programming, we are often correctly perceived as seeking to benefit ourselves, bolster our membership, fill our pews, and most importantly, increase the offering.
I know this sounds terribly cynical, but we need to be honest here. Isn’t that how we measure our success as a congregation? Using the same primary criteria for success as someone selling faulty vacuum cleaners doesn’t seem in keeping with the reign of God. It’s time to challenge our assumptions about success. It’s time to consider the kingdom of God before we consider the annual congregational report. It’s time to put the needs of our neighbors ahead of the needs of our organization. It’s time to strengthen relationships with our neighbors. It’s time to reveal the perichoretic nature of God in our communities. And, like all relationships, this starts with listening.
Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of coming uninvited to sell a particular product—one you may or may not need or even want—there were caring and trustworthy people who actually had your best interests at heart? Not offering you their product to increase their sales commission, but helping you, serving you, making your needs their priority? Can you imagine someone patiently taking the time to really learn what you wanted, what you needed, and only then sought to help you get it?
Yeah, right. That door-to-door company wouldn’t last long.
But that’s really the point: the church isn’t a door-to-door sales company.
Can we be the organization that takes the time to listen, to learn, to meet needs that emerge from relationships rather than the organization’s agenda? Shouldn’t the church be this? Relationship is the nature of the triune God, the God we are called and sent to reveal. Relationships, then, need to be our first priority as the church. Relationships involve trust. Trust takes time to develop. That, again, begins with listening.
It’s more or less viral. The snazzy YouTube with the young Christian man professing his love for Jesus right alongside his hate for what he calls “false religion.” Because so many will watch this video without thinking it through, and follow a cultural assumption that seems pretty popular right now, it warrants a response.
Full confession: I’m a religious person—in fact, a professional religious person—therefore I have a bias. I also love Jesus, and therefore have a bias. Keep that in mind.
I think this devout Christian young man has some points to make that the Christian religious institution should heed. We aren’t perfect—we are at least as sinful and corrupt and broken as everyone else. And that includes those who have little use for religion. Many of this YouTube poet’s accusations are valid. We ain’t perfect, folks. We need to do a much better job of confessing that, recognizing we are forgiven for that, getting over ourselves, and getting on with Jesus’ work in the world.
But here’s the problem: it’s impossible to separate our views of Jesus from our religion. In fact, whatever it is that has shaped our views/relationship/love for Jesus IS in fact our religion. To believe one can come to some objective and clear perspective on the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus all by one’s self is naïve at best, foolish at worst. We are all products of our culture. We have been shaped by societal, historical movements and see the world through the lenses produced. Scientific method, empiricism, individualism, the industrial revolution are only recent influences that have formed our perspectives. Our religious eyes are part of who we are, and we are products of our culture.
So when an enthusiastic young Christian vows the worthlessness of religion, he’s expressing a shallow view and a misunderstanding of who he is. Disavowing “religion” as an institution is actually a religious perspective. It’s just one that is shaped by current cultural trends rather than the wisdom and struggle of wise followers throughout the centuries.
I have a bias, yes. But I will choose to make sure I listen to those ancient Godly people—most of whom are wiser and more spiritual than me—who’ve learned from God, wrestled with God, and gained some insight from God. The forms and practices of Christian religion have weathered the centuries and helped create some sacred space for people like our YouTube poet to come to know, and to love, Jesus.