{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

This Holy Mystery: Our Misplaced Methodist Identity (Part 1)

“We’re not Episcopal or Catholic.”

“There’s not enough time to get it in during the hour of worship every week.”

“Hey, even the churches that do it every week have a hard time keeping it fresh; their folks get bored with it too.”

All of these are responses I’ve received from Methodist pastors and lay people when I bring up the issue of practicing Holy Communion on a weekly basis. We’re taught that John Wesley took Communion everyday of his life. He includes Holy Communion as one of the means of grace. So why is it that, by and large, modern Methodists practice the sacrament on a part-time basis?

I recently ran this question as a Facebook status update. It’s very fascinating to read the various responses. Some lay people joked that “we have to beat the Baptists to lunch.” This is funny but very true. It speaks to the importance (or lack thereof) we’ve given the institution in our weekly worship if it immediately brings to mind jokes about getting out of church late.

Methodist preachers who were circuit riders in the early days of the American Methodist Movement could only get around to their churches about once a month. Legend has it that for that reason, Methodists got into the routine of practicing Holy Communion on a monthly basis (and that’s the most often for many churches). Some pastors had up to 12 churches and so ordained clergy were on;y present once a quarter. For this reasons some may still practice on a quarterly basis.

Others will admit that we also avoid it because “it will hurt attendance” so we can’t do it too often (yes, I was actually told that by an ordained Methodist clergy person).

The Early Church set the precedence that Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, is more than just an aspect of worship–it’s the defining act that marks us as Christians. It is the reenactment of the incarnation of Jesus, the recounting of his sacrifice, and our call to “be for the world the Body of Christ redeemed by his blood.” For the early church, an “open table” policy was not practiced because one had to be a Christian to take part in the meal. Personally, I don’t think that aspect of the practice is theologically feasible in the 21st Century. Some may disagree. But the importance of the Table is no less reduced.

Justin Martyr (ca. 150) designed a basic Order of Worship that flows from Word to Table. One cannot have a service of Word without the observance of the Table because the sharing of the meal by the Body of Christ is the utmost response to the Word in the context of the act of worship. In other words, according to this view worship is not a full worship experience without a participation in the Lord’s Supper.

So why is it that the majority of our congregations do not adhere to this emphasis? Do we not recognize this as a change in church practice? If we cite history for our reasoning, then the greater question is “which history is most important?” The Protestant Reformation brought more of an emphasis to the Word part of worship, but the downfall of this has been an American Protestant culture that is suspect of things too liturgical. Either way, these are important questions to be asking ourselves; much more important questions on worship substance rather than the tired, old questions of style.

Part 2 of this post:
What are the underlying meanings of worship and how do we miss them by failing to practice this sacrament on a weekly basis?

The Sacredness of Everyday Life

I have a friend who recently exclaimed after two weeks of trying to follow a Lenten discipline, “This faith thing is just too stressful! How does anyone manage?”

Faith is hard. I can’t lie about that fact. It’s probably one of the hardest things to try and adhere to in life-acknowledging that you’re okay with the fact that something beyond yourself is in control. It’s takes real guts to have faith sometimes (although I would also say it takes real guts to not have faith too, but that’s for another post). Seeking to create and adhere to various practices and beliefs can begin to weigh on a person. In world that’s chaotic as it is, wouldn’t it just be easier to have faith when it’s convenient? Well, many of us do just that.

But for a moment, what if faith and life as a disciple were not that “difficult” as we sometimes make it out to be? Or maybe a better way to put it: what if we didn’t have to go to such extremes to search out and find ways to practice faith-what if all we needed were eyes to see opportunities and signs right in front of us?

The idea that faith had to offer meaning is a more modern construct in understanding what faith actually is. Early Christians didn’t practice faith because they felt inadequate and needed to find meaning in life-they did it because somewhere along the way they went through a process of transformation where they were taught that practicing faith is something you did because it was who you were.

As Christians, our baptism gives us a new identity-one where we don’t have to search long and far for meaning and worth in faith. Rather, this identity in Christ calls us not to care if we get any so-called meaning whatsoever out of faith practices and experiences-it’s about participating in something larger than we are.

It’s because of this reality that everyday life can be full of a plethora of encounters with the Divine. Faith isn’t something we compartmentalize into our “spiritual life” but it is, instead, the lenses we use to focus on the everyday and even mundane routines of life. It’s what helps you notice the beauty of a Spring morning in spite of the stress of “yet another Monday morning.” It’s what helps you laugh at the odd nature of children at play even when they’re steady working your nerves into a frenzy 5 minutes later.

It’s in the hidden moments of everyday life, when the mundane meets the Sacred, that we discover a God who can’t wait to reach out and be with us. And it’s when we’re able to slip up and see these moments amid the clutter of our lives, in all of their eccentric beauty, that we’re gradually formed a little more into who God desires for us to be. It’s not high-minded theological discourse we’re talking about; but rather, it’s about the muck and mire where the stuff of life becomes the very places where the Holy Spirit meets us anew. And we’re reminded in these simple moments-maybe more than the “mountain-top churchy moments”-that we’re not alone, God is with us.

What if We Can’t “Make Disciples”?

Go ask any church leader what they see as the mission of the Church in the world and they might quote Matthew 28:19-20 to you:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

I’m a United Methodist pastor and we make sure people know its our mission. Just read paragraph 120 of our Book of Discipline:

The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world

Now we could get bogged down into a discussion of etymology and debate Greek participles and cognates and how they could possibly change the traditional interpretation of this passage. But instead, let’s discuss the hidden meaning that quietly lies behind the phrase: “Make disciples.” Besides the fact that it makes for a much more interesting discussion, I think the meaning behind the actual meaning reveals a lot more than we might be willing to admit about how we view evangelism and discipleship in lieu of our “mission” as the Church.

Maybe it roots back to our American heritage and the impact of the Industrial Revolution. This, plus the framework established by a world of knowledge firmly grounded in the Enlightenment, gives us a systematic understanding of the world and everything in it. Life is put in terms of production. Success is measured in business-model terminology. Companies are run on “supply and demand” terms that emphasize creation, implementation, and finished products. We constantly look for “solutions” and “fixes” to all of the major problems of life. If there is any mystery in life, we’ll dissect until of its guts are out and exposed. Then we’ll put it back together only to seek to figure out a faster way to do it next time. In essence, we identify a problem, attach a good solution and voila-problem solved.

Many of those in seats where their voices are heard the loudest in our institutional churches would lead us to believe that churches can become vibrant again if we just simply find the “right formula” and implement it. The seduction of the bigger-is-always-better life lures us into believing that measurable growth is how we tell that something is functioning well. Discipleship is a concept judged in terms of “progress” and “measurable growth”-just as many churches are. “Benchmarks” are established as a means to evaluate the “success” of our work. And “making disciples” is the business terminology we use to emphasize this need for growth.

To “make disciples” leads us to believe it’s our mission to convert those who we deem as “not yet converted” and “make them a disciple of Jesus Christ.” Forget that this mindset led to many injustices during the height of Colonialism. The object of this game of church is to help those “over there” realize that they really want to be a part of what we have “over here.”

There are a couple of fundamental disconnects with this mindset. First, operating under these terms sets up an inherent position of power on the part of the “one who makes” and a position of subjectivity on the part of the “one who is made.” Being a disciple does not put us into a position of power entitling us to “take” the Gospel anywhere. Nor are we called to “produce” disciples in our local churches. To invite someone to church and introduce this framework tells a would-be Christian that they are inherently lacking in some capacity and are not worthy until they have exactly what we have to offer. The problem here is, who really wants to come be a part of something that tells you from the time you enter its doors that you’re second-class to those who are gathered there already?

Second, if our so-called mission is to “make” disciples, the implicit notion is that in order to “make a disciple” one must already “be made.” The truth we hate to admit is sometimes folks outside of our churches know the Good News better than we do inside our churches. We can’t shy away from the ways in which those from the outside of our religious circles can bring the Good News of Jesus to us inside religious circles. It’s not about “taking” Christ anywhere-it’s about finding where Christ is outside of our normal circles of influence.

In the end, all of this language of “making” or “producing” disciples is fundamentally flawed because there’s no such thing as a disciple who is “made.” We’re all on a continual process of growing, maturing, failing, and succeeding as we hope to merely keep up with where God calls us to be on our journey as disciples. The condescending notion that we could ever hope to “make” a disciple is laughable at best. How do we really make something when we don’t know for sure what exactly it’s supposed to look like? This doesn’t mean we don’t tell the story of God’s transforming love for the world. On the contrary, it means when we realize that it’s God’s message, we should concern ourselves more with being God’s people in the world and less with futile attempts to convert people to “our way” of understanding faith.

The truth is that at our very best, all we can hope to offer another is a nod in a good direction and a partner for the journey. We don’t have the answers or even all of the keys on how to finish this journey in one piece. Most days, we have no idea how to plod the road of discipleship or where it will eventually take us. But we do it anyways, in the hopes that we’re not alone. And so what if we have no idea how to actually make a disciple? So what if the best we can do is invite people into the mystery that is following Jesus? Let’s just take a deep breath and relax. The stress of “production” can weigh a lot on people. It’s okay to not have a solution for this one. It’ll make for better stories along the way.

How to Get More Young People in Church

Rather than coming up with an original post, I found one that says a lot of what I want to say on a topic but haven’t put words to. This is a very thought provoking post, albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that I believe was a repost from an Episcopal Bishop in Arizona. I’d love for this to start a conversation on a topic I know many of us who are professional pastors have at least worried about. But also, those who might have children or family or friends who are in the young adult category, what do you think? Enjoy!

by The Rt. Rev. Kirk S. Smith/Bishop of Arizona
One of the most frequently asked questions I face as I visit parishes is, “How do we get young people to come to church?” I thought this week I would allow a genuine young person to answer that question. Tamie Fields Harkins served for four years as our chaplain to NAU Episcopal Canterbury Fellowship. Last week she had this to say about that question on her blog, which I share with you here.


Here is a step-by-step plan for how to get more young people into the church:

1. Be genuine. Do not under any circumstances try to be trendy or hip, if you are not already intrinsically trendy or hip. If you are a 90-year-old woman who enjoys crocheting and listens to Beethoven, by God be proud of it.

2. Stop pretending you have a rock band.

3. Stop arguing about whether gay people are okay, fully human, or whatever else. Seriously. Stop it.

4. Stop arguing about whether women are okay, fully human, or are capable of being in a position of leadership.

5. Stop looking for the “objective truth” in Scripture.

6. Start looking for the beautiful truth in Scripture.

7. Actually read the Scriptures. If you are Episcopalian, go buy a Bible and read it. Start in Genesis, it’s pretty cool. You can skip some of the other boring parts in the Bible. Remember though that almost every book of the Bible has some really funky stuff in it. Remember to keep #5 and #6 in mind though. If you are evangelical, you may need to stop reading the Bible for about 10 years. Don’t worry: during those 10 years you can work on putting these other steps into practice.

8. Start worrying about extreme poverty, violence against women, racism, consumerism, and the rate at which children are dying worldwide of preventable, treatable diseases. Put all the energy you formerly spent worrying about the legit-ness of gay people into figuring out ways to do some good in these areas.

9. Do not shy away from lighting candles, silence, incense, laughter, really good food, and extraordinary music. By “extraordinary music” I mean genuine music. Soulful music. Well-written, well-composed music. Original music. Four-part harmony music. Funky retro organ music. Hymns. Taize chants. Bluegrass. Steel guitar. Humming. Gospel. We are the church; we have an uber-rich history of amazing music. Remember this.

10. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

11. Learn how to sit with people who are dying.

12. Feast as much as possible. Cardboard communion wafers are a feast in symbol only. Humans can not live on symbols alone. Remember this.

13. Notice visitors, smile genuinely at them, include them in conversations, but do not overwhelm them.

14. Be vulnerable.

15. Stop worrying about getting young people into the church. Stop worrying about marketing strategies. Take a deep breath. If there is a God, that God isn’t going to die even if there are no more Christians at all.

16. Figure out who is suffering in your community. Go be with them.

17. Remind yourself that you don’t have to take God to anyone. God is already with everyone. So, rather than taking the approach that you need to take the truth out to people who need it, adopt the approach that you need to go find the truth that others have and you are missing. Go be evangelized.

18. Put some time and care and energy into creating a beautiful space for worship and being-together. But shy away from building campaigns, parking lot expansions, and what-have-you.

19. Make some part of the church building accessible for people to pray in 24/7. Put some blankets there too, in case someone has nowhere else to go for the night.

20. Listen to God (to Wisdom, to Love) more than you speak your opinions.
This is a fool-proof plan. If you do it, I guarantee that you will attract young people to your church. And lots of other kinds of people too. The end.

On the Net: http://owlrainfeathers.blogspot.com/2010/11/ah-church.html

Lessons from Kindergarten

I remember one of the first scoldings I got in Kindergarten. The teacher, exasberated with a couple of us for arguing over a wonderful toy in the room, proclaimed, “Play nice and share!” We’ve all heard this before. For those among us with children of our own, we’ve probably said these words at nauseum. The very purpose of a young child’s life is to learn how to play nice and share with others. It’s funny what you remember from your childhood. And I’d be willing to be that we all can remember these two simple, yet profound lessons from around the time we were about Kindergarten age.

Oh how fast we forget these simple lessons. We live in a world where it seems that we often do anything but play nice and share. In fact, it seems that more times than not we’re discouraged from such benevolent gestures.

In Wisconsin, people are protesting for their rights to organize and negotiate for their salary and benefits. The Governor of the state believes that people should “pay their fair share” toward their benefits. This increase in payments will help fill in the gaps in the state budget that faces a major deficit. The state employess who are protesting fight on the terms that they shouldn’t have to pay more of their salary. Both sides are fighting tooth and nail to preserve what they believe to be “rightfully theirs.”

The health care debate continues to rage–even when the news doesn’t cover every major cord of the song of disharmony. The fundamental arguement is over whether or not the government (i.e. taxpayers) should pay for the health care of those who might not be able to afford it. Again, both sides frantically argue to save what is “theirs.”

War remains a reality for many across the world. Regions like Lybia and Egypt, while they ride the tide of democracy, do so under the currents of violence and ill-content. The Unted Sates continues to fight a war in Afghanistan. Violence remains a reality in our streets at home and an option as a response to crime under the 2nd Amendment of our Constitution. Violence easy becomes the means by which we preserve and protect what is “rightfully ours.”

The basic notion we all harbor (whether we want to admit it or not) is that when we “earn” something it’s ours and ours alone. Sharing becomes difficult when it means giving of what is “ours.” But children do it every day. Maybe it’s because when we teach them these lessons, we teach them that the reason they share is because they don’t “own” their toys–we give them toys to play with. Why doesn’t that hold when we become adults? Doesn’t God give us everything? Is my house or my wealth or my toys truly mine, or are they gifts from God? And if they are gifts from God, then, just like our kids, we’re called to share because we truly own nothing. Everything is given to us by God.

“Play nice. Share with others.” These are very simple words and I would never dare to claim that these simple words can solve all of the world’s problems. But they’re a good start. Yeah, it’s funny what you remember from childhood. God help us remember these simple and profound lessons every day.

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