If you’ve been anywhere near a television or a computer this week, you’re aware of the eventful week at the US Supreme Court. Through the power of our nation’s legal system, the definition of marriage has come to trial and we await the decision of the court amidst the protests of many advocating their position on how marriage should be defined and/or changed.
All of the back and forth debate has led me to ask some questions about marriage. As a pastor, I’m called on regularly to perform weddings (I have 2 coming up in May). And as a young pastor, I’m still learning the ends and outs of weddings and how to be a pastor to couples as they enter into the marriage covenant.
So rather than pontificating about my theology of marriage, I’d like to ask questions about how marriages are recognized in the church and our greater society. I don’t want to express my beliefs as much as I would rather try to simple punch holes in the current system of how marriage is defined, executed, and lived out in both church and society.
Is marriage a legal contract or a theological covenant?
For pastors and Christians, this is probably a no brainer — it’s both! But slow down a bit, is it really? When couples come to a church for a wedding, they seek counseling and we teach (hopefully) that marriage is about a covenant that transcends even the legal and temporal things of this world.
But when is a couple “officially married” — after the service or when we sign the government-issued license?
And when a couple divorces, where is the divorce handled — in the church or at the courthouse?
All of this then leads us to ask, what is the primary function of a pastor at a wedding — to be a representative of God or an officer of the state?
Do we really believe in a separation of church and state or is that just something we like to say?
It’s commonplace for churches and pastors to say we believe in a separation of church and state. This separation gives room to live into the tension of being both a citizen of a nation and also a people called to be citizens of a kingdom that transcends time and space. We get offended (rightfully) when churches promote partisan political values and endorse candidates. We might even struggle with the placement of the American flag in the sanctuary, noting that worship space is not national space. We enjoy tax-free status largely because we are meant to be separate from government and not part of a nationalized religion.
But when we do weddings, who are we acting on behalf of?
And when we protest or support government definitions of marriage, are we saying we prefer the government to define marriage instead of the Church?
Tony Campolo has written a thoughtful article on the possibility for compromise in this great debate. In the article, Campolo wonders if we could remove government altogether from the definition of marriage. Government’s role, Campolo dreams, would be one where it sets up legally binding civil unions for all people so long as the unions are entered into in good, legal faith. Campolo then says churches could do the work of enacting marriages based on covenantal and church standards. This would allow same-sex couples to be married in a church that recognizes same-sex marriage without being restricted by state laws. It also allows churches who do not condone same-sex marriages to continue to do so without any interference from the government. I’m not sure if this is a good solution but it sounds hopeful.
No matter where we stand on a “definition of marriage” we all should admit to this: Our views reflect an incredibly complicated and often dysfunctional relationship between Church and State.
Holy Week has begun. It’s a time where we relive and follow the passion of Jesus from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, to the agony and despair of his final meal with his friends before his death, and then finally to the miracle of the empty tomb on Easter.
It’s a glorious time in the life of the church. By now plans have been made, bulletins are being printed, and the excitement is building toward what should be one of the biggest weekends of the year in the life of the local church.
It’s also the time of year where a special creature emerges from hibernation — the Chreaster.
UrbanDictionary.com defines Chreaster as: Those Christians who only show up to religious services on Christmas and Easter. Maybe it’s family pressure, maybe it’s out of obligation, maybe it’s just habit, or maybe it’s because it seems like the right thing to do, but these are people who attend church twice a year. And we’re about to embark on the second sighting of Chreasters in the last 4 months (or the last sighting until December?).
I’ve had the opportunity to be in a couple of clergy meetings in the last week or so. As you might expect at this time of year, Chreasters are a featured conversation topic. Usually the conversation moves in a predictable pattern. First we bemoan the existence of Chreasters (“you know those people will actually find their way back to church this Sunday…”). And then we talk about the opportunities, challenges, and possibilities of a Chreaster sighting (“What if they actually heard the Good News this time? What if they were inspired to morph into an actual church member? What if…?). As the conversation moves in this pattern, you can just see the clergy in the room licking their chops. They’ve caught the scent of fresh blood in the waters and they’re already imagining scenarios where possibilities become realities. Sermons are being honed to just the right calibration — when we fire our best shot and cast the net, we’re expecting to real in some Chreasters.
What if this Easter, we concentrated less on our hunting strategy and more on sharing in the good news of resurrection together?
I know that may sound crazy to some. We should always be invitational. We should see every Sunday as an opportunity to invite people to change their lives in light of the good news of Jesus Christ. I wouldn’t disagree with any of that. It’s vitally important that we be invitational.
But what if we began our sense of being invitational by viewing Chreasters less as creatures and commodities, and more as people made in the image of God? What if we saw Easter less as a hunting expedition and more as a communal experience of resurrection?
You see, the assumption we make in our talk about Chreasters is that we’re a privileged bunch enlightened in the right ways of believing and living and until they join us, they are not. We can’t imagine Chreasters not wanting to join our tribe once they heard about how great it is. We figure all we need to do is get the message right this time, open the doors, and they’ll come running. The truth is, Chreasters come back on Christmas and Easter year after year, they hear the appeal year after year and they still opt out of becoming “one of us.” Maybe it’s not a sales pitch problem at all, maybe there’s a problem with the product they see?
It’s hard to hear that we don’t have it all together. And it’s hard as Christians who are used to seats of power and esteem to hear that we are still in need of grace. Pastors are also notorious for assuming we are wells of knowledge and insight. In all of our preparing, planning, and preaching we forget that we too need to hear the good news of resurrection. It’s not ours to tell, we need to hear it as well. Our churches need to hear it too. Too often we exist week in and week out in a fog of self-denial while we focus all of our energy on our own self-preservation and success. We desperately need to hear again that life does in fact spring forth from death. We need to hear again that God’s plan for the redemption of this world is on the move despite the fledgeling efforts of the Church. And if we’re honest, we should admit that Chreasters aren’t meant to be creatures we hunt as much as they are eyes and ears and voices of the goodness of God outside of our church walls.
What better day than Easter to gather with insiders and outsiders alike to hear the good news that, by the power of God, there is still hope for us all. God is not finished with any of us. This Sunday, may we listen before we speak, look before we judge, and share in the joy of new life together.
I’m writing this column around 2:30pm on Ash Wednesday. We’ve completed two of the three services we’re offering today. It’s been a busy day of activities and our night will end just as the day began – with a worship service reminding us that we are dust and to dust we shall one day return.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” You know, sometimes it’s strange to be a Christian.
This is only my third Ash Wednesday in the role of “pastor.” I’m in my very first appointment and in many ways I’m still learning what the title of “pastor” really means. For example, Ash Wednesday reminds me that as pastors we have the duty and delight to tell people, “I invite you, in the name of the Church, to observe a holy Lent.” Maybe I’m still young and a little green, but there’s a part of me that shudders every time I declare that the words I’m about to say are on behalf of the whole Church universal. Yet every Ash Wednesday I tell people that contrary to what direction the cultural winds might be blowing that day, we are expected to live a life of holiness.
Lent is a season when our priorities shift. It is no longer an option to remain bland, “Christian when it’s convenient,” pew-warmers. Lent reminds us that being Christian means change – even when it hurts.
When everyone else is worried about being comfortable in life, Christians spend a season trying to remember how uncomfortable the Christian life can be. Strange indeed.
One of strangest things about Ash Wednesday is the way the Christian life demands physical touch. When I look into someone’s eyes, move their hair to the side, and rub my thumb on their forehead in the shape of a cross it’s a very intimate moment. The miracle of the Incarnation is that Christ is most fully found in the physical and tactile ways of being human – holding sweaty hands in a hospital room, finding blemishes of make-up left on your collar reminding you of a hug someone shared that morning, having your shoulder soaked with the tears of another person, tearing bread from a loaf to place into the mouth of a person who does not have full use of their hands, and yes, rubbing a little dirt on the forehead of each other. Being Christian means we share the full human experience with each other, and when we do so, Christ is among us. There are a lot of things you can do by yourself but being a Christian is not one of them. Very strange.
Lent also reminds us that no matter how hard we try, we won’t make it out of this life alive. This is a time when we are constantly nagged with the reality that whatever magic pill we’re taking, cosmetic surgery we’d love to get, or anti-aging remedy we’d like to try, nothing will stop the process of death. I was keenly aware of this today as we were imposing ashes at a local assisted-living facility. It struck me about halfway through the process that here were two young pastors under the age of 40 telling a room full of senior citizens that they will one day return to dust. The look in their eyes as they graciously received the ashes told us they knew the meaning to those words better than we did. After the service I went to a nearby sink to wash out the bowl we used for oil. One of the residents from the service came over to me on her cane, took my plate, and insisted on hand-washing it for me. I was just going to give it a quick rinse but here this saint of God stood, leaning on her cane, and gently and lovingly washing and drying the bowl. I didn’t have to ask her about the theological meaning of God’s hospitality – I could tell by the way she treated that dish she had years of experience treating other people the same way. You see, as I was relishing in the irony of telling senior citizens they were to one day return to ashes, she embodied the way we are called to live as we journey together through life – in loving service to each other.
I hope you’re season of Lent is going well. And by “well” I mean I hope it also hurts a little. No one ever promised being a Christian would be easy. All we’re promised is the unfailing love of God and a few friends along the way as we learn share in the beauty and strangeness of the Christian life. Thanks be to God!
A friend of mine posted this picture on Facebook a couple of weeks ago. Initially I laughed at the idea of a church offering “Hip Hop Praise Jam” and “Gregorian Chant Liturgy” in the same morning. Then I laughed especially hard at the name of the church: “Consumerist Church of the Sacred Demographics.” The icing on the cake for me was the sermon title: “God Has a Wonderful Cafeteria Plan for Your Life.”
Finally it hit me — this is exactly how most of us approach doing church. And then I stopped laughing.
Some will say that it’s important for churches to offer something for everyone. They will tell you that the object of plugging into a church is to find the niche that connects most with you and churches should go above and beyond to have a niche for everyone.
I am not among those who would say these things. The temptation to become a consumer-driven church is real and we need to be careful lest we become nothing more than franchised shopping centers of religion.
Setting Up False Inferiority Complexes
One of the reasons we shouldn’t push all churches into niche ministry is because many churches simply cannot engage that sort of approach. If you’re a United Methodist, you’ll know the vast majority of our churches are classified as “small churches” (membership < 300). Small churches simply do not have the resources to pull off a vast array of niche ministries. And pushing them to do so by mimicking whatever great, new church plant down the road is doing, will inevitably sets up an inferiority complex.
It’s time we start admitting that much of the amazing work the Holy Spirit is leading in a particular church simply cannot be duplicated and mass-produced.
This is why we need to take a moment to slow down so we can tell the difference between our biblical mandate and our American capitalistic drive.
A biblical mandate says to go into the world preaching, teaching, and baptizing. It says we are to disciple one another in the ways of Jesus. Part of carrying out that mandate is learning the lay of the land and prayerfully discovering how the ways of Jesus can be lived out in a particular context with particular people. Our American, capitalist drive says if certain methods work well in one place, all we need to do is duplicate those methods everywhere and we can franchise the way to be church. In other words, a biblical mandate cares about people first while a franchising mentality cares about methods and results first. Churches of all shapes and sizes can put people first by uniquely and faithfully seeking to engage the communities they are in using the resources they already have. Other peoples’ ideas too often become warmed over leftovers that don’t fit outside of the context they are in. And that’s okay.
It’s Okay Not to Offer Something For Everyone
I know this may feel a little counterintuitive. If we want to reach people, don’t we need to offer something that will connect with them? Well, yes and no.
Churches need to peddle faithful worship as as a way of connecting people to God. This can be done through whatever style best fits the context of the church. And it’s okay not to offer multiple styles — in fact, it’s often better when churches stick to only one style and do it very well. Research done through the UMC Vital Congregations Research Project shows that multiple worship styles have a positive correlation ONLY in congregations that worship 350+ — this accounts for about 5% of all UMC congregations (click the link and go to p. 39 for the data).
In other words, most churches are better off choosing one style and doing it very well.
Programs offer another conundrum. On the one hand, you need to offer basic formative programs for children, youth, and adults. On the other hand, you can find yourself trying to be the Wal-Mart of churches by offering something unique on every aisle for the average person to choose from. When is enough enough? I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know this: maybe we should think of our programs more as a means to form people as disciples of Jesus, and less as a means to attract outsiders. Ministries are not advertisements or commercials — they are faithful ways we seek to serve others and be formed as disciples. People may well be attracted to faithful ministry. But the purpose of ministry is not primarily to attract.
Jon Taffer is the host of Bar Rescue on SpikeTV. It’s a show about turning downtrodden bars around into profit-making businesses. I personally think it has a lot to say about how we approach doing church as well. In one particular episode, Taffer goes in to help a bar that specializes in offering a little something for everyone. This bar is a hodge-podge mess of a business with no real identity because it wants to be something for everyone and ends up not doing anything well. Taffer makes a profound statement during the episode when talking to the bar owner. He says: “Bars can’t be something to everyone, they need to be everything to someone.”
So your church doesn’t offer something for everyone — you’re in good company. How about we try harder being everything to something and trust God to take care of the rest…
[Just a quick note of apology: We had our big music Sunday on the 2nd Sunday of Advent and I didn't do any original liturgy because the music was the bulk of our service. Sorry about that!]
To make up for that mistake, I want to offer 2 possible liturgical routes for this coming Sunday with a little rationale.
On the 2nd Sunday of Advent we were offered two choices from Luke’s gospel. One was introducing John the Baptist and his role as the “voice crying out in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord.” The second choice was from Luke 1:68-79 — the Canticle of Zechariah. If you chose the Luke 3 John the Baptist text, I think you have an interesting opportunity this week in worship.
Is Advent a Season for Lament?
A growing trend is churches who observe a Service of the Longest Night around the date of the Winter Solstice. The Christmas season can be a tough time for lots of people. The previous year could have been wrought with loss and heartache. So the holiday season only reminds them of that loss when placed in context with the joy of the season. It’s vitally important that churches remember how important pastoral care is in Advent because it can be all too easy to get caught up in Christmas parties, traditions, and celebrations.
I think worship is a perfect place to bring the baggage of a tough year. If we Christians want to be faithful, then we must remember we are a people formed by good times and bad times. It’s a holy act to allow people time and space to grieve and mourn at the holidays.
So what if the 3rd Sunday of Advent were a Sunday to highlight these needs for pastoral care?
My friend, Taylor Watson Burton-Edwards makes a great case for why we should not create a new service to address pastoral care needs during the holidays when the season of Advent makes room for this in our regular Sunday morning worship time. Read his article here
Here’s my 2 cents worth on why the 3rd Sunday of Advent is a great time to address these needs:
The 4th Sunday of Advent is the day before Christmas Eve and if you’re like us, that will be the Sunday when people decide they can no longer stand Advent hymns and insist on a carol or two. Maybe that’s the Sunday where other Christmas traditions become front and center as well. Like it or not, December 23rd is close enough to Christmas that Advent will probably be a fading memory for many on that day.
The 3rd Sunday of Advent, Dec. 16, is far enough away from Christmas that Advent is still a reality. It’s also far enough into the season that early pomp and circumstance can give way to a much-needed change in tone.
So without further adieu, below is some liturgy and hymn selections for a Sunday worship service geared around themes of light/darkness as well as care/hope in the midst of despair:
Advent Wreath Liturgy
Advent is a time of preparation for the coming Messiah. When darkness surrounds us, we are reminded that God’s Messiah is the Light of the world. This Light is the light of hope, and darkness does not overcome it. We light the third Advent candle in preparation for the coming of God’s Messiah. We stand in solidarity with those for whom this is a difficult season. And we boldly proclaim that salvation for all is at hand.
Light the candle
Come, Lord Jesus. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen.
Holy God, we gather with expectation and hope as we approach the advent of your Son, Jesus of Nazareth, whose coming was foretold by prophets of old. Grant that through the singing of your praise, and hearing of your Word, we may be prepared for another encounter with the Living Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
[from "Prayers for the Seasons of God's People Year C" p. 16]
Litany For Those In Need This Season
O God, we come to you in prayer this day:
For all who have a song they cannot sing,
For all who have a burden they cannot bear,
For all who live in chains they cannot break,
For all who wander homeless and cannot return,
For those who are sick, and for those who supply care to them,
For those who wait for loved ones, and wait in vain,
For those who live in hunger, and for those who will not share their bread,
For those who are misunderstood, and for those who misunderstand,
For those whose words of love are locked within their hearts, and for those who yearn to hear those words.
Show us the Way, O God, for we your people walk in darkness. Amen.
Suggested Additional Items:
Canticle of Light and Darkness (UMH #205)
Hymn No. 218 “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” **sing verse 3**
Hymn No. 211 “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” **sing verses 1, 5, 6, and 7**
Hymn No. 209 “Blessed Be the God of Israel”
If you do not want to go this route, I suggest the following pieces of liturgy keeping with the lectionary for the 3rd Sunday of Advent:
Advent Wreath Liturgy
The prophet reminds us that we are to bear fruit worthy of repentance.
The Messiah is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire
and all flesh shall see his glory.
We light the third Advent candle in preparation
for the coming of God’s Messiah.
We prepare by repenting of our sins,
and living lives devoted to loving God and serving our neighbor.
Light the candle.
Come, Lord Jesus. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen.
**same as above**
Prayer of Confession/Assurance of Pardon
**Use UMH #366 as a unison prayer of confession**
Hear the Good News: Our Advent hope is that God’s Messiah will come to baptize us with fire and the Holy Spirit. By the power of God, we will bear fruits of transformation. All of this proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.
In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Thanks be to God! Amen.
There’s a growing discussion in the church these days over whether or not we should use statistics as a tool to evaluate ministry. One side says “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth counting” (to paraphrase Will Willimon) while the other side argues that we should prioritize the subjective over the objective — after all, how can you measure spiritual transformation.
Honestly, I can sympathize with both sides of the debate. Statistical data does help monitor health whether it’s taking one’s blood pressure or measuring the bottom line of an organization. Numbers may not give a complete story, but they can give indicators that help tell a larger story. On the other hand, numbers fail to tell certain parts of a story. My blood pressure say nothing about my personal character. Likewise, bottom-line numbers like profit margin say very little about overall working conditions and employee morale. We have to admit that while numbers do help us evaluate, they cannot be the sole tool for evaluation.
All of this begs the question: If we are moving to a culture where numbers are used more, can we figure out a way to use the right numbers in the right ways? In other words, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth counting — and if it’s worth counting, it’s worth counting right.
How Could We Count the Right Things the Right Way?
Sabermetrics is a new phenomenon in Major League Baseball. If you’re not a baseball fan, maybe you’ve seen the movie Moneyball with Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill? That movie was the story of how the Oakland A’s used sabermetrics to field a playoff quality team full of relatively unknown players. The basic premise of sabermetrics says we can make better evaluations through the use of objective data. What makes sabermetrics unique is its use of complex formulas that offer a more complete composite report. For example, WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is an attempt by the sabermetric baseball community to summarize a player’s total contributions to their team in one statistic. This is an example of how sabermetrics thrives on using more than one metric at a time to make an evaluation.
So what does this have to do with the church?
What if we could create a sabermetrics system to aid in evaluating churches and clergy?
The complaint over the current proposed set of metrics annual conferences and denominational leaders are using is that it’s too simplistic and doesn’t give a thorough enough analysis. I would agree. New members added cannot tell the whole story of growth in a congregation. Further, membership says very little about discipleship because membership and discipleship are often two very different tasks.
But what if we could employ a formula that could track new members for 3, 5, or even 10 years as they get plugged into the life of a local congregation? What if there was a composite formula for scoring local congregations on adding people to meaningful ministries after they join in membership?
How could we measure missional activity? Is there a way to use the numbers provided in charge conference reports in such way as to score the overall missional activity of a congregation? Could baptisms play into the missional activity of a congregation instead of just growth numbers?
Could small groups be divided based on content so bible studies and practical theology affect different areas of analysis? What about Sunday School? How would long-term studies like Disciple be scored with multiple short-term studies?
How could average worship attendance be viewed as something more than just a means to track how many butts are in seats every Sunday?
The Big Question: How would these numbers be used?
In his book, The Sabermetric Manifesto, David Grabiner writes:
Bill James defined sabermetrics as “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.” Thus, sabermetrics attempts to answer objective questions about baseball, such as “which player on the Red Sox contributed the most to the team’s offense?” or “How many home runs will Ken Griffey hit next year?” It cannot deal with the subjective judgments which are also important to the game, such as “Who is your favorite player?” or “That was a great game.”
Therefore, sabermetrics cannot be expected to give subjective analysis. It is a means to put objective data up against a subjective story in the hopes of giving a more full narrative account. Obviously disciples of Jesus Christ cannot be mass-produced which is why sabermetrics could offer a more faithful way of monitoring growth and progress that is slow and very detailed in nature.
But what if sabermetrics can aid Bishops and Cabinets in appointment-making. Instead of using salary and tenure as the primary drivers for making appointments, what if complex data was available so that clergy strengths and church needs could be better matched up? How would our culture of salaries and entitlement need to change to allow this to happen?
Could sabermetrics offer a means to address missional concerns in appointment making? How would Bishops and Cabinets need to work with local churches so as to make room for longer pastoral appointments if that means missional needs are being met?
Likewise, could sabermetrics offer a more objective approach at defining ineffectiveness that takes into account a variety of concerns and does not favor unfair data like number of new members, avg. worship attendance, etc.? If sabermetrics could tell a more full story of ministry, surely it can also track ineffective ministry in a way that is less biased and more faithful to the overall health of the church.
I don’t know the answer to many of these questions — they’re above my pay grade and experience level. However I do think we should be asking tougher questions. If we’re in fact moving to a culture of more counting, then let’s count the right things the right way and use the data in a faithful way for the betterment of the Church and God’s mission.
Otherwise, we’re just creating ways to prop up a dying institution. Who wants to get excited about that?
What are your thoughts? Is there hope for using data in a healthy way that better tells the full story of ministry?