Chapter 1: What the heck do we mean when we say “Connectionalism”?
Connection: The principle, basic to The United Methodist Church, that all leaders and congregations are connected in a network of loyalties and commitments that support, yet supersede, local concerns. (found in glossary of terms on umc.org)
As everyone across the United Methodist connection wraps up another season of Annual Conference gatherings, I thought it only appropriate to write a couple of pieces about the meaning of connectionalism as we face the challenges of trying to be a 21st Century denomination. These posts will address some of the challenges of connectionalism as well as critique some of the current ways the term is defined through our shared ministry.
I contend that if we are to truly live into what it means to be a vital church, connected to each other and to the world in the 21st Century, then we need to expand our definitions of what it means to be connectional beyond dollars and structure. It’s high time that “connectional” become a verb that describes the way(s) we engage in ministry at all levels.
Chapter 2: Stop Hunger Now Project, South GA Annual Conference
This year our annual conference gathering focused on the theme of justice. In between the annual reports, budget proposals, and debate over whether or not to cut districts from our annual conference, we were invited to participate in a mission project sponsored by the organization, Stop Hunger Now. Below is an excerpt from their “About Us” page on their website describing the nature of the event we participated in during annual conference.
Stop Hunger Now is an international hunger relief agency that has been fulfilling its commitment to end hunger for more than 15 years. Since 1998, the organization has coordinated the distribution of food and other lifesaving aid to children and families in countries all over the world.
Stop Hunger Now created its meal packaging program, in 2005. The program perfected the assembly process that combines rice, soy, dehydrated vegetables and a flavoring mix including 21 essential vitamins and minerals into small meal packets. Each meal costs only 25 cents. The food stores easily, has a shelf-life of two years and transports quickly. Stop Hunger Now works with international partners that ship and distribute the meals in-country.
The packaging operation is mobile enough to go wherever volunteers are located, and can be adapted to accommodate as few as 25 and as many as 500 volunteers at a time. One SHN packaging event can result in the packaging of more than 1,000,000 meals. The use of volunteers for product packaging has resulted in an extremely cost-effective operation while, at the same time, increasing awareness of global hunger and food insecurity issues across the world.
So how does this foster connectionalism, you ask?
I had the duty of weighing meal packets that contained rice, grains, and the essential vitamins and minerals for the meals we were sending off. The packets had to be in a certain weight range and once they were packed by volunteers, they had to be weighed and adjusted if need be in order to move to the sealing and packaging stage of the process. During this process I had the opportunity to work next to Ken and Gloria.
Ken is a fellow clergy person. In fact, he’s moving to the district where I serve this year. I had not met Ken before this service project even though we both serve as clergy in South Georgia. But serving next to him on this assembly line gave me the chance to have a great conversation with him as our hands were busy doing work neither of us were used to doing.
On my left was Gloria. She is a lay person from a small, two-point charge in an area of South Georgia I doubt I could find even if I had a map. Gloria was a delightful woman with a contagious laugh which I got to enjoy as we fumbled bags of rice together. I realized how annual conference tends to be a setting where the clergy/laity divide is accented. Clergy see friends they haven’t seen in a year and often don’t get the chance to engage laity in-between sessions. But this wasn’t the case with Gloria. Through the power of mission, she and I shared a space together we otherwise would not have shared. And it was delightful!
Chapter 3: When connectionalism should mean more
I worry sometimes that we have defined connectionalism too narrowly. Surely it should mean more than dollars and internal structure. A couple of examples to illustrate my point.
We voted this year to reduce the number of districts in South Georgia beginning in June 2014. One of the arguments against this change was that churches would feel less connected when a district superintendent with a larger territory to cover visited less often. And so I wonder: Do we really depend on district superintendents to fulfill what it means to be connected?
Another example we hear is that we need to be more connectional through giving apportionments at the district and annual conference level. This call for giving is only heightened in a day and age where financial resources are harder to come by. And let me say this is a very important expression of what it means to be connectional. But should it be the primary expression of connectionalism? I know we’re Americans and we can’t help but buy into the rationale that all of our problems can be solved with our pocketbooks. So while connectional giving is vitally important, we also have to be honest about the fact that the vast majority of apportionment giving goes to support our own structure, while a much smaller portion goes toward outside mission. Do we really want to argue that connectionalism means first supporting ourselves?
I am a supporter of apportionment-giving. I believe in the importance of a district superintendent. But I also believe “connectionalism” should be more than structure and dollars. It should also mean relationship and working together at even the local level instead of seeing each other as competition. If we have any hopes of being a connectional denomination in the 21st Century, then we have to learn how to work together — clergy and laity, local churches with other local churches — and not depend so much on a top-heavy structure. We need to foster more collaboration amongst ourselves and not simply expect a structure to do the work of connection for us. [Spoiler Alert: More on this in an upcoming post…]
]That’s what I took away from annual conference. And to think, all it took was an hour or so of joining with others to worry about something other than ourselves.
Before we were known for our massive processes for doing ministry; before our bureaucracy grew to a size rivaling only The United States government; and before our Book of Discipline grew to the size of a graduate school textbook:
Methodists were known as a singing people.
Those were the days when the movement was new and fresh. People were excited to be apart of something new and growing. And thanks to John and Charles Wesley, singing was at the heart of what it meant to be a Methodist (so much so, Mr. Wesley felt it necessary to print “Rules For Singing” that all Methodists were to follow and which are still found on the first page of our United Methodist Hymnal).
As time has marched on, we’ve seen a great deal of evolution in worship. Styles have changed, some have been blended. We’ve evolved from a liturgical church with an emphasis on disciplined living through class meetings, to a denomination focused on revivals and being a central power in the nation, to a church in decline searching for an identity with various styles and influences vying for our attention. All the while, we’ve tried to discover and rediscover what it means to worship God in such a way that gives proper praise to the Triune God and also seeks to connect us to God and each other in meaningful ways.
In that spirit, I would like to make a modest proposal:
Let’s have fewer choir anthems, fewer solos, less volume from our praise bands, and turn our focus back to congregational singing.
I know this may sound crazy at first. Who doesn’t love a stirring anthem or a moving offertory solo? Who doesn’t love hearing their favorite praise song led by that worship band who knows right where the drum solo or guitar riff goes to make the song soar to a new level? Who doesn’t enjoy going to worship on Sundays to hear talented, and in many cases professional, singers and musicians showcase their talents in ways that we only wish we could do?
But worship is not about listening — it’s about participating.
If church leaders fear that people are becoming consumers of worship, then we need to plan worship that places the average worshipper in the role of participant and not observer. There’s already a big chunk of the worship service devoted to listening to a sermon (15 minutes…or 25 minutes…or 45 minutes). That time needs to be balanced with opportunities for the gathered assembly to offer itself as a sacrifice of praise. And there is very little sacrificed when we’re afforded too much time to sit back and passively listen. Worse yet, it comes all too natural when we’re already formed as a people who enjoy consuming.
Let me recommend an article written last year by Dr. Timothy Tennett where he advocates we learn to unplug worship, turn down the electronic sound, and turn up the lights. His best lines for me are when he makes the case to emphasize the priority of the congregation singing together over the individual focused on their own personal time of worship:
It is very common today for worship leaders to dim the lights of the sanctuary during the singing part of the worship service. As a worshipper, you may not be able to see people across the room or even down the row. However, the lights on the “stage” or “platform” are very bright which tends to focus the attention on the worship band rather than on the people. I actually think it makes better sense to keep the lights in the sanctuary on during worship. One of the big conceptual differences between the “chorus movement” and the earlier “hymn movement” is that the former tends to conceptualize an individual singing and worshipping God, whereas the latter tends to conceptualize the corporate people of God, singing. I think dimming the lights has tended to send the message that this is your “personal” time before the Lord. Since it is impossible to “compete” with the electronically amplified voices, people often either just stand and watch, or they quietly move their lips but don’t feel that “joining in” can really make a substantial difference.
Before you think I’m simply picking on contemporary, praise band style worship, let me also offer a word to the more liturgical worship planners (because I am one):
A friend of mine told me recently, “a theology you cannot sing is not a very deep theology at all.” Singing requires we engage our faith with more than just our brains and this can be hard in a culture that says religion is simply a set of beliefs you either agree with or not. True faith, the kind of faith that shapes and forms us in ways we cannot begin to describe, will touch on all of our senses. And congregational singing has the power to reform us from individuals who simply ascend to a set of ideas, into a community that instinctively understands our shared life and faith are best sung about.
[For a powerful non-church example of congregational singing check out this clip. The National Anthem is one of the greatest soloist hymns of our time but I bet you’ve never heard it sung with this kind of power and emotion]
> “Poetry is thoughts that breathe; words that burn” (Thomas Gray)
Why do I need poetry?
Poetry is the language that puts words on the sounds and silences that make up our lives. It is the power to name that which is un-nameable. It is the grace to name something “Mystery” and to take comfort in that.
Why do I need poetry?
Poetry is the force that allows us to speak with fierce honesty about ourselves and the world we live in. It shatters the glass cases we use to contain things like faith, love, hope, and God. Poetry scoffs at our clichés because it knows those are merely our attempts to avoid life as it really is.
Why do I need poetry?
Poetry challenges me to see that the world is made up of more than just myself and my own junk. It dares to set free that which I try to put in a neat box. Poetry calls me to the silence and beckons me to be present in it.
Why do I need poetry?
Because on days when I am consumed with my own busyness, and pretend like I have all of the answers, I need to be reminded that in order to truly live, I stop pretending, slow down, and learn to sit with my own questions. For that is where God will meet us.
It was a hot, June day in South Georgia. The word “hot” doesn’t even seem sufficient. After all, June in South Georgia can bring days when the heat sits on you like a 50 pound backpack.
It was the sort of day when you couldn’t keep water cold for long. But you don’t care because you’d settle for tepid water if it means rehydrating after just a few minutes in the oppressive heat of the day. It was the sort of day when any indoor space became a Promised Land flowing with milk, honey, and air conditioning. On this particularly hot day, the assembly gathered in the convention center, fleeing the heat and anxiously awaiting the start of the next business session.
“Yes, microphone number 1. Do you have a speech for or against the motion on the floor? Please tell us your name and district.”
And then suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind filled the convention center. Some wondered if it was a summer twister – the ones famous for rolling through South Georgia at a moment’s notice on a summer afternoon. But then they saw it – fire. Tongues of fire rested on all who were gathered in that place. All at once clergy and laity alike began to speak in one accord telling of the glory of God. The business of annual conference became a revival where worship and singing sprung forth in true Methodist fashion. And there was no more division between people based on theological stances and worldviews. Friend and foe alike began to praise God and speak of his mighty acts of salvation.
Onlookers began to ask questions about the absurdity of the scene.
“They must be drunk!” one said.
One of those on the floor of conference responded, “We’re not drunk, we’re Methodists!”
In the midst of the singing and praising someone remembered the words of the prophet Joel:
“In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.”
What would happen if Annual Conference really transpired like this?
It can be easy to long for dramatic scenes of revival in the midst of what seems like mundane business sessions. We’re United Methodists, and these days we probably feel less evangelical and Spirit-led and more method-oriented and process driven. Sometimes it may feel like we listen to Robert’s Rules more than the Holy Spirit.
I’m still very new to the ministry (this is only my third Annual Conference session as a clergy-person). But I wonder if we don’t miss the forest for the trees in front of us when it comes to preparing for Annual Conference?
Maybe we long for the return of a past that we’ve romanticized so much that we miss the glory of the present and the future unfolding before us? We swear up and down on our grandmother’s grave that the Annual Conference sessions of 40 years ago used to be simpler and more spirit-filled. In an age of church decline it can be hard to see the movement of the Spirit among us.
Maybe we wonder if the mundane business of Annual Conference sessions – the policies, procedures, and Lord knows, Robert’s Rules – doesn’t serve as the perfect distraction from listening to where the winds of the Spirit are blowing.
But what if the Spirit of God is present even (and especially) in the moments when we aren’t expecting it?
What if the Holy Spirit is present in and guiding our talk of budgets and mission and even district realignments?
What if God’s Spirit is leading us even when we dare to talk about radically changing how we function as an Annual Conference?
What if, by the grace of God, we could see the Holy Spirit’s presence in our agendas and budgets, rules and procedures, reports and motions when we least expect it?
I’m looking forward to my third Annual Conference. I’m looking forward to breaking bread with friends and worshipping with the people called Methodist in South Georgia. But even more, I’m looking forward to being a witness to God’s mighty acts in and among us.
We do not orchestrate God’s redemption of the world – we simply look for the signs and participate in it. And we don’t have to wonder whether we should call on the Spirit to move among us – God’s Spirit is already at work in amazing and unexpected ways.
So I guess our prayer as we approach Annual Conference should be something like this: “Lord, give us eyes to see and ears to hear the signs of your mighty presence among us.”
Oh, and don’t be surprised if the cool rush of air you feel on the back of your neck at the Macon Centreplex is not the air conditioning at all. It might just be the quiet rush of the Spirit’s wind reminding you that God is indeed among us.
[This post originally appeared in The South Georgia Advocate on 5/3/13]
Some days…I grow weary of cookie cutter faith.
If a grave could not hold God, what makes us think a neat little box of our own making will do it? We would rather spend our energies proclaiming how God rubber stamps our political/social/ideological views and we miss the face of Christ in the stranger we pass by. You see, that stranger is longing for just a few moments from a Good Samaritan. But the only faith we can seem to articulate is meant for bumper stickers and sound bytes. How is it, again, that faith can somehow fit so neatly in a sentence or two? Would someone please remind me how to speak of God in 30 words or less in light of the madness of the world we live in?
Some days…I am bored with “churchy” talk.
It doesn’t matter if we sit in cathedrals and sing 300-year old hymns or if we gather in a storefront and pretend like what we’re doing is somehow new or contemporary — we think faith means severing all ties to the world around us. We say following Jesus means pretending like we don’t live outside the church six days a week. We want to act as though one hour a week (or maybe two if we count our Sunday School/Small Group/Community Group/Life Group/etc.) is the totality of our discipleship. We tell people serving on committees or volunteering to sustain our building or programs is what it means to follow Jesus. We forget that life happens outside of the “praise” we offer in worship. We avoid the tough questions and the messy circumstances because we don’t want to “turn people off” or somehow make others question God. We pray that life doesn’t get too complicated for people so they’ll continue attending and going through the motions of “church.” But life happens. It turns worlds upside down much like Jesus turns tables over in temples where we worship idols of wealth, self-help, and politics masked as faith. Where’s the bumper sticker when you lose a baby? Where’s the clever sermon series that speaks to the horrors of cancer or addiction? What pithy phrase do we dare offer when we learn of abuse or prejudice?
Some days…I get tired of the church’s navel gazing.
I grow weary of conversations where institutional survival is the main topic. Decline drives us to insanity some days. Maybe it’s not decline in size, but decline in influence and prestige? I don’t know. All I know is we absolutely cannot stand the fact that we are not what we once were. It scares us to death to think of a world where we are not the center of attention or the major power broker at the table. If only there were one more program, one more campaign, one more slogan that could “save” us. Never mind the fact that “the Church is of God and it will last until the end of time.” We’re not signing on that dotted line unless it means we remain at the top of the social mountain. Is it possible to be the Church for the sake of the world even if we’re not the church of the nation?
Some days…I want to count myself with the doubters.
Knowing it all can reveal the fact that we really know nothing when it comes to the living God. A faith built on answers leaves no room for mystery. It doesn’t grant permission for struggle. It fails to admit that we might not know everything when it comes to God. I want to struggle with my faith or else how am I supposed to grow? I want to doubt or else how am I to truly appreciate when I am in the presence of mystery? Let other people “know it all” and have the answers. I know it makes things like preaching and teaching difficult. But if faith were simply advice we sought “buy-in” for, then is that really faith at all? Surely there’s more than meets the eye?
Some days I want to write as a writer who happens to be Christian instead of a “Christian writer.”
“Christian writers” too often fear offending others or, God forbid, their narrow doctrine or worldview. Christian writers prefer a Christian world of their own making that’s “safe for the family” and pretends like messy things like death or poverty or cursing or prejudice do not exist. This Christian world emphasizes self-sufficiency and raising well-behaved kids. It has no time for people who struggle because they can’t pay their bills, find adequate healthcare, or who’s lives refuse to fit in the mold called “The American Dream.”
Writers who are Christian want to engage the world around them. They want to open themselves to the world instead of closing themselves off to it in fear. They refuse to be shackled by the narrow world of “church” because they know God is alive and well in the most unexpected places. They know the power at work in our everyday lives and they know how to tell a compelling story. They know God rarely fits into a formula or plan of action. And they trust that a story’s power can speak, by grace of the God, even when they do not have the answers. It’s reckless, yet freeing. It’s exhausting and messy, yet life-giving and strangely beautiful.
Some days…I want to be that kind of writer. I want to be that kind of pastor.
I want to tell you about a man who will make you believe God’s grace is real. Some of you may have heard the name Brennan Manning before, others maybe not. He was not as famous as C.S. Lewis although he could write beautiful prose that read as good as fiction much like Lewis. He did not write about 7 ways to grow a church or 10 ways to be happier in your job.
Manning was too busy living with the disease of alcoholism and writing about the relentless nature of God’s grace.
Brennan Manning lived as a man devoted to spiritual living. He was a member of the Catholic community based in France called Little Brothers of Jesus. He was a successful speaker and preacher at various conferences. But much of his life and career became defined to larger audiences by his decision to come back to America in the 1970s after acknowledging his deep dependence on alcohol. For the last 40 or years Manning has served as a speaker and author.
Arguably Brennan Manning’s greatest contribution to the Christian world was his coining of the phrase “Ragamuffin” as a term for what it means to understand yourself as a Christian. The best definition of what it means to be a Ragamuffin is probably described best in this simple yet penetrating sentence written by Manning:
“My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.”
I found Brennan Manning at a point in my life long after I had walked away from a call to ministry when I found myself doubting my faith altogether. On the days I actually thought about faith, I wondered what the point of it all was. I was lonely even though I was surrounded by others. I was in a desolate place even though my days were full of activity. I did not yet know how much I needed God. And I didn’t know yet how much Brennan Manning’s words would come to mean to me. A friend gave me his copy of the book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, and I read the first two pages of Manning’s words:
“The Ragamuffin Gospel was written with a specific reading audience in mind.
This book is not for the superspiritual.
It is not for muscular Christians who have made John Wayne, and not Jesus, their hero.
It is not for academics who would imprison Jesus in the ivory tower of exegesis.
It is not for noisy, feel-good folks who manipulate Christianity into a naked appeal to emotion.
It is not for hooded mystics who want magic in their religion.
It is not for Alleluia Christians who live only on the moun- taintop and have never visited the valley of desolation.
It is not for the fearless and tearless.
It is not for red-hot zealots who boast with the rich young ruler of the Gospels, ‘All these commandments I have kept from my youth.’
It is not for the complacent who hoist over their shoulders a tote bag of honors, diplomas, and good works, actually believing they have it made.
It is not for legalists who would rather surrender control of their souls to rules than run the risk of living in union with Jesus. If anyone is still reading along,
The Ragamuffin Gospel was written for the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out.
It is for the sorely burdened who are still shifting the heavy suitcase from one hand to the other. It is for the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together and are too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace.
It is for inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker.
It is for poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents.
It is for earthen vessels who shuffle along on feet of clay.
It is for the bent and the bruised who feel that their lives are a grave disappointment to God.
It is for smart people who know they are stupid and honest disciples who admit they are scalawags.
The Ragamuffin Gospel is a book I wrote for myself and any- one who has grown weary and discouraged along the Way.”
…I know, right?!?!
I never had the pleasure of meeting Brennan Manning in person but I felt like I knew him through his writing because he was so very honest and vulnerable. He wrote like a man who had nothing to lose — fearless in admitting his fears. He wrote like a man who knew the seductive and controlling power of sin that exceeds our pithy, human understanding or shallow morality. He wrote like a man who knew the life-changing and priceless cost of grace and what a miracle it is to be encountered by it at our lowest points.
Brennan Manning had the ability to write about God’s grace because who better to describe it than a man who lived everyday knowing how much he needed it.
As a gift of grace, Brennan Manning had the ability to strike at the very heart of how outrageous and scandalous God’s grace is:
“Because salvation is by grace through faith, I believe that among the countless number of people standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands (see Revelation 7:9), I shall see the prostitute from the Kit-Kat Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, who tearfully told me that she could find no other employment to support her two-year-old son. I shall see the woman who had an abortion and is haunted by guilt and remorse but did the best she could faced with grueling alternatives; the businessman besieged with debt who sold his integrity in a series of desperate transactions; the insecure clergyman addicted to being liked, who never challenged his people from the pulpit and longed for unconditional love; the sexually abused teen molested by his father and now selling his body on the street, who, as he falls asleep each night after his last ‘trick’, whispers the name of the unknown God he learned about in Sunday school.
‘But how?’ we ask.
Then the voice says, ‘They have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’
There they are. There *we* are – the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life’s tribulations, but through it all clung to faith.
My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.”
Manning also had a gift for seeing through the often shallow and self-centered ways we describe what it means to be a Christian. His writing is a prophetic act of imagination — prophetic for telling the truth about our church culture and imaginative in describing the world as God might see it. Read this from his wonderful book, The Furious Longing of God:
“The gospel is absurd and the life of Jesus is meaningless unless we believe that He lived, died, and rose again with but one purpose in mind: to make brand-new creation. Not to make people with better morals but to create a community of prophets and professional lovers, men and women who would surrender to the mystery of the fire of the Spirit that burns within, who would live in ever greater fidelity to the omnipresent Word of God, who would enter into the center of it all, the very heart and mystery of Christ, into the center of the flame that consumes, purifies, and sets everything aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant, furious love. This, my friend, is what it really means to be a Christian.”
Manning knew that being a Christian everyday of your life meant more than pithy, self-help advice. And it meant more than being consumers of religion. The demanding and life-changing task of being a Christian is truly living everyday as a new creation, as the person God truly created us to be. And it means living with the knowledge that we get it wrong many days. So we constantly stand in the need of God’s grace to help continue to be who God calls us to be. This grace also forms us into a people of humility and not arrogance.
Just last year I read what would be Brennan Manning’s last book, All Is Grace. It was my fourth written by him but it was the first in a few years. I decided to come back to Manning like you decide to pick up the phone and call an old friend out of the blue one day. You don’t know exactly why you do it, you only know that for whatever reason, it just felt right on that particular day. And let me tell you, it did not disappoint. The most meaningful parts of his memoir were when he addressed his relapses with alcoholism even after his encounters with “Abba” and his writing of books on grace. He simply said, “These things happen.” While I’m sure many pious people would say that’s a cheap answer, I don’t see it as cheap at all. I imagine a man who’s face is worn with years of struggling with faith and falling short. I imagine a man who knows the cost of grace only after profound low points in his life. “These things happen” are an admission, a truth-telling, that we cannot fix or save ourselves no matter how hard we try. Only God can save.
I write this post to join the ranks of those who claim the name of “Ragamuffin” because they read Brennan Manning and heard the voice of God speaking through pages filled with raw honesty about life and the human condition. Brennan Manning helped me understand that one of the first steps in living as a Christian is to not only be honest about our brokenness, but to embrace it. Only then can God truly enter into the mundane and routine parts of our lives. Only when we can see our own brokenness can we truly experience the grace of the One who was broken for our sake, and who continues to live and dwell in the broken places of our world.
The United Methodist Church has an amazing document entitled This Holy Mystery that outlines our doctrinal and practical understanding of the sacrament of Holy Communion. Maybe you’ve heard of it or even participated in a class where it was taught. I have the privilege of leading a small group in studying this document over the next six weeks.
One of my initial thoughts in approaching this series with a group of lay people is that it might be helpful to blog about it and share it with the wider United Methodist community. Therefore, I invite you to join me for the next few blogs as I process my experience in both studying anew and teaching this fantastic United Methodist resource on sacramental theology.
Spoiler alert: I think it will have a lot to say not only about how we celebrate Holy Communion, but also how we seek to form and be formed as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Session 1: Hungering for the Mystery
An excerpt from the teaching resource written by Gayle Felton:
The story is told of a little girl whose parents had taken her forward to receive Holy Communion. Disappointed with the small piece of bread she was given to dip in the cup, the child cried loudly, “I want more! I want more!” While embarrassing to her parents and amusing to the pastor and congregation, this little girl’s cry accurately expresses the feelings of many contemporary United Methodist people. We want more! We Want more than we are receiving from the sacrament of Holy Communion as it is practiced in our churches.
The resounding response from our group in hearing this story was, “YES!!!”
We began our session by going around the room and naming 1 or 2 words they think of when participating in the sacrament. Some said, “renewed.” Others said, “forgiven.” Still others said, “strengthened and nourished.” Oddly, no one said, “bored.” I wonder how many lay people are sitting in our pews wishing we could celebrate Holy Communion more often. Where I serve, the Walk to Emmaus has served as a great source for helping people find new love for the Holy Communion. A couple of Emmaus alums in our group noted how let down they were in finding that after a wonderful weekend away where Holy Communion was so prominent, they realized just how much their local church kept it off to the side as though was not central to worship.
Frustration was expressed when clergy rush the liturgy, when the table is not carefully and lovingly prepared, when the theology expressed is questionable, and when clergy do not teach on the rich meaning and mystery in the sacrament. The laity all said they wished they heard more about the sacraments. They wished practices matched the deep meaning the sacrament had in their faith lives.
I wonder, too, if the disconnect felt has more to do with what we see as the primary focus of our worship — do we see the sermon as the primary turning point of worship or do we see the Table? For our Anglican brothers and sisters it’s the Table. Sermons are short and normally lead straight to the Table. But we’re United Methodists (and I’m in the South) so preaching and revival-style worship holds a special place in our cultural imagination. Legends are told of the great preachers of our past. Preaching is viewed as a primary skill for the ministry (and it should be).
I wonder if our emphasis on preaching has come at the expense of emphasizing the importance of the sacrament of Holy Communion?
A couple of years ago I did a very informal, unscientific poll on Facebook asking whether or not Communion would lose its meaning and importance if it were celebrated weekly instead of monthly or quarterly. Interestingly my responses were split into two categories — everyone who voted for celebrating MORE often were laity and everyone who noted the difficulty in celebrating more often were clergy. Now I’m drawing my own conclusions but I wonder if that doesn’t have a little something to do with our emphasis on preaching. In other words, do we preachers secretly enjoy knowing that our sermons are the pinnacle of the worship service? Another thought could be that with more observances comes more planning and responsibilities — is it just easier on preachers and worship teams to stay with fewer observances?
But it’s not just a critique of the place and priority we give preaching. Emphasizing the sacraments calls into question how we view worship as a whole. Giving the sacraments a primary place in worship means not only allowing, but inviting mystery to be primary in our worship. This means we have to be okay with not being able to explain our the0logy and rituals in neat, compact ways. It means being okay with allowing the Spirit to move without our putting a formula on how it moves. And it means seeing worship as something more than just entertainment or comfort where style trumps content and we think we can become full off of a steady diet of thin, shallow meaning.
Don Saliers notes that emphasizing the sacraments in such a way as to make the link between ritual, mission, and discipleship will require some change in how congregations approach the sacraments. First, he says, congregations would be forced to teach and learn more about the sacraments on an ongoing basis. We need to teach worship instead of just doing it and expecting that folks get something out of it. But we cannot marginalize the sacraments just because they’re cloaked in some mystery and not easily understood. We can still teach in the midst of mystery. Secondly, Saliers notes, preaching would need to root itself in a sacramental sense of church and world. We cannot simply preach that salvation is found in Jesus’ death. The entirety of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is the foundation for our preaching and worship. The liturgy of Holy Communion covers the spectrum of this foundation, invites us to “taste and see,” and then sends us forth in mission as we participation in the fullness of life in Christ. Thirdly, congregations would have to celebrate the sacraments with more vitality and enthusiasm. Baptisms are not meant to be rote and routine. Holy Communion is not a funeral service. We offer ourselves in thanks and praise as we participate in the very life of God’s redeeming action every time we celebrate one of the sacraments. Why would we not want to do this as often as possible???
Question: How does your congregation celebrate Holy Communion? Do you wish you could celebrate more often? How are the sacraments taught in your congregation? Do you wish they were taught more?