The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released: “‘Nones’ on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults have No Religious Affiliation.” It details the religious landscape of the USA and the long changing trends of faith. Most dramatically, it points to the 30% of Under 30s who have no affiliation with religion.
This report is a call to action that leaves much of the church wondering how to bend this arc of history back towards relgion, faith, and the church.
Many are offering their two cents (see here and here), so here I offer my own. 30 things for the church to engage as we think about the 30% under 30 (and maybe everyone else too). Since it’s a bit overwhelming, I’ll post one a day for the next month. For added whimsy, I’m including a little video playlist.
So here goes.
1. There are many programs and places that are already doing a great job of reaching out to the under 30 crowd. Learn from them. Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) is one of the best developmental ministries the ELCA has to offer. We are a global church and vocation is highly formed in areas of global citizenship. The opportunity to travel and explore one’s own faith and/or one’s own way of making sense in and for the world are crucial to life development.
The Young Adults we’ve met through YAGM are smart, articulate, dedicated, faithful, creative, and are given an avenue to engage their faith through service in a global context. Many return and serve their churches in official and unofficial capacities. Others may not, but their year of service will shape them in some way. The YAGM in-country liasons offer deep discussion and engagement that help young people discern the intersections of faith and the world, suffering and meaning, spiritual practices and justice work, as well as practical matters of living in a foreign country. Young Adults are placed in positions where they can interact with different people in different cultures with different needs and different gifts. Practical aspects of everyday life are put next to the spirituality of vocation.
2.Let worship be a spiritual space. Not an educational time. Not a rule-giving time. Not a “here’s what’s going on in church that you should check out” kind of time. Let our rich tradition of liturgy lead us in our spirituality.
The common refrain is “I’m spiritual, not religious.” Cool. I confess that it’s my tradition’s spirituality and not religiouslity that compels me to deeper engagement with fatih. When I was new to faith as a 20 year old, I couldn’t find my place in an ELCA congregation. I couldn’t figure out the liturgy and everyone’s response tended toward the rote. There seemed to be no passion. It didn’t feel like a place where you could be honest about yourself or ask honest questions. I went somewhere else until deep engagement with the world and earing articulate Lutheran theology helped me find my way to a Lutheran congregation. I learned the liturgy (which can be done!), and I began to see the way it reaches deep into my life and deep into the life of faith. There is nothing more powerful than to sing the Kyrie with a room full of people when at a funeral or are dealing with some particular reality of life. The kyrie is often my prayer when I cannot utter anyother word. Hearing the word, responding through a psalm, and rising to hear the Gospel is a practice in hearing what God and communities of faith throughout the years would wish to speak to us. The Eucharist gives us grace in a tangible, palpable, physical way. This liturgy is meant to be rote, that is, in your heart; you can then take it with you, singing and humming.
As a pastor, I must confess that Sunday morning energy gets devoted to the sermon. Then there are distractions and administrative duties. While ministry happens in the interruptions, what often gets untouched is engagement with the Sunday liturgy. There are new songs to be sung with our old liturgy, songs that usher us into the eternal echoes of praise. There are poems to digest, moments of silence to be hewn, and many other expressions of faith that would nurture our spirituality and lead us in praise, lament, and worship. Yet we’re often too busy to learn them and too intimidated by our congregations, who so desparately need to hear them. Church leaders must find time to think and prepare for Sunday as well as create spaces for others to think, prepare, and share their voice in this great cacophony –er cloud– of witnesses.
3. Build relationships for the sake of relationships and not for “potential giving units.”
I remember standing in a church parking lot as a child, excited for Sunday School. I asked my mom for two quarters for the offering and she put us back into our rusted out brown station wagon and told us we couldn’t afford to go to church.
As outsiders to the church, we thought that we could be there only if we could pay to be there. We didn’t understand that giving is an extension of praising, that offering was a way for us to multiply what little we had to serve in a great way. We didn’t get that we would be okay just as ourselves. Or maybe the church we tried to attend never really told us otherwise.
Young people, more than most, can suss out relationships built on motive. And as much as authentic or genuine is overused in terms of relationship, relationship built on authenticity (relationship for the sake of relationship/interest/curiosity/fascination in the other) is a better way than one built on a desire for something else, something more. Andy Root develops this so well in Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry. Dorothee Soelle, via Meister Eckhart, uses the German phrase “sunder Warumbe” meaning, “without a reason” to describe why we might do what we do. The purpose of having a relationship is having a relationship. The joy is in the thing itself.
4. Let worship be worship, but offer more outside of worship in the way of genuine volunteerism/service (and not just volunteering to paint or clean the church building, or take over for the quilters).
In Letters to a Young Doubter, William Sloane Coffin writes that Jesus doesn’t ask us to worship him; he bids us to follow him. Worshipping God is a spiritual practice directed towards God that also gives us life and shapes who we are. Because God is abundant, worship pours into our lives in servce.
It’s no strange coincidence that worship and service are the same word in Hebrew (avad). You can’t have one without the other. Worship leads us into service, and serving others is a way in which we worship God.There seems to be a paralysis (I know we face it in my church) in organizing service opportunities and projects outside of the confirmation program 7th and 8th grade faith formation.
I feel pressure to continue past service into the future, forcing old patterns on new people who sort of want to find a way to serve that expresses not only their gifts, but also who they are (and not who or what the “Church” thinks they should be or do).
So where do we begin?
I like to turn to Roberta Bondi, Church History scholar, who tells of an early monastic brother who went to his Abba because he had gotten away from the monastic discipline and felt too discouraged to begin again. The Abba replied through story of a many who had a plot of land.
“[T]hrough his carelessness, brambles sprang up and it became a wilderness of thistles and thorns. Then he decided to cultivate it. So he said to his son: ‘Go and clear that ground.’ So the son went to clear it, and saw that the thistles and thorns had multiplied….He said: ‘How much time shall I need to clear and weed all this?’ And he lay on the ground and went to sleep. He did this day after day. Later his father came to see what he had done, and found him doing nothing.”
When asked about it, the son stated how big the task was and how discouraged he had become. To which his father replied:
“‘Son, if you had cleared each day the area on which you lay down, your work would have advanced slowly and you would not have lost heart.’ So the lad did what his father said, and in a short time the plot was cultivated.”
While this is a story about prayer, it is also a story about our world. (Remember how worship and service are the same word in Hebrew?) There is so much to do in this world. The plot of land we call creation has thistles and thorns (metaphorical and literal) and there is much to do. The breadth and depth of brokenness and messiness is discouraging, if not completely overwhelming. We’d prefer to keep “serving your neighbor” vague and abstract. Yet God gives us particular neighbors in our path to love and to serve. Mother Theresa tells us she saw the face of Christ in his most distressing disguise among the poor, the sick, the orphaned, and the dying,
There is much to do. There is also a great desire to engage our world. We know that engaging it together is far more powerful than engaging it alone. And so, we must dig in, even in small ways, and change the world. In so doing, we change ourselves; not only as individuals, but also as a community.
Cue Rachel Kurtz!
Letters to a Young Doubter, William Sloane Coffin, page 97.
To Pray and To Love, Roberta Bondi, page 57.
Part 7, “Of Patience or Fortitude” 40, Western Asceticism, pp. 93-94.
5. Let the Eucharist, or Communion, or Holy Meal, or whatever you call it be the center of worship. Not the sermon.
This meal has deeper roots and greater meaning than what can be said or heard in the sermon. While the preacher’s words come with the aid of the Holy Spirit, in the Eucharist, we are actually handing Jesus over, taking Jesus in, being fed with the physical as well as the spiritual, uniting saints and sinners throughout generations, throughout the world.
We would do well to develop understanding beyond the typical 5th grade instruction. And we ought not wait until 5th grade to begin handing out Jesus.
At my church, I talk about it in terms of Meal and Table, things we gather around everyday (in one shape or another). God comes to us in the meal because God comes to us in the familiar. In fruit and grain from the earth. In the meal we break bread and we drink wine poured out; God blesses through brokenness.
I tell people that Jesus gathered with his friends, one of whom would betray him, all of whom would abandon him. Yet Jesus offered grace, mercy, forgiveness. Lifting up the bread he said “this is my body,” breaking it, he says, this is what will become of my body, it will be broken, but in the brokenness, there is a blessing. Then he took the cup and said, “this is my blood,” pouring it for others he says, this is what will become of my blood, it will be poured out, shed, and you will be a part of that pouring, but in that pouring there is forgiveness that flows.
This meal is particularly personal. It’s also really relational. This is a meal that leads us into relationship with Jesus, as well as those next to us, as well as those not able to come to the Table.
Operating Instructions (some things to keep in mind)
Use good bread. I make Luther Seminary’s communion bread, which features some honey and molasses. After worship, the young people raid the table (asking first) to eat the leftover bread. For young children who reach out their hand for bread, we hand it to them (making sure it’s okay with mom or dad, grandma or grandpa first).
Offer real gluten free options. Offering gluten free wafers/crackers to dip into a common cup is as gluten free as a bowl full of pasta or a chunk of fresh bread. If you offer gluten free anything, it might be best to pair them with individual cups. Be mindful of cross-contamination. Wash hands before setting up and serving communion. If you offer a gluten free station, make sure it is truly gluten free, clearly marked, and easily accessible.
Use better wine (as long as it doesn’t upset everyone). The youngest people taking communion have a preference for the sweetness of Mogen David. I’d rather have Pinot Noir. Maybe a nice white, such as Riesling, would be a good option. The decision needs to be local. And the decision making could be a fun event.
Don’t worry so much about who is or is not worthy. That we’re unworthy is sort of the point. Drawing lines of who is in and who is out is not only uncool, but is also was not practiced by Jesus when he instituted the meal.
Don’t skimp on the liturgy around the Eucharist. Pray and Proclaim what this meal is. Let there be singing and speaking and silence. We’re not remaking the event, just remembering it, and proclaiming the mystery and promise of it. In our liturgy, like in the Lord’s Prayer, we do not pray that this meal come about, but in this meal we remember that Jesus comes about in it for us.
6. Sermons and preaching have got to get better.
Adam Copeland, in his response to the Pew Report, wrote, “The story of the good news of God in Jesus Christ is about as powerful as they come, but only if it’s told compellingly, addressed appropriately, and supported relationally.” I’m curious what precisely that means to him.
Here’s my parsing of it:
a. Tell the story compellingly
Soak up the narrative of the text. Tell it as a story. Help us to find ourselves in the story. Let us walk in the text with you and poke around, ask questions, discover meaning. Please leave stories about Timmy or Tommy or your dog Bud out of it. Illustrations that bear no weight or are included for fodder absolutely kill the listener with condescension and boredom. Images that you help us construct in our imaginations are helpful. Try just telling us one thing instead of 12.
b. Address the story appropriately
Name the hard parts of the story or text. Name what you struggle with. Name how it’s been historically or traditionally used and/or abused. Let us know what things might be translated differently or how it might contradict other stories or texts or words. Stay close to the text. Don’t make excuses for God or Jesus if they aren’t behaving in a good Christian way.
c. Support the story relationally
The sermon often resides in the abstract. Help make it concrete. People hearing things for the first time need something concrete to hold onto or wrap their minds around. Yet do not use it as a tool to wield advice. Embody the words you preach and be honest about your own failures.
Some other wise advice:
Struggle with the text (Mary Shore)
The sermon is pastoral care to most of the people most of the time (Barbara Brown Taylor)
Spend one hour for every minute you will preach (William Sloane Coffin, others)
Tell a better story than the ones people are being sold everyday (David Lose)
Use words that are not confusing and please keep it from being too boring (my 9th grade friends)
7. In the Pew Report, the under 30s named a distrust of organized, “middle-man” churches with large structures and a high overhead. The ELCA, like other mainline church bodies, has a clearly organized and somewhat large structure with quite a few middle-men (ok, middle-people). Do not hide our structure (or diminish it). Let’s talk more about what our structure allows us to do, why we do it, and how we are the body of Christ in many places throughout the world.
The narrative of the ELCA as a church that is defined by our relatedness and not by what sets us apart, is a powerful and positive witness of what church can be. There may always be places where we need to trim some of our spending, but here’s a little of what we’re able to do together:
feed and give aid to people across the world (Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Disaster Response, Lutheran Malaia Initiave, 100 Wells Project, World Hunger, The Welcome Church);
send missionaries to work with people in different cultures throughout the world to build relationships and bridges (Global Mission);
invest in new minisitries that are actually kinda cool and rooted in local settings (Mission Development, Humble Walk Lutheran Church, House for All Sinners and Saints, St. Lydia’s Table, The Project F-M);
train pastors, rostered leaders, and lay leaders in the church (Candidacy, Seminary);
develop young people (Camps, Lutheran Youth Organization, Campus Minsitry, Young Adults in Global Mission);
cultivate the mind and faith of many to give informed responses to difficult ethical dilemmas (social statements);
welcome all people (Churchwide Assembly decisions on full inclusion, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service).
We have good stories to share about this big yet small church reaching out in small but big ways. Let’s not diminish who we are in this respect; let’s step out into the boldness of our body of believers and together be the body of Christ in and for this world that God loves so very much.
8. Many churches follow a pattern of welcome that moves from behaving to believing to belonging. That is, first a person must behave to come to church, then believe, and then they will finally belong to the church. This pattern was followed especially for young people of the church who did not belong until, finally, they were confirmed. When we look at the pattern of Scripture and Jesus’ welcome, the old pattern doesn’t seem to fit. What if we adopted a new pattern of welcome? One that embraced belonging first and always?
The first thing that Jesus says to his disciples after he was raised from the dead was “peace be with you” (John 20:19). He didn’t ask where they were or what they were doing in the three days since he was crucified, died, was buried and descended to the dead. He simply said “peace.” It ought to be a given that before anyone enters the door of a church or even thinks of becomimg a member, he or she is already welcome. There is grace abundant for everyone as they are today.
Our focus ought not be on numbers and membership, but on being a place where people can come, hear the word of God, connect to a community, and be sustained in their lives. Grace is already given by God who is compassionate and merciful; grace also ought to be extended before anything else. A person belongs in our communities whether they’ve been here all of their lives or are just rolling in for the first time. It might be awkward to find out what to say, but we can echo the Risen Christ and say, “Peace be with you.”
In our communities we gather to hear God’s word, learn about faith and life, receive grace, and be supported by a community of faith. Faith is mysterious and can be expressed in many ways, through many liturgies. We need to offer many different opportunities to worship and hear the word of God, using a local liturgy and a common language.
Here’s part of what we share at my church:
We believe in a God who showed love for us by sending God’s Son to die for us while we were sinners (Romans 5:8). We believe in a God who will not be separated from us (Romans 8:38-39). We believe that grace is a free gift from God and that by faith we are made right with God (Ephesians 2:8-10). We believe that this love and grace and mercy make us new people (2 Corinthians 5:16-19).
St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” Faith fires our lives and changes the way we operate in this world. We become different (though not set above) in faith. Our lives change. Martin Luther wrote “you can’t separate faith from good works, just as you can’t separate heat from its flame and light.”
What does that look like?
Before we break out the measuring sticks, let’s remember that faith takes root in ways we may never see, and takes shape and forms in ways we may not be able to categorize. Let’s remember that our image of becoming is one of being poured out.
In baptism we begin to become formed in a new pattern, as people being poured out: for the world, for our neighbors, and for our families. Our baptismal life pulls us out of our fears, inadequacies, and narcissism and compels us into the lives of our neighbors and into this world that God so loves.
9. Offer worship on days other than Sunday mornings.
Sunday mornings are no longer free for everyone. Many young people work. Some younger people are shuffling between parents’ houses or to sporting events. Sundays can also be quite intimadating. The church needs to be flexible to the availabilities of all its people.
I like what Sam Davidson said, here:
Of course, holding mass or a worship service on a Sunday morning (while historical and traditional) isn’t exactly convenient. The notion that community is created by everyone seated and facing the front while someone blabs for half-an-hour seems silly.
What could your church do to shift its schedule or abandon a one-size-fits-all Sunday morning service? Don’t simply offer hymns and homilies on a Tuesday night, bur rather reprogram your entire lineup. Ditch the large group listening session and give attendees chances to talk. Rely on small groups that are geographically convenient. Tie programming to social action.
In other words, don’t just “do” church on Sunday mornings. “Be” church as often as possible so people have more chances to participate.
We have a Wednesday Night Worship service at Glyndon Lutheran that has seen a great increase in attendance and involvement. There is a hum of little voices and noises that buzzes over the sancutary. Young people volunteer to help with worship in ways they are not comfortable doing on Sunday (and when they gain those skills on Wednesday, they feel so much more comfortable on Sunday). Wednesdays seek to be a space where people can be comfortable in their own skin and worship God as they are. It’s been powerful and it’s been utterly chaotic.
Wednesday Night worship is primarily pedagogical, and a hub for faith formation, but it also opens up a space for people to enter into in the middle of their week. Wednesdays look and feel different from Sundays, but the same liturgical bones lie beneath the skin.
We have a young person who didn’t come to church before 7th grade faith formation and then she came only on Wednesdays with her friends. Towards the end of the year we asked her to come and acolyte with her friend on a Sunday morning. Because the altar at my church faces the back of the sanctuary, I often have acolytes hold the liturgy book for me so I can face the congregation. On this Sunday when we got to the Holy, Holy, Holy and the Lamb of God, this girl, who had not had much in the way of faith formation at church, sang with me, word for word, without music or words in front of her. It was one of the coolest things I have witnessed as a pastor.
10. Include songs and words from outside of tradition and hymnody.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the ELW and many of its fine and faithful hymns. I love the narrative structure of scripture, its poetry, prose, history, and teachings (some of which I’m almost good at). Yet there are many great, powerful, and meaningful songs, poems, and pieces of art that can speak with and against our faith in such a way that God’s story of redemption is opened up to us to in a deeper way. These images, words, and music contrast and/or complement our faith and theology and can serve to bring us deeper into the field(s) of meaning.
I suppose I’m not talking about contemporary or “Christian” music, but “secular” song and “profane” poetry. These things sound sacred (to me).
Michael Larson recently paired the Genesis 2 story, one with an image of God who comes so close to creation as if to “get dirt under the divine fingernail” (Fretheim) with “Yellow” from Coldplay: “your skin, oh yeah your skin and bones, turn into something beautiful….” He tuned a familiar song of love between two people into the God’s key of love for creation. Michael’s really good at reframing story through song, and vice versa. I think that’s key. Songs can help us reframe a story, and that story can help us reframe the songs we hear and sing. Anyone can do that.
Christian Scharen writes of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in his book Broken Hallelujahs, which offers a frame of reference for using popular music and culture to help us express and make sense of our faith. Scharen breaks down the divide between sacred and secular, demanding that God is in both (and that there is no real division). We used Cohen’s Hallelujah intertwined with Psalm 51 for Ash Wednesday. Such use expanded our imagination around the story of David. Through the familiar Cohen song, we were able to explore unfamiliar narrative.
But let’s not use popular music because it’s popular, enteraining, cool, or fun. Let’s use it because it roots us in meaning, and expands our imagination of what God is up to.
Last night, Pastor Holly Johnson and The Project F-M put on an evening of song, art, and poetry called Sounds Sacred (to me), offering music, artwork, and poetry around the theme of “home.” We followed the story of the Prodigal Son (Father?) as we explored leaving, finding, and coming back home through the music of Soul Asylum, Hem, Dawes, Cloud Cult, Damien Jurado, the poetry of Mary Oliver, the artwork of Cloud Cult’s Connie Minnowa, among many, many others. I traveled around my own fragments of youth and young adulthood through music that has helped me find my own home in my own skin. We ended in St. Augustine’s famous line: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”
My “home” playlist:
Kim Richey: Home
Ryan Adams and Emmylou Harris: O My Sweet Carolina
Iron & Wine: Walking Far From Home
11. Bi-Vocational calls may be in vogue, but does little to help rostered leaders with massive debt. Seminary must be more affordable for all.
As our churches struggle to hire and financially maintain rostered leaders, there is a rising call for bi-vocational ministry. It’s nothing new; the Apostle Paul made tents to support his ministry. Today the thought is that a leader could be part-time in a church call and part-time in a coffee shop, or photography studio, or web designer, or something cool and hip that would give a leader some grounding and perhaps a little edginess and appeal. It’s a nice idea, and certainly where we are heading as a church on some level.
Two buts to keep in mind.
1. Part time ministry is a full time gig. We are always on call. We always go above and beyond a normal work week; that’s the nature of ministry.
2. Bi-vocational calls may be an idea that is ill-suited for those who have incurred massive financial debt through seminary.
The average seminarian comes into call with at least $45,000 in debt. Incurring that much debt does not entice one to part-time employment!
Seminary debt is a bubble that is already bursting in the whole church and must be addressed. Perhaps seminary should be bi-vocational, in which people work in their churches and are paid by their churches to go to school and to work, a sort of apprenticeship model. Leaders would be paired with a church in an extended internship, learning and doing side by side. Perhaps better scholarships, grants, and forgiveable loans need to be uncovered and dispersed a little more equally. The $45,000 is only an average; there are many who leave seminary with no debt, and many more who leave seminary with 2-3x that amount.
If the church wants to create a space for young people, it needs to “pony up” when it comes to supporting its younger leaders and ministries that are geared for (but not solely to) young people. To one extent, the ELCA is doing just that with its Office of Evangelical Mission and its many ministries it starts every year. The ELCA also offers some full-ride scholarships for pastoral leaders. Fantastic. Keep it coming. We’re only beginning to swim on the surface of a deeper well of need. Along with the ELCA, congregations and synods need to provide for the education of its rostered leaders, ordained and not ordained. Perhaps, along with other important items, loan reduction from congregations ought to be included in the Synodical Guidelines for compensation. I know my synod offers loan reduction through a special fund taken via free will offering at Installations, which is awesome, but maybe we need to ask our churches to directly help too.
Good stewardship is key for creating a hospitable space for all people, perhaps now more than ever.
12, 13, & 14. Slow down. Go deeper. Way deeper.
Faith is a complicated and complex thing. Maddeningly simple sometimes (love God, love others); anything but easy. On the surface, faith is a strange way of life, but, as we go deeper, walk around in it, see the world through it, faith is a blessed way of life.
We try to swim through the whole of the Christian faith in a sitting and it’s more than we can contain mentally.
Take your time.
12. part one: the liturgy (yes that again).
Our liturgy goes back 2,000 years. It’s grown different branches, but its roots are the same. Get to know your hymnal, it’s songs, it’s settings, it’s opportunities to join our praise and lament to the cloud of witnesses throughout history.
The liturgy is an art, not an exact science. It cannot be manipulated in an “ex opere operato” manner, as if just going through the motions magically made everyone have faith.
Use the traditions and resources of the whole church, but let the liturgy be local, homegrown, and particular to your congregation/setting. You wouldn’t lift your sermon out of a book every week, why do so with the liturgy? Sundays and Seasons are a good place to START, not finish.
Write your own prayers in the congregation’s language.
Choose your own hymns. Rely on familiar hymns and songs and introduce new ones that are singable and teachable so that they become familiar.
Let the seasons and lections dictate the themes each Sunday/[other day of worship].
Make the liturgy more simple (which as we know from above is not easy) and accessible. It’s easier to put together something complex and complicated; strive for simple yet rich liturgy. Let meaning making, purpose, and worship be the guide and ask yourself, “why are we doing this setting, or this prayer, or this song, or this silence?”
On this All Saints Day, my song is from ELW #223: All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
13. part two, the bible (this one might offend you, sorry).
We know the bible has been used and abused throughout history to support and/or oppress. Can we name that? Can we also use it for the good? Maybe keeping in mind our neighbor and not only ourselves?
I think we need to be more biblical and not less, but this requires something from us:
Read it with clear eyes. Read it in criticism and in discernment and in faith. Try to glean the bigger picture. The bible is an echo of God’s redemption for the whole of creation. The bible tells us that God cares first and foremost for the care of the other, especially the widow, orphan, and those in need.
It’s hard to take the bible seriously if you only read it literally. There is much more below the surface.
We need to read it closer and first as a word for ourselves and not just something we turn around and pass on to others.
Name the stuff that is strange and offensive (like Judges 19), name the stuff that is funny and quirky (like Deuteronomy 23:12-13 and Elijah and the “she bear” from 2 Kings 2), name the stuff you might be uncomfortable with (the near end of Psalm 139), name that the bible contradicts itself sometimes (four different gospels, two different creation stories, two different Noah’s Ark stories). Name that it’s okay to struggle with scripture; it’s not the fourth person of the Trinity, but it is the word of God passed down through the generations telling how people have encountered God (and lived to tell about it).
Don’t be afraid of or misuse Leviticus and Revelation. Learn the story behind the words; these books were written down in the toughest of times (exile and persecution). To lift up particular verses (without their context) is a poor [ab]use of scripture. Remember that the core of Leviticus is a holiness code that leads us into our neighbors’ lives and calls us to welcome the foreigner in (recognizing that we all have been foreigners). Remember that the core of Revelation is the power of God poured out in love, a temple-less Jerusalem where the gates are always open and all live in God’s light and every tear is wiped away.
Lutherans, don’t be afraid of James.
Look to songs, poetry, and multiple commentaries that help imagine the scene set in scripture.
Here’s some music off the top of my head that finds roots in scripture:
Josh Ritter (Temptation of Adam, Genesis 3; Monster Ballads, Elijah; Girl in the War, Peter and Paul); Iron and Wine (Jezebel, Jezebel); Avett Brothers (Ill With Want, Romans 7); Mumford and Sons (pretty much every song); Johnny Cash (The Man Comes Around, Revelation).
Annie Dillard is my favorite writer who lives in the realm of sacred texts. Mary Oliver too. Who else?
Keep the conversation open and going and bring your brain to bible study.
14. part three: the discipleship.
Discipleship is a dynamic, not static, ever-changing development through the course of a person’s life. Every step is an arrival.
Let’s leave the measuring sticks behind. Let’s stop talking about discipleship as following rules. When faith is summed up in following directions*, it becomes a checklist and a quite dull one at that. It also signifies something that can be completed. Let’s pattern discipleship as a way of life. Let’s name how deeply Christ calls us to love and serve and give and pray and eat and drink and be human. Let’s name how often we fail at following Christ too.
Discipleship operates best as a gospel word, though we like to turn it into a law.
Most of our discipleship time gets pigeon holed in youth minsitry as a way to modify behavior. We talk more about the process of being a Christian than about Christ (Andy Root). No wonder faith becomes a checklist and God becomes the unrelenting task master. No wonder people lose interest; the life of discipleship takes faith. Discipleship calls us to see the world upside-down; faith helps us to see that upside-down is really right-side-up. Remember the pattern of belong-believe-become.
Our young people can smell a rat when their parents drop them off for faith formation or worship and don’t come themselves. Or when a congregation demands their good behavior but does not practice what they preach. They learn that faith isn’t important or relevant for adults but something kids do until they graduate are confirmed.
The life of faith is a thing of beauty. Far from perfect. Pretty damn messy. But beautiful. Joyful. Abundant.
The life of faith is a deep ocean from which we can draw our whole life long. We fall into it, heels-over-head, and must learn to dive and swim. I suppose first there is a drowning and then a rising, a baptismal movement from death to life. Indeed discipleship is the daily practice of drowning and then rising. Drowning daily to sin and rising daily to love God and the neighbor.
* The title of the worst Christmas Sermon I’ve ever heard that lifted up the Wise Men for following directions and asked us to do the same. I thought, “if the wise men followed directions, they would have brought Herod to Jesus.” Or, “if we followed directions, then we wouldn’t actually need Jesus.”
15. The great piece from Robert Hunt on Patheos called None(s) in Church.
Hunt offers at least three excellent points of engagement for the church. He starts off with this beautiful, honest assertion that we’re going to need to change so that we not only welcome, but also learn from the “Nones.”
A gospel that offers non-Christians a bland religious mono-culture will be justifiably rejected as irrelevant. If we are serious about reaching the Nones with the gospel we will need to invite them into the center of our church life; bringing their world, their worldview, and their complex life experience. And changing ours.
He offers a two-fold vision of how the church might move forward.
First – those in training for Christian leadership must have the tools and inclination to understand the cultural and religious diversity of the world of the Nones. …We need a seminary curriculum that is relevant to Christian leadership in our increasingly non-Christian society.
Contemporary American churches rarely take seriously the idea that a new Christian, a Christian who isn’t fully formed in the faith, has something to contribute to the spiritual life of the church. Instead the Nones are treated like a market segment which the church can reach with the same product in a different package…
If we are serious about the future of Christianity in the US we will need to invite the the Nones into the center of our church life; bringing their world, their worldview, and their complex life experience. And changing ours.
Oddly enough, Hunt asserts that we might move ahead by learning from what’s behind. Hunt points us to the early Christian church that had to live in a culture that was pluralistic and whose people came from many different faith and culture traditions, some of which we incorporated.
Though he doesn’t name it specifically, Hunt offers a more relational vision of the church in which a mutuality can exist. We give and we receive from one another. Careful, such mutuality could expand our experience of God as well, seeing God in relationship with us (and us with God), seeing ourselves as co-creators in this world with God, seeing ourselves as people through whom God works for our sake and for the sake of our neighbor.
I really like Hunt’s post because it calls the church not to silo out its ministry. Hunt challenges the local congregation* to create a space for and be shaped by those who do not affiliate with a local congregation. Let’s be clear that it’s not our space to create, own, commodify, etc. We need to grow and be formed together. The local congregation needs to be a place where radical hospitality takes place and where faith can be formed and learned from at every stage in life.
The local congregation can be a dynamic place where people of all ages, stages of life, formations of faith, etc can be gathered together. The local congregation can be a fascinating place for a diversity of voices. It often isn’t. And I fear it’s the congregation, more than the Nones, who are missing out.
* Let’s not diminish the excellent work being done in some of our “emerging” communities. We have so much to learn from them and we must continue (or begin to) support their work. We need to take seriously Hunt’s assertion that “emerging” minsitries not be cut and pasted, hoping they will succeed where other evangelization attempts have failed.
16. Help people find
coping hoping strategies. Cultivate a politic of hope. (an election day reflection)
Who knew that hope would be such a popular political strategy? Oh yeah, the church! The hope we have is in Christ who was in the world reconciling us to God. The hope given to us, the hope we have to offer is a one that is rooted in trust and pointed towards love: loving God, loving neighbor
At some point hope became solely spiritualized and relegated to rhetoric. Maybe this started when we sided with empire and looked to political leaders to embody our hope. We forgot our call to care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned. Don’t get me wrong, we as a society are called to such work too, but the work of the government should never diminish our call to love and serve our neighbor in need. There is an abundance of need and a scarcity of care. The poor will always be with us.
We need to recognize that no one political leader can be our hope! Jesus is our hope. Our political leaders can only, as far as they are able, work to bring fairness, equality, justice, liberty, peace within his or her office. Something we are all called to do. One potential leader may embody hope within his or her office better to some people, but for others, it’s the other guy*.
The church would do well to return to it’s politic of hope. That is, to be a body politic of hope, an entity concerned with the lives and bodies of its fellow people. That is, not to be inwardly focused, but outwardly moving.
The narrative of the church seems to operate in fear and not faith or hope. We worry about our numbers or who is doing it right.
We are called into faith and not to fear.
We need to hear stories of hope. Stories of St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sara Miles, St. Vincent DePaul, St. Martin of Tours, Shane Claiborne, Mother Teresa, etc.
We need to hear stories like the one Nadia Bolz-Weber told this week about a Palestinian and an Israeli who lost their children by the hands of the “opposing side”. Instead of retaliating, instead of hating, they decided to build a bridge toward the other and work for peace.
We need to hear such stories and then we need to write some stories ourselves, and write them together. As a church, as a body, we are called to live into hope and embody love in the world among our neighbors. Hope is more related to joy than happiness; it’s messy and risky. It’s takes not the form of power, but is cruciform in shape. It’s direction is not us, but the other (yet hope strangely works on us too).
So here’s hoping for a better world, not through partisan politics, but a body politic of hope. Here’s hoping for a world in which we reach into the brokenness together, repair the breaches, take care of one another, and live into our true hope: Christ Jesus and his kingdom.
* that’s right, we’re the superest of powers, developed beyond development and we’ve never elected a woman to lead us as President. Liberia, hat’s off. Germany, Sri Lanka, Argentina, Israel, Great Britain, Rawanda, Pakistan, Haiti, and a whole host of others…well done.
17. what if we listen as much as we talk?
We are good at telling people what to do (which has not worked well). Not only that, but carving out an image of the Christian life not only becomes an idol, but also is such a reduction of God’s grace. Faith is more robust than that. Life is more complex than that. I like what the ELCA makes known as a first principle:
We are the church that shares a living, daring confidence in God’s grace. Liberated by our faith, we embrace you as a whole person — questions, complexities and all. Join us as we do God’s work in Christ’s name for the life of the world.
We are called to listen and be changed by the words of others, that their whole life matters to us. It matters to us because it matters to God.
My friend Ross Murray, in his response to the 30 under 30, said this:
Our religious leaders would do well to sit and listen to what give joy, pain, worry, and sorrow to our young people.
We can’t do that for everybody, but we can do that for somebody.
If we want to listen, we need to leave the building.
Here is no new thought. While we know that we need to leave the building to listen to people, especially young people, our schedules do not permit it. We have reports to fill in and “having conversations with non-church members” doesn’t seem to fit. We need to articulate to our councils and congregations the call to the whole church, affiliated or not. Then we need to leave the building.
Talk to your hairdresser, or favorite bartender, or the finest almond latte maker you know. These are small conversations over a long time, but they build up. And their reward isn’t only for the hairdresser, bartender, barista, but also for you.
Go into the conversations in an open manner, not trying to fix the other or “win” them for Jesus (ugh). Let the sunder warumbe–the without a reason–lead your conversation. Do not worry about the outcome. The reward is in the conversation itself.
There were never any good ol’ days, they are today, they are tomorrow. It’s just stupid things we say, cursing tomorrow with sorrow. Hey!
18. Read Jodi Houge’s piece on the 30 under 30.
Jodi Houge leads Humble Walk Lutheran Church, a rad community in St. Paul that gathers around word and sacrament and kids. They are also gathered around sending. Donuts and coffee at busstops on Fridays. Wild community get togethers. Bike blessing. If I lived in St. Paul, this would be my church and Jodi would be my pastor.
Though I know her to be generally non-violent, Jodi give the church a one-two punch of reality: a left hook of reality and a right hook of courage. I wish to quote her in entirety, but you should read her whole (short) piece here.
Jodi asserts that:
Left Hook. The church will never be the same as what it was; we are always reforming. Fitting today’s church into yesterday’s mold is like passing down someone else’s clothes. It just doesn’t fit and is worn out in some places. Jodi points us to preach Christ, which is not smooth or winning or polished, but it is good for us, does good in us. All we have is the power of the gospel.
Right Hook. That people still come to church should be regarded as a miracle and not taken for granted. There are far more fun places; don’t let other places be more meaningful. And…don’t suck. Jodi does not call us to be polished or perfect or cool or hip or fun. Jodi does call us to take our communities seriously and form worship together. Let other people share their encounters with God. Lead the community in what is meaningful to them (and not just you).
19. Where is one place that most of the “Nones” reside? In virtual space and on social media. Meet them there.
The medium is the message. _Marshall McLuhen
You probably need a better website.
One recent statistic told us that people spend an average of 10 seconds on a website. What should that mean for the church? Include pertinent information on the home page:
Make other information intuitive to find and easy to access.
Making a website has never been easier. Get to know Word Press, or get to know someone who does.
If you haven’t yet, read these 10 Commandments for Church Websites
Keep it simple. Keep it clean.
Meet Twitter and Facebook.
Twitter and Facebook are the new church newsletter, where people find out what is going on and how they can participate.
We post prayer requests, worship times, service opportunities, the dinner menu for Wednesdays (okay, so it’s usually pizza), Radio Free Babylon comics, sermon note questions, Catechism Videos, etc. Our Facebook page links to Twitter, which then posts to our website.
Make boards on Pinterest.
We use Pinterest to give images to the story we tell each week in church. This year our board looks somewhat chronological as we follow the Narrative Lectionary, but next year when we return to the Revised Common Lectionary, we’ll still post images to help tell the story of faith.
Our (awesome) Family Minister uses Pinterest to find craft ideas for the younger kids and meal ideas for our 9th graders (yeah, we get to eat lunch with them once a week and it’s really cool).
The next board we’ll make will be for artsy bible quotes. I’m hoping to use some of what we find in our worship space, but we’re not there yet.
The beauty of Pinterest is that it is vision driven, helping us see our thoughts and organize them into concrete images.
YouTube is everywhere.
I’m a big fan of Alan Storey’s “Just a Thought (not a sermon)” series on A Slow Walk, his homepage. He also posts sermons. YouTube can help convey message and meaning in an portable, accessible way. iMovie comes free on Macs and is a pretty slick tool to make videos.
I personally don’t use it, but there are people who check in to our church and leave tips for others. Why don’t I use it? I check in on Facebook and Twitter and prefer to have one less thing to manage.
Be careful of social media overload.
Take a Media Sabbath.
Encourage social media sabbath. Encourage screen-less evenings. We are so shaped by our screens that we forget the original social media of face-to-face interactions. It’s commonly known that the extent of bullying is far higher because kids cannot escape it; Facebook and texting mean that people are always accessible, which isn’t a good thing.
Be aware of how technology shapes us.
In Flickering Pixels (or more precisely, in a presentation using Flickering Pixels), Shane Hipps talks about the way that technology has shaped us. From the printing press to tv screens to twitter, the literal shape of our churches have changed. We often think of the upside of technology, but we also need to be aware of how it shapes and changes us, especially in negative ways.
As with everything, be genuine and speak in your own voice.
They say I come with less than I should rightfully possess. I say the more I buy, the more I’m bought. And the more I’m bought, the less I cost. _Joe Pug, Hymn #101
20. Try irrelevance. Keep Church Weird.*
People, especially young people, need something that does not require them to be a consumer. Everywhere we turn, we are encouraged to be somebody through buying something. And it’s a damn dirty lie.
Yet, since the consumptive model “works” in the mainstream, Churches have tried to package themselves to be more appealing, making the message simpler, tyring to fit in with the culture around them. Churches are seen to have a product to sell. Maybe it’s a beautiful ceiling and bright stained-glass windows, or a dynamic children’s ministry, or a hip young adult “program”, or screens and rock and roll, or a coffee bar, or….
You can get those things anywhere.
Now, none of these things are problematic, especially if it fits in with the life and particularity of the congregation; aesthetics are important, as is space for all people. Faith is dynamic and active and beautiful and messy and can be expressed with a cup of joe in hand or not, hands in the air or knees on the ground, words on a screen or words on a page that become inscribed on the heart, worship through drawing pictures for the pastor or drawing an image from the sermon.
Here’s the thing: church is weird, subversive, upside-down, and at its heart is the message of the cross, which is absolutely and utterly foolish. There is nothing to sell and nothing to buy.
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
Jesus bids us to “Come and die,” which does not a good slogan make. Yet dying and being raised is precisely what we’re called to, and strangely, weirdly, with all absurdity, confusing all consumer models and indexes, such dying and rising is precisely what has “grown” the church.
Brueggemann says that Sabbath taking is ‘sticking it to Pharaoh,’ the Pharaoh’s of the world who compel us to make more brick, buy more stuff, be better consumers. God calls us to rest and receive.
So keep church weird. Be irrelevant. You will find that this is just the “relevance” that is needed in the life of God’s people in and for this world.
*Courtesy of Nate Houge
21. the right role of relevance.
The church shouldn’t sell what people can get everywhere else. When the Church tries to package itself and puts on its best dress, we still find that people just aren’t buying because they can buy it better and cheaper somewhere else. Even more so, we have nothing to sell. We’re not a marketplace.
We often use our call to relevance to echo what we already see/hear/taste/touch/smell, trying to attract people through what they already know. We try to be “relevant”, by modeling everyone else.
Relevance ought to help us into a world (kingdom?) that we cannot yet see.
We’re not called to echo. We’re called to the cross. Called to community. Called to creativity. Called into new ways of being church. Called to a depth of meaning beyond what we cannot find anywhere else.
We are called to be known by the compassion of Jesus, the love of God, the community of the Holy Spirit. However, we are often known or characterized by a lack of compassion, who we don’t love, how a community does not welcome.
National News has picked up the story of Lennon Cihak (from my new hometown of Barnesville, MN). This young man posted a photo on facebook against the Marriage Amendment in Minnesota and was denied confirmation from his Catholic Church.
We are called to be relevant, that is, to have significance on the matters at hand. The church–with all its weirdness–is called to have something to offer God’s people as they make sense of their lives in this world. I love what Pastor Holly Johnson said in a recent interview in Fargo:
“none of those things, anti-homosexual, judgemental, too political, anti-science… describe Jesus. How do you live in a world and a church that stands for and not what it is against?”
The church is called to help people come outside of themselves, to break out of the incurvatus in se. First we may need to break out of our own inwardness. First we may try to find what is relevant in the lives of God’s people
This week I’ve been a bit behind on posting. I’ve been caught up in the news in Israel and Gaza. I stopped into a little restaurant for a late lunch and talked to a non-church young type that I know about it. “Forget about it,” he said, “I’ve learned that you can’t do anything about it, so move on.” And another said, “You know what’s really awful? I really want to travel and I feel scared.”
The church is called to help people outside of themselves, to help people into the world. To bear a significant word of what is real and true in this world. The church is called to works of justice and peace.
I meant this one to follow immediately after the one on irrelevance, but I was waylaid by the news in Gaza and Israel. Please join me in praying for peace with justice for all.
22. Be aware of the world around you and find a place in it. And, we need more than Church Leaders to engage this Pew Report.
Keith Anderson writes about the cultural commute to church. Adam Walker Cleaveland wonders if our churches would change. Two excellent posts. We know that we need to change, but our churches don’t want to. And there’s the rub.
Our churches want new people to fit into their old models of ministry. Yawn. Nothing new. But this is something we need to keep naming because it is stifling the church.
We are called to be relevant, that is, to have significance on the matters at hand. The church–with all its weirdness–is called to have something to offer God’s people as they make sense of their lives in this world.
The church is called to help people come outside of themselves, to break out of the incurvatus in se. First, we may need to break out of our own inwardness and smash the idol of what church once was. Second, we may need to try and find what is relevant in the lives of God’s people. Then, we may need to actually try (and keep trying) something new. Gasp. We may need to try something that actually communicates, something that reaches into the lives of the people, rather than assuming people will reach into the life of the church.
The new Pew Report, the one that says 30% of people under 30 have no affiliation to a religious institution, should sound an alarm. But the church at the local level is hitting it like a snooze bar, perking up some awareness, and then snoozing again. Our churches are not changing. They want people to fill their own shoes someday, but for now they want new member trophies to sit nicely and polished in the pews. They want people to learn how to do church and then perform church after they are gone.
That’s just not gonna work. We know–or at least we should–that new wine does not fit into old wine skins. It bursts at the seams. We cannot fit a new culture into an old model.
Church leaders are often caught in the middle between knowing the changes that need to happen and having the power or efficacy to do them. How do we affect change? Do we let what’s dying die and then find where there is life? How will that honor the people in the church today? How will we pay the bills? How will we feed our familiy?
As has been stated, we need to ignite the imagination of mission for our people. We need to both honor the faithfulness of one generation and make space for the faithfulness of the other generations. This new faithfulness is marked with questions, creativity, engagement, conversation, curiosity, wonder, and service. It doesn’t look like church in the 1950s or even the 1990s. But it is church. It is the body of Christ at work in the world.
Of course change will bring resistance. Change will be a lot of work. Church leaders will be put into the role of midwives who will help the church give life to a new, emerging church, one they will hopefully be connected to. It’s not going to be pain-free. It will hurt a little (a lot!). But I do think there is joy to be found in creating new avenues for church, and hopefully many intersections between the generations.
23. be open. be vulnerable. be comfortable in your own skin (it let’s people be comfortable in theirs).
“You know what we love about you? You share who you are. The good things and even the things you don’t do so well on.” Says one of my 80+ year old widows. I of course don’t know any way to be other than heart on my sleeve sincere. It hasn’t always gone well. Being open and vulnerable is risky and can bring unecessary pain. It may also be our best bet for true community.
An open, vulnerable, and sincere posture has been a good thing for my church, from the 80 year old widows to the 2 year old “below the pew” crowd. You know the type, those who race cars under their parents feet while they figure out just where they are.
There has been a slew of sincerity spilled on the internet these last few weeks. It’s been there all along, but sometimes it bunches up and makes you take notice. My friend Terri pointed me to a much liked on Facebook article in the NYTimes about living into sincerity instead of irony. She also pointed me to a response in the Atlantic that reminds us that sincerity is alive and well and has been for quite some time, thank you very much.
Brené Brown said stuff like:
“Life’s messy, love it.”
“Lean into the discomfort.”
“Vulnerability is at the core of shame and fear, but also the birthplace of joy and creativity, of belonging and love. “
Brown notes how hard vulnerability is, how hard we try to hide it, and how fiercely we numb it. Yet the thing we resist out of concern for our connection with others (Q: will others accept us if we are open?) is the same thing that allows for a real connection (A: yes). She insists that in order for connection, we have to be truly seen. She calls this “excruciating vulnerability.” (It’s not meant to be an easy thing).
Brown researched people around love, belonging, and connection. She found that when she asked about love, they talked about heartache; when she asked about belonging, they talked about the excruciating experience of being excluded; when she asked about connection, they talked about disconnection.
Is there a hallmark card for that?
Life is messy and while we are wont to run away from it, the messiness is exactly where life is. “Life’s messy; love it,” and “lean into the discomfort.” It’s not perfect, but it is real. And, finally from Brown, “We are imperfect and wired for struggle but.. worthy of love and belonging.” So be kind to yourself, which is the only way to be compassionate to others.
Of course, this is nothing new. But perhaps this is the courage and reference we need to be who we are within the church and not who we think we should be.
David Lose has been singing this song for a few years now with his work around the Age of Digital Pluralism. He notes a shift in the conversation towards belonging and purpose, about the need of the church’s voice to rise above the cacophony of today’s culture that seeks after love via lying about who we are, belonging via perfectionism, and connection via consumerism.
In the church, our love, belonging, connection are rooted in the gospel love of Jesus, this Jesus whose first word to his deniers and deserters was peace. It’s a word we might also pick up with each other. Church in Christendom became this place where you had to be perfect to belong. Church in this time might become a place of imperfection, struggle, messiness, but also a place of connection, belonging, and love.
I was just lamenting with a friend just this afternoon, before I got to this piece, how the church is a zombie–a living dead institution, if you will. I had a good laugh, but it wasn’t the kind that recognized humor (okay, maybe at first), but rather the awkward kind that recognizes truth. It was a note that was painfully funny because it is painfully true.
The Church at the local level has become a museum. And we are its curators.
Our task isn’t to build a better musuem, or collect more art. Our task is to bring its art to the street. The canvas isn’t the building, but the lives of God’s people in the backdrop of creation. Faith isn’t something to be kept on the shelf or secured behind a glass, but something lived, with all the grit and gravel that might entail.
We are a church that shares a living, daring confidence in God’s amazing grace, for crying out loud. We are so confident that we look for life among the dead. Will we stay in the museum with its artifacts, sentimentality, and nostalgia, or, will we look for signs of life in places we would never, ever expect?
25. Membership has become a thing about numbers (money and statistics). What if membership followed the pattern of baptism?
First must come a radical hospitality, a real belonging. Grace is the gravity that holds us together. Do we believe it? Do we live that way together in church?
Second, the life of the church might model baptismal righteousness: dying and rising to its own sin rather than pointing out the sin of others; working for justice and peace; speaking of God in word and in deed; trusting God.
Third, we might walk with the people to help them live out the vows made at their baptism:
to live with them among God’s faithful people,
bring them to the word of God and the holy supper,
teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments,
place in their hands the holy scriptures,
and nurture them in faith and prayer,
so that your children may learn to trust God,
proclaim Christ through word and deed,
care for others and the world God made,
and work for justice and peace.
If we’re not too careful, this might bleed into our faith formation, stewardship, and evangelism “programs.” Imagine that.
N.B. There is a growing number of people in our congregations who have not been baptized. The welcome we can offer still stands, not as a device to “win them” but as a way to live into the trust we have been given. It’s okay if people don’t fit the molds we have cast.
26. Leaders, especially preachers, need their own spiritual director and preacher.
I’m new to this gift in ministry: the opportunity to be ministered to, preached to, listened to, etc. We spiritual leaders need to tend to our own spirituality. Who would have thought?
My synod, the Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the ELCA, along with the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the ELCA, offers first call pastors six sessions of spiritual direction for free each year. It’s taken me a while to get the ball rolling (am in year three) but I’m so glad I did. Other synods, take a look at the work Pastor Gretchen Anderson and Pastor John Hulden have been doing. Our First Call Theological Education each January has made me a better pastor and has “kept me in the cloth.”
John and Gretchen, along with many predecessors, looked at how leaders, and pastors especially, often get burned out in their first few years of ministry. They received a grant to walk with pastors, offering spiritual direction, colleague groups, and excellent first call theological education. As a young and new to the church pastor, these have been important crucial for my development (even though I’m quite bad at making it to colleague group).
Pastors aren’t self-contained and ready to go. We’re human. Vulnerable. Fallible. Developing. In need of care, direction, and leadership. Who would have thought?
Which brings me to #27, a gem my spiritual director helped me uncover:
27. Keep the faith in minstry.
It turns out, I’ve been an atheist pastor.
Don’t get me wrong, I have faith and while it can’t quite move a mountain, it is a conviction that will not let me go. Thank God. However, in talking to my spiritual director, it became clear that faith was not an aspect that was guiding my vocation, my call, my job. Instead of wondering what God might be calling me to or how God might ask me to act in my role/office, my thoughts have become dominated by what others might think or respond, or how to be “professional,” or like the other pastors I have known.
There’s not a lot of power or energy in that way of life. He called me to daily prayer and discernment, to ask what might God be calling me to today.
Maybe it sounds naive or a good way to do what I want.
My husband Colin and I went to Taize for two weeks, one of which was in silence. Colin shared a house with the other men in Taize, while I shared a house with other women in Augmeny, a couple kilometers away.
In that week we were free to do what we found helpful. The only thing on our schedule each day was prayer and worship at Taize three times, bible study with Sister Dominique, and three meals. Sister Dominique encouraged us to make a timetable and try to stick to it, because if we just went with how we felt, we would choose not to engage. She was right, I took way too many naps, but after a year of travel, I was downright exhausted. Yet, following her direction to set my own prayer times, I engaged faith, God engaged me in a whole new way. Taize was a time where head met heart. I felt what I believed (which is saying a lot for a Lutheran).
What if that sort of space was allowed for spiritual leaders in their daily lives?
Landon Whitsitt recently wrote about how we match our schedules and lives so that we accomplish our work without being completely owned by it. Working with his framework, and returning to my letter of call as a guide, God and my community are calling me to: pastoral care, preach and prepare for worship, faith formation, to some (but not all) administrative tasks.
So, off I go…
…On Spiritual Leaders and the Price of Beans
After writing yesterday about spiritual direction and faith for pastors, I got in my car and drove 20 some miles to town, thinking, what did that have to do with the price of beans? How does the spirituality of leaders connect or engage with the 30% of under 30-year-olds who have faith but no church affiliation?
I would offer that it has much to do with the “30,” but also for everyone, affiliated or not, in and around church.
When leaders are bored, their people will be bored. When leaders do not have faith in what they are doing, their people will not have faith in what they are doing. When leaders get caught up in the petty aspects of ministry…you get the idea.
Often times I’m left to wonder why anyone would want to put up with the drama of a congregation. Come and do this. Teach that. Give this. Be that. There is a lot of expectation and frustration.
Our mission to feed the hungry, cover the naked, visit the imprisoned, is often replaced with fixing the building, funding the staff, and using the right chair or table or Christmas decoration.
And there’s just no power in that.
All these things are important, but we have confused what’s primary for what’s secondary in ministry. Yesterday I wanted to make the connection that this confusion comes becaue of a lack of faith, and/or a presence of fear. Fear of not making the bottom line. Fear of offending. Fear of losing. Fear of scarcity.
Yet we are called to hear these words from Jesus, who came to give us life in abundance:
Those who want to save their lives will lose it. Those who will lose their lives for my sake will save it.
_Luke 9:24 (and elsewhere).
Or from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.
_Cost of Discipleship
We are called to hear these words as a church too. These are no easy words. They take faith and courage. They require a trusting, a loosening of power, a releasing of control.
We are called to let go of what’s behind and strain for what’s ahead: resurrection, new life, abundant life. This comes by faith, by trusting, by “believing beyond belief that life can spring from death.” _Each Winter as the Year Grows Colder ELW Hymn #252
28. With a shout out to Paul Riceour, support the faith formation that happens when faith is challenged. Recognize that adult faith development often happens outside of church. Recognize the faith formation that comes in higher learning. Encourage young people who are engaging their faith through doubt, study, skepticism, and yes, atheism.
Faith formation is a process, it happens over time, and it is a slow movement. For many, faith is rooted in youth, but must branch out as an adult. Often times the branching, or chopping off for that matter, comes when faith is challenged, when a person encounters the world in an unexpected and new way and must make sense of faith beyond the concrete capabilities of their youth.
The church must engage the ruptures and challenges that happen in the life of faith, even if it isn’t particularly comfortable. The church must be aware of and support the faith formation that happens in other places.
One prime locus for faith formation in young adults is higher education. My religion courses, which excited me, shaped me, and helped me discern my call, also challenged my faith, and called me into deeper faith. They also helped me make sense of the world when I no longer saw it through my parents’ eyes, but my own.
I still remember standing up in my World Religions class to “testify” to the way, truth, and life. My professor graciously told me I had missed the assignment and would have another chance to complete it.
This same professor brought a group of us to Mexico that year. We were studying faith and social change in Latin America. I never saw poverty like I saw in Mexico. For the most part, I grew up in a single parent household and had one shirt that I would wear everyday. I had some other shirts, but this was the only one with a name brand, and I didn’t know how else to fit in. We didn’t have much, but I realized in Mexico that I was never poor. We met people who had next to nothing (though in some aspects they had more than I ever would). We learned about the debt system and the disparaging rift between rich and poor. We read Ecclesiastes.
I was new to faith at this time, maybe a few years in. I went to a non-denominational church. I had latched on to the louder voices, those who spoke of personal relationships and right living. Faith was black and white. You were in or you were out. I didn’t drink. I even drove the speed limit for about 5 months one year.
Part of our time included an indigenous worship service. I was conflicted. Could I participate? Would I cut myself off from God’s grace. The day we were supposed to go, I told my professor that I couldn’t do it. She made space for me and let me be. Thankfully, it was rescheduled for the next day. The conflict tore deeper and deeper within me, but I decided to participate. And when we arrived, with the sun streaking through the trees and lighting the rocks, I was immediately at peace. God was there. I saw beauty in the faith of another, and relished in the grace of God that goes beyond culture and creed.
Coming back, I could not ascribe to my same faith. Faith had been about me and God. Now, faith was leading me to my neighbor. And I didn’t know what that meant. There was a rupture, but it was a good rupture. Thankfully, I had pastors and professors who helped me make sense of it.
I’m grateful that I had professors and pastors at Augsburg College who could live in the tension and rupture with me, who could help me sort out a new way of faith in this new world I was discovering. In doubt I was able to seek faith. I believe that if I hadn’t returned to faith, they would have still walked with me. They made me want to be a teacher, to continue that legacy and vocation of forming faith in higher education. God had other ideas, and I am happily rooted in congregational ministry, though as one aware of the growth that happens beyond the church doors.
The church needs to engage doubt in the formation of faith. We need not fear the challenges faith can bring. As our faith is challenged, we can be drawn deeper into the mystery. We must not silence the questions or ignore the struggles. We cannot walk away–or clean the dust off our shoes–when people (especially young people) present us with doubt and uncertainty.
We must support the faith formation that can and does happen in higher education and see it as a wider parternship in ministry.
29. Community. Duh. Organic. Authentic. Blah. Blah. Blah.
When we lived in Jerusalem, we had community like no where else. People simply gathered on Sundays and Wednesdays in Jerusalem around church, music, and volleyball. Mondays in Bethlehem around dinner. More often than not there was food or beer involved. It was so simple, so strong, so good. If you turned up, you belonged. If you wanted to do something, people usually found a way to participate. The door was wide open.
The door also revolved a lot.
Being an international community, it was always in flux. We had our leaving ritual: the “chocolate bar” from Redeemer Lutheran Church. We knew that as people would leave, new people would come. We all also knew that one day we would be leaving. People were free to come and go, people stepped up to volunteer and then sat down to let someone else have a turn. There was a flexibility that allowed people to engage as they were able.
The community expands beyond Jerusalem too. Anyone who has spent time in the Mount of Olives is part of a worldwide community. Elly was the new Allison. We were the new Marc and Kathryn, Travis and Brandy. New YAGMs replace old YAGMs and the circle gets wider and wider.
I thought that when we returned home, we could find community like the one we relished in Jerusalem.
People didn’t need people like we needed people in Jerusalem. People already had their friend groups. For the first time, Minnesota wasn’t nice.
Prepare for the gross generalization:
People in the US are too busy for community. They have things to go to and work to do. They have multiple communities that are vying for their attention. Facebook is just a click away.
a. What if we encouraged–and lived–less busy lifestyles so that we might have time for one another?
We have a need for community, a need to belong, a need to connect, and multiple avenues to avoid it.
The closest we got to our Jerusalem community was at Holden Village. They warned us not to make community an idol, because it certainly has its fall backs, which each community ought to acknowledge. Yet, the slower pace and similar daily patterns led to deep discussion and wild fun. We ate together, prayed together, and could even play together. Holden has been a great place for people of all ages, and especially young adults, to engage their faith in a community.
b. What if we realized what is really happening within community?
Have you heard Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove speak? Amazing. She spoke at a SCUPE conference in 2011 and stole the show. She authored Root Shock, a book about the phenomenon of health and community. Fullilove has found that when one is uprooted, separated, cut off from their familiar community, their health suffers, they experience shock. Fullilove is a social psychiatrist who has looked at gentrification and its effects on the people. Through study, she has also found that people in communities, even if they have less access to health care and other preventative measures, are actually healthier than those who are wealthy but live in isolation. Brilliant stuff. We need community.
c. What if we treated people like people instead of commodities in our community?
Over Christmas, I got to talk to my genius brother-in-law about church and community. He’s tired of people pushing community, as if it is something he can’t find outside the church. Since he is a) nice, b) a good athlete, c) has experience in ministry, each time he steps into a faith community, leaders oggle him, hoping he will be their pied piper who will bring all the young people in. They don’t take time to get to know him or welcome him, but see him as a commodity, a piece to collect in their church chess set.
The last thing people need is a church community that is seeking after anything other than their belonging. We do a disservice when we size people up to think, ooh!, another giving unit, or, yes!, a new sunday school teacher. The gift we give of belonging and connection should be the only place to start and end.
People can find community almost anywhere. What is particular about church community is (I hope) a sense of belonging that is: rooted in the grace and welcome of God, gathered around word and sacrament, and lived in our lives with courage as we do our work–our ministry–in and for the world. Oh, and hopefully fun.
30. The end?
I hesitate to close out this series on 30 things for the church to engage for the 30% under 30 who have no church affiliation. I must say that 30 things can’t capture the sea change that the church must make if they hope to embrace more of God’s people.
*Wordle of the other 29 posts, some 12,000 words.
While there are some quick and easy technical changes to make (such as an effective church website, or different forms of worship), there are no quick and easy fixes. We need to change our church culture, which will be painful and difficult–but necessary if we hope to change the current pattern. Things can’t stay the same unless we want things to stay the same. And oh, I hope we do not want things to stay the same.
The gospel must be the center of our life together.
Evangelism shouldn’t be about winning people, but losing ourselves to Christ for the service of our neighbor. There is nothing more powerful we can do together. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best in one of his last sermons, The Drum Major’s Instinct. To summarize, we all have tendencies to want to be recognized for our greatness, but Dr. King asks us to put our desire in its place, into proper perspective. Dr. King calls us to have a Drum Major’s Instinct for service, for justice, for peace, for righteousness.
The locus for such gospel work cannot reside solely in the sermon. One of my ninth graders pointed out how coming to church and listening to a sermon, which her mom tells her is good for her and helps her to be a better person, feels really self-involved. We have reduced gospel work to words, forgetting it is an embodied word, fulfilled in the incarnation, that we not only speak, hear, but also inwardly digest.
When we disembody the word, we do so at our own peril. At some point, possibly a few days after that first Pentecost, gospel was swapped out for laws that dictated who was in and out, right and wrong. We have used race, gender and sexuality to determine who was in or out. We have consistently missed the gospel. Sexuality, race, and gender are complex and important gifts, but are not the heart of our message (unless that message is: there is no longer slave or free, male or female, Jew or Greek, [gay or straight], but all are one in Christ Jesus).
Jesus turned no one away. The church has lost its cultural clout to determine who is in and out in society. Let us realize our place in the margins and get to good gospel work. Let us use what clout we have for something worthy of the gospel of Jesus: reconciliation, radical hospitality, deep engagement with suffering, true love of neighbors. Let us be drum majors for service, justice, peace, and righteousness.
Support our leaders and expect good things from them.
I can’t say that I’m a fan of church professionalism; I understand the need for it, but I worry that it separates us from the messiness of ministry. Church leaders need to be wise and sincere, open to sharing in the pains and joys of life. There is more than one way to be a leader, and leaders are developed over time.
Yet we should expect excellence, and not mediocrity, from our leaders. The gospel message is simple, but not easy. Leaders must bear it week after week within complex family systems, local contexts, and an ever-changing world. Ministry is hard but good work. Intellectual and emotional intelligence are required. More than words are required. More than leaders are required too. A leader is in one in relationship with that which it leads. A leader requires others. A leader requires a community to both support and to be supported.
Because leaders are supported by a community, leaders (and communities) must not be burdened with heavy debts. As a church we must do better stewardship.
Stewardship must go beyond the building.
The church must support faith formation that is happening outside of the church. Encourage and support young adults to seek Religion Majors or Minors. Encourage and support young adults to attend colleges that develop their ongoing faith formation. Encourage and support outdoor ministries, campus ministries, and post-college ministries such as a Servant Corps or Global Mission. Encourage and support young adults who discern a call to seminary education.
The above ministries are partners in the gospel and extensions of local churches. We need to support such ministries financially and otherwise.
Finally, we might take the long perspective.
God formed a faithful nation out of faithless wilderness wanderers. Elijah was worried that he was the only one left. God assured him there were still 7,000 who had not given up and lost faith. In the Exile, God promised a righteous remnant to return. Only the women were left at Jesus’ cross.
Time has cycles of growth and decline for the people of God. Challenges rise, but God continues to work through the ebb and flow of faithful/less/ness. God is faithful. Where institutions of faith have been swept away, such sweeping makes space for something new. And sometimes that sweeping is necessary. Where there is death, there is new life. God can work with little–even nothing.
So, let us make changes, but even more, let us keep the faith. Faith that God is doing something even in these declining trends. Faith in God beyond our hubris and hope for better numbers. Let us also do what we can to be faithful to those whom God has called into faith.