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

Agreeing to Disagree: A Project on Political Conversations in Christian Love

Today I began a project to prove that younger adults can, in fact, discuss politics in a religious setting in a more civil way than our parents can. I know it sounds crazy. After all, it’s an election year. Turn on any cable news station and you’ll find the political rhetoric is getting ramped up a few notches in lieu of the upcoming Presidential election. Candidates accuse one another of all sorts of shortcomings. Networks heighten the drama by putting intense spin on these stories and then broadcasting them across a 24-hour cycle of never-ending emotional diatribes from pundits and analysts. While I find much of this to be theater, the saddest part of this equation happens in the shops, restaurants, coffee shops, and churches across American–arguments break out fueled by the as seen on TV rhetoric.

It is in this spirit that I decided to coax some young adults (late 20s early 30s) into a project idea that I’ve had for sometime. Over the course of the next few weeks we’ll talk about a variety of political issues. From the outset we know we will not always agree–some in the group may never agree. But the point of this project is not to agree or convert anyone to another ideology. We’re setting out to prove that it is possible to engage one another in passionate conversation, agree or disagree, and do all of this in the spirit of Christian love that ultimately edifies us all in the process. Therefore, we’re beginning the project not with issues, but rather in studying how we talk about issues. The hope is we’ll alter the terms that will guide our discussion once we get to actual issues in a few weeks.

Below you’ll find my outline for leading the discussion for Session 1: Beginning the Journey, Setting the Rules, and Discussing Labels

 

I. Begin the Journey

  • What has been your experience of political discussion around family dinners? Church groups? Friends?
  • How do you get your news? Do you prefer articles online or cable news reports?
  • Just and FYI: I’m a self-proclaimed Independent who’s a reformed Democrat (for example, I’m anti-war, pro-life, and anti death penalty; I believe in welfare insofar as it helps meet basic needs but I think conservative economics is the most fiscally responsible thing to do on a national level; I think we have to protect rights of minorities, I believe in gay marriage, and I also think states often know what’s best for citizens in their area because it’s contextually informed; and I don’t want the government telling me what to do as a pastor under any circumstances)

II. Setting Rules

  • Anyone is free to contact me personally if they feel offended by anything we discuss. I’m more than happy to hear the concern and I’m even willing to shut the whole project down if I feel like we can’t achieve our goal of upholding edifying discussions grounded in Christian love.

III. Discussing Labels

  • What do the terms liberal and conservative mean to you?
  • Would you label yourself as 100% liberal or 100% conservative? How can these terms be problematic?

Next Week: Session 2: What does it mean to be civil in our discussing political topics and how can we learn from the mistakes of others?

Justice and the Heart of the Poet

After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seemed all cross’d),

After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,

After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist,

Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name,

The true son of God shall come singing his songs

-Walt Whitman

The Church’s Alternative Vision for the World

I’m reminded on this day where we observe the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that the issue of justice has a way of taking unique shape for every generation. Time and circumstance will mold the conditions of justice into whatever form that generation is to encounter it. And so, as one who has agreed to devote my life to the ordained ministry of the Church, I have to ask myself, what does justice look like for me? In doing this, I have to admit from the outset that I am a middle-class, American, straight, white, male who has lived a great deal of my life in the majority of whatever social classification one can come up with. That being said, being called into the ordained ministry requires that I also expand my world beyond the groupings that sociological study can offer.

The greatest act the Church can do is to tell the truth about the world as it is, and offer an alternative picture of the future. We don’t always do such a good job of this because, frankly, we’re often too caught up in our own issues at the present time. Bills need to be paid. We’re losing members left and right. We long to be more efficient in operation in order to survive a cultural shift that would cast us aside from the center of society.

It can be easy to forget that before we institutionalized ourselves, we were called into the grander vision of salvation for the world in Jesus Christ. Before we sought to find our place in the order of the world’s priorities, we were called to a different set of priorities that would dare to toss the norms of society aside. And before we thought our job was to work within the framework of politics in order to bring about the Kingdom, we were called to radically embody the Kingdom and model an alternative framework to that with the political landscape can offer. 

It can be difficult for the mainline church to hear, but maybe we should consider leaving issue-driven justice alone for awhile. Now before you throw the pitch forks and flames, hear me out.

Over the past 200+ years of American evolution we’ve adopted every initiative from Prohibition to anti-gambling to civil rights. Many of these were bold and much needed during their time. What would this country be had the Civil Right Movement not happened from within the Church? But so much of our society is built around the ideas of identity politics now that we’ve slowly allowed the political realities of our world govern the ways in which we engage and live out the realities of the Kingdom of God.

The Prophetic Power of Poetry

Walter Brueggemann argues that the prophets of the Old Testament specialized in a poetic rendering of reality for ancient Israel. The great power of prophesy was not simply the message of change, but it was in the act of poetically rendering the world in a new and alternative way than the one people had known. The prophets spoke in imagery and poetic verse in such a way that it cut through the malaise of a prose-ordered world.

I’m reminded this day as well that Dr. King knew a little something about the power of poetry in constructing alternative visions of the world:

“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity…”

“But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred…”

“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

You see, King’s dream was a prophetic vision for the world as it should be and in spite of what it is. This is the same vision we need in the Church today. It’s one that is both prophetic and poetic. It’s a vision that’s not governed by politics or issues but is, instead, one that seeks to cut through our rigid and temporal vision of the world that we might see the world as God sees it. This is the vision of the great banquet table set in Luke 14 and we have to make sure that we’re not so consumed with our own narrow worlds we miss the invitation to the great meal. It’s a poetic vision of the world that offers an alternative to the realities we see and hear and know in the moment.

It’s not that I don’t think we should worry about efficiency and measurable vitality–I think we should worry a good deal about those things. And it’s not that I don’t think we should care about the pressing issues of the day and how our witness is revealed in our response to those issues–I think we should care deeply and passionately about pressing issues of justice and righteousness.

Let’s just make sure that when we do these things we allow for the vision of God’s kingdom to stay large and eternal in the process. Let’s see that we don’t get so consumed by our time and our issues that we forget God’s Kingdom is one for all time and space. Rather than trying to fit God’s Kingdom within our debates and policy initiatives, why not boldly proclaim the grand, cosmic vision of the Kingdom and see how our lives fit within that?

I’m indebted to the legacy of Dr. King–not just for helping lead a movement to pass laws and bring change, but for seeing the world in such a grand poetic and prophetic, Kingdom-driven way.

Jesus vs. Religion

This is a video that’s been made viral over the past week or so. According to YouTube, it has well over 2 million hits now. Jefferson Bethke does a wonderfully creative job of articulating the differences between Jesus and following a religion. And I admit that the first time I watched this, I was inspired and wanted to respond with a resounding, “Amen!” But it was on a second look of the video, guided also by an early critique I found, that I realized just how much might be wrong with this.

A Good Conversation Piece–Not a Piece of Theology

Also, my second glance at this leads me to want to dissect it theologically and outline all of the “bad theology” used here. It’s important to remember that this is a poem and not a scholarly work of theology published and peer-reviewed. Is there bad theology present in this? Yes, lots. But it’s a poem so we have to be aware of the type of work we’re dealing with here before we criticize it. You could argue that what he calls, “religion,” could easily mean, “Sunday Christian,” or “Christian hypocrisy.” It’s because of this that I think this can serve as a good starting place for conversations on what it means to be a Christian.

We have to be careful how much of this we regard as a theological statement and how much we use to begin an all-important conversation on what it means to be a Christians. Listen closely and you’ll hear Bethke say he “believes in the church.” So before we hear all of this and assume we should be inspired to simply throw out religion in favor of an individualized approach to following Jesus, just be clear that Bethke seems to be promoting a protest of bad religion–not all religion–whether he even wants to admit it or not.

Was Jesus Really Against Religion?

The simple answer to this is, no. Jesus was a good Jew raised by good Jews. Go back through the gospel accounts and you’ll find Jesus at the Temple, sometime blasting religious leaders, but always at specific times. Luke 2:39-52 tells the story of Jesus at the Temple at the age of 12. Note that it begins by saying that Mary and Joseph had followed the law following the birth of Jesus. It immediately shifts into a mention that it was their custom to go to the Temple of the Passover festival. Later passages locate some of Jesus’ best encounters at the Temple during specific festival times. Why is this important? Jesus was raised a good Jew whose parents followed religious law and observed religious rituals. No matter how much he blasted religious leaders, he did so out of devotion to the law and observances. Nowhere in the gospels does it say that Jesus wanted to end religion altogether–no matter how compelling Bethke’s poetic turn of the phrase, “It is finished,” might be. Jesus did not come to abolish the law or religion, he came to fulfill and fully embody it (Matthew 5:17). It may be cool to say that Jesus was anti-religion and anti-institution but we have to remember a couple of points about the biblical text (the only insight we have into who Jesus was): 1) Jesus came against the Pharisees often. Not because they were the symbol of religion, but because they were the symbol of bad religion–a religion consumed with works and self-righteousness and not grace, love and humility; and 2) The gospel accounts were written for religious, Christian communities who wrestled with this idea of what it meant to be a Christian and a follower of Jesus.

More About Being an American Christian than a Follower of Jesus

In the end I think this is an artistic portrayal of the tensions we face as American Christians. The culture as a whole has lost trust in institutions. No one trusts Congress, the government as a whole or the Church. I’d waste a ton of space going into the many good reasons for this mistrust so let’s just agree there are plenty of reasons. And yet somehow we have to reconcile the fact that we want to be Christian and not a part of the negative side of institutionalized religion. So we just resonate with the individualized approach to faith that says “I can be a follower of Jesus and I don’t need the Church to do that.” Sadly that’s more expressive of an American sense of vague spirituality than it is of Christianity.

This push for “following Jesus but not the church” wants to shake the shackles of religion in order to “truly follow Jesus.” But truly following Jesus requires we live a certain way and be held accountable to that. Has the church gotten this standard right over these past 2000 years–largely yes and largely no. It’s always a mixed bag of good when you look at it from that angle. But the spirit of this Americanized spiritual view of Jesus seems to desire more “freedom” and fewer “restrictions.” We just need to own the fact that this so-called “freedom without rules” is not Christian at all–it’s American.

I’m not entirely opposed to this wonderful work with words. Bethke turns some amazing phrases about church being an “ocean of grace.” I love his descriptions of an inclusive church. I just hope those who watch this video will see that the only way this is possible is for good people who see that grace as integral to their faith not to leave the Church in search of something they’ll never find. We need those people to live in, engage, and renew the Church as we know it. 

Leadership: On Cultivating Relationships with Prospective Church Members

Gaining new church members is an important task of the church. Now I know that I’ve probably labeled myself of late as one who doesn’t care about numbers or who thinks using attractional practices is manipulative. But the truth is, church’s need to gain members in order to continue the faithful task of being the body of Christ. Now please hear me, “gaining members” can come in a variety of ways and doesn’t have to be narrowed to our traditional understanding of needing more people to pay the bills and keep the church building running. But nonetheless, it is important that churches strive to understand how to gain new members in meaningful and substantive ways.

I’m very proud that I’m serving at a church that wanted to gain new members and was open to new ways of doing so. As of January 2012, we’ve added almost 100 new members in the last 18 months. Please note that while this is more than we’ve added in the 3 years preceding put together, it is not the huge influx of members that we hear stories about from church plants. We’re a historic congregation located in a downtown, urban setting. We’ve literally been here since the founding of our city. And I think it’s important to distinguish that from church plants that often crop up in new and budding suburbs that are capable of adding hundreds of new members every year because besides doing good ministry, the population shift is doing them a big favor.

For those serving a context similar to mine where you have history and culture to navigate through, I want to offer some lessons we’ve learned over these last 18 months of slow, steady growth:

Hospitality not a method of attraction, it’s a way of life

It can be easy to be in a setting where decline radiates the community as a whole and think you need to employ anything and everything to attract people to your church. But hospitality is one of the most basic expressions of the love of God and should not be used as a means of being “attractional.” At my church, we struggle at times with this because success seems to breed the mentality of increasing production. If we can be hospitable and attract these few, why not increase our efforts to attract more? It’s important to guide congregations to see membership growth as a by-product or out pouring of existing as a faithful church. The growth is not the mission of the church but instead can be the natural reaction when a church is faithfully living out its mission of being the church.

Prospective Members are to be viewed as opportunities for relationship

One of the arts of being a growing church is learning how to cultivate relationships once visitors come to your church. It’s much like courting or dating. Get to know people and their stories. Follow up and create an environment where the community does the heavy lifting here. People aren’t coming to churches seeing if they want to join a pastor–they’re coming to see if they want to join their lives with the life of the church as a whole. It’s everyone’s job to get to know new people. And don’t be too abrasive in getting to know new people. Just like you wouldn’t want to come on too strong with a person you’re dating, you don’t want to overwhelm people visiting your church. On the other hand, learn to discern those moments to “take the relationship to the next phase.” If a person or family have been visiting worship for sometime, find a time to privately ask them if they’ve thought about Sunday School or small group opportunities. Give them a clear and concise list of these opportunities and leave it with them. Ultimately it’s their decision to make and you have to trust the Holy Spirit in the timing of these decisions. We have to be both intentional and graceful in proceeding in these relationships. Let people know you care and trust that they know it.

Be Self-Aware

No one wants to deal with a person who struggles in knowing who they are. We all have friends who seem to be chameleons and it’s a turn off. Before you worry about how to “attract new people” work on finding who you are as a church. Again I come to the dating analogy: if I don’t know who I am as a person, how healthy will my dating life be if I’m consumed solely by how to attract others? Despite what the Apostle Paul says about “being all things to all people,” churches just can’t be everything to everyone. Churches should regularly examine and discern who they are in light of the current time and the place they occupy. But we also have to be self-aware enough to admit that we can only be who we are–we can’t be another church in our community or area no matter how envious we are of them. People will visit your church and be more likely to come back if they sense a confident self-awareness. If for nothing else, you’re less likely to bend over backwards in a desperate attempt real them in.

Be Authentic, NOT Attractional

This plays off the previous point. Remember the guy who always wanted to drive the coolest car or have the coolest clothes because he was convinced that if he had those things, girls would just flock to him? Maybe you were that guy at one time? Focus on being real before you focus on living into some idea of being “attractional.” Often that definition comes off as inauthentic if it’s not an expression of who your church really is. Stop going to seminars promising to teach churches, “12 ways to be more attractional” and just spend time sitting and listening and learning. You might be surprised to find out that your church, no matter what size or context, is a pretty cool church that folks would love to be a part of. The major hurdle standing between these people and your church might be your grand attempts to “be cool” that end up turning people off rather than attracting them.

In the end, I suppose the best lesson we’ve learned is that there’s no real formula or method for gaining new church members. It’s true what your parents tell you when you’re a kid, “just be yourself and people will like you.” If I could make a declaration to churches everywhere it might be something like this: stop trying so hard; be true to the gospel and let that inform you of who you are; love people for who they are and not what they can do for your church.

Question: What do you find to be meaningful ways to gain new church members?

 

Two Roads Diverge in the Woods…

Leadership has quickly become the buzz word in the church today. As we declines (rather as we come to terms with the long-term decline that’s been happening for 50 years) a growing desire to cultivate effective leadership has gripped the priorities of our churches. It doesn’t help matters that a very large generation of leaders are about to retire in mass so you can add a heaping dose of urgency to this growing recipe for effective leadership.

One of the fun and frustrating transitions from life as a seminarian to full-time life as a pastor is the transition we make from the theoretical lessons we learn to the application of those lessons. I’ve just come back from our annual conference’s annual RIM Retreat [RIM stands for Residence In Ministry] required of those of us undergoing the ordination process. It was a great time of fellowship and learning together with friends and colleagues who are all at the same stage of their vocation in ministry as I am. We gathered and heard great speakers share on a variety of topics ranging from leadership to worship to preaching. But I would say that leadership was, by far, the connecting thread across the series of talks.

Interestingly, I walked away from the retreat both energized and confused. I’m energized because it’s renewing to share and be with those who are learning and growing along with you. I’m energized also because frankly I’m nerdy enough to get energized by the exchange of ideas that happens in a learning environment. But my energy is not why I’m writing. I’m writing because I also feel a sense of being confused, now more than ever, about what it means to live out a vocation of ministry in the local church.

Maybe it was because it wasn’t too long ago that I sat in a seminary classroom, but I couldn’t help but feel a sense of whiplash in how the concept of leadership is presented once you’re out of seminary. It seems as though there are two worlds of thought when it comes to leadership and ministry: 1) the world of the practical, real-life experience found in the everyday life of the church; and 2) the theoretical world of leadership found in the academy. These worlds aren’t our own original creations, mind you. No, they’ve been here since before most of us showed up to learn what it meant to be a leader. Interestingly enough, these worlds seem to be pitted against each other at every turn you come to. Before I go into my confusion between these two worlds, maybe it would help to expound on them a bit more.

Leadership: An Academic Understanding

Most anyone who’s been to seminary can testify to the fact that you get into a sort of rhythm of thinking in the larger, more general sense. Theology is an invitation into an abstract world where ideas and platitudes exist in the place of people. Professors are accused (and some even admit to it) of isolating themselves into “the ivory tower” of the academy where they spend a life expounding on lessons for leadership and ministry that they’ll never live out.

On the one hand, some of the greatest minds the world has ever known have written from those ivory towers of academia. These minds have shaped the world as we know it and we can’t pretend that those who devote their lives to such work aren’t doing so out of a greater service to the world who would put to practice their ideas.

On the other hand, I get the criticism of this approach–I really do. If theology is not embodied in one’s life then it becomes an opportunity to excuse yourself from the world where God actually lives. Pontificating on theory becomes an excuse to avoid the reality of life itself. And so an imaginary world where ideas reign supreme is easily created.  That’s not to say that theologians in the academy aren’t disciples. It’s simply to say that there’s a real temptation for that discipleship to be reduced to the very small world within the academy if we’re not careful. Here the problem rears its ugly head when leadership is more about points and theories than people and circumstances.

Leadership: A Practical Understanding

There’s also a world that have us believe that to lead, we must solely rely on experience. This sort of “trial by fire” approach to leadership is very popular among many who spend their time primarily in local churches, dealing with real people who have real problems. One can’t learn the kinds of lessons offered in this approach from books because you have to live it to learn it. And the beauty is that when you live these lessons, you will inevitably have a chance to grow with them.

I get the criticism of this approach as well. If you simply learn by living you surely miss out on a great deal of knowledge available by brilliant minds. I also admit that we have to be careful not to be prejudice towards knowledge out of some false sense of humility. Being smart is not a bad thing and we shouldn’t encourage mediocrity among leaders in favor of “not coming off as too smart.” Too often leaders who subscribe exclusively to this approach inevitably shrink their worlds as well–the context in which they lead becomes the center of the universe. If hiding one’s self in an ivory tower of theory is a dangerous form of isolation, then shrinking the world to only my context for leadership is navel gazing at its finest. 

What’s a Young Leader to Do?

I’m reminded regularly that I’m still growing into this identity of pastor. And with that comes an identity as a leader. I’m aware that I’m still very young and inexperienced which means I have both a lot to learn and a lot to live. But I do want to bring to the surface the struggle that has plagued me for the past few months because surely I’m not the only victim of this struggle:

Why do we have to decide which world we want to exemplify as leaders? Why do we have to choose whether we want to be experienced-oriented or academically-oriented in our leadership? Why can’t we simply growth as both?

I know too much time in theological texts will leave me little time to be with people and learn to lead. I also know that I can grow dry and wilt when I’m not nourished by life-giving knowledge. These are questions I suppose I’ll struggle with between now and the time for my ordination interviews in a year. Maybe by then I’ll some better grasp on both approaches so that I don’t have to sacrifice either. I guess we’ll just have to wait to see…

“Say What?”: The Vague Call of Reform

If you’re a United Methodist, you’ve probably heard about the Vital Congregations movement that’s begun to help reform our denomination. A lot of money has been invested in studies, marketing, and analysis to come up with the conclusion that if we, The United Methodist Church, are to survive as a denomination and overcome a 50+ year decline, we need to “equip and empower people to be Disciples of Jesus Christ in their homes and communities around the world” (See homepage of Vital Congregations website for full quote).

Our agencies have gotten fat and our budgets are suffering the effects of malnutrition. The thought is it’s time to reform the larger denominational structure in order to empower our congregations to put action behind the mission statement of the church: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We’ve put this mission statement on every poster, brochure, website, program agenda, and banner–we know it by heart, it’s now time to perform it.

As we get closer and closer to General Conference 2012, there is growing buzz around the denomination about the extent of reform that will come out of that important meeting of our church. How much of it will be centered around this massive renewal spelled out in the Call to Action Report and Vital Congregations Initiative? What will these new initiatives mean for the life of church as we know it? If we’re equipping congregations in order that they may be called “vital,” what does that mean?

Let’s review some of the proposed characteristics of congregational vitality, shall we?

We’ve identified key drivers that include:

  1. Effective pastoral leadership
  2. A mix of contemporary worship and traditional worship
  3. A large percentage of the congregation involved in leadership
  4. An assortment of small group opportunities for all ages

We’ve made some key proposals in how our structure should be aligned:

  • Starting in January 2011, make congregational vitality the church’s “true first priority” for at least a decade.
  • Dramatically reform clergy leadership development, deployment, evaluation and accountability. This would include dismissing ineffective clergy and sanctioning under-performing bishops.
  • Collect statistical information in consistent and uniform ways for the denomination to measure attendance, growth and engagement.
  • Reform the Council of Bishops, with the active bishops assuming responsibility for promoting congregational vitality and for establishing a new culture of accountability throughout the church.
  • Consolidate general church agencies and align their work and resources with the priorities of the church and the decade-long commitment to build vital congregations. Also, the agencies should be reconstituted with smaller, competency-based boards.

All of this sounds great if you’re a fan of reform. I’m a big fan of reform and personally, I see a great deal of this only benefiting the way we operate as a large denomination.

However I do have a problem. My lingering question throughout this entire process is yet to be answered clearly and with the same depth that the rest of the analysis has been put together. That is, what does a disciple of Jesus Christ look like? We spend lots of time, energy and ink going into great depth on the need for congregations to become vital organizations. And we even believe this is done by “making disciples.” So if our mission is to “make [or form] disciples,” then what constitutes a disciple? 

Let’s go back to our new source for all things “vital: Vital Congregations webpage. There you’ll find at the bottom right of the homepage a box named “A Disciple of Jesus Christ” and you’ll read 5 characteristics that characterize a disciple:

  • worships regularly
  • helps make new disciples
  • is engaged in growing his/her faith
  • is engaged in mission
  • shares by giving in mission

Now before you get swept off your feet by the excitement of these characteristics [insert sarcasm here], there is biblical backing for such a description. The site notes Matthew 22:36-40 as the source for this description. And I would argue that the twofold law of the gospel is a great place to start when talking about how we view and grow our faith.

But I also have some major issues with this description [you knew that was coming]. For starters, why do we like to reduce everything down to bullet points and simple statements. It’s almost as though we don’t think the members of our churches want to get bogged down in an overly wordy and in-depth description of their discipleship. I reference us back to one of the great scenes from my all-time favorite show, The West Wing, for a better diagnosis of this flaw:

Gov. Ritchie: We need to cut taxes for one reason – the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.

Moderator: Mr. President, your rebuttal.

Bartlet: There it is. That’s the ten word answer my staff’s been looking for for two weeks. There it is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while… every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words. [Season 4 Episode 71 Originally aired 10/30/02]

You see, as a young pastor in The United Methodist Church, I’m not looking for short, simplistic answers to the great questions of how to live as the Church in our world. And frankly, over my short career in ministry I’ve found that most laity long for something deeper as well. I want the complexities that come with admitting that discipleship is hard. I long for the words of liturgy over the words of a grocery list rendition of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. When do we get to the parts about “resisting evil, injustice, and oppression” in all forms? When do we talk about “confessing Jesus Christ as Savior” and “putting our whole trust in his grace”? And when do we get to the part that reminds us:

Through baptism we are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation and made to share in Christ’s royal priesthood. We are all one in Christ Jesus. With joy and thanksgiving we [are welcomed] as members of the family of Christ.

When you put these vague statements on discipleship together with the clear, direct statements on what the church needs in order to reform, you get little more than a plea to save our institution without the cost of doing just that. We want to convince people that they should “be engaged in growing their faith” but we fail to say how to do so. We want people to “help make new disciples” but we fail to say that comes with a price–or rather, a cross. We want people to “attend worship regularly” and “give to missions” but we fail to disclose the truth that the life of a disciple is a life where worship is embodied everyday and missional is a description of a life given for service to the world.

I want to believe that the Vital Congregation Initiative is a positive step for the church. And maybe it is a good place to start. I want to believe that realigning resources accordingly will better enhance the ministry of The United Methodist Church to the world. But until we move past these neatly packaged, banal, vague statements into something with depth and [dare I say it] life-changing qualities, I suppose I’ll remain a skeptic–a skeptic devoted to the ongoing, transformative work of the church nonetheless.

What Does Family Really Mean at Christmas?

I was reminded this past weekend of just how difficult it can be to let Christmas truly be a Christian observance. We spend the season fighting against the hustle and bustle of a commercialized rhythm that can leave any church in the dust.

We did 4 worship services over the course of the weekend (3 on Christmas Eve and 1 on Christmas Day). I figure the vast majority of churches probably followed a similar pattern. It wasn’t until I read an article via the Patheos blog that I even realized just how many were not planning to hold worship on Sunday, December 25, at all. In fact, around 10% of Protestant pastors polled by LifeWay said they did not plan to hold worship on Christmas Day. Why? Well, many churches cite the need for the staff and ministers to have a day to spend with their families. One church’s website I found (and won’t disclose) even said that “Christmas is a day to love and appreciate family, we will not have worship on Christmas Day so that families can do just that.” Very interesting.

I hear the tension that exists for pastors who try to balance their family life with their vocation of ministry. I now know first-hand just how much work goes into Christmas Eve services so I get the fact that many would rather hold the very best services throughout Christmas Eve and then take the next day (Sunday) off. It’s hard when much of your logistical work is done by volunteers who have conflicts on a holiday weekend. It’s hard when you consider the paid staff who would like a day off as well. It’s not a decision to be made lightly.

But let’s at least be honest that underneath the family needs on Christmas Day, we’re also canceling church because we think no one will attend. The truth is, if we were guaranteed the same crowds on Christmas Day that we see on Christmas Eve, we wouldn’t consider canceling worship even if you paid us. So yes, there are family needs at play here. But there’s also a marketing mentality that informs us to believe that low crowds don’t merit our best efforts so maybe it’s more efficient to close up shop instead.

So in that spirit, I wonder what sort of message a mass canceling worship sends to those outside of the church?

The author for the atheism section of about.com makes the ironic connection in his article titled, “Christmas: So Christian that Churches Close for Christmas Day.” It is a bit ironic that we spend so much time preserving some sense of religious observance throughout the season just to say that we’ll close on Christmas Day itself in favor of “quality time with families.”

Rather than trying to make the point that short of natural disaster or weather that makes it unsafe for travel you shouldn’t cancel worship–period, I want tease out this idea of family. What constitutes our sense of family? And how is that sense informed by our identities as Christians?

The United Methodist Church’s Book of Worship contains the wording of the Baptismal Liturgy we practice in the life of the church. In it, there are some interesting ways this idea of family is reoriented in light of one’s baptism:

“Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church…we are given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.” [BOW p.87]

With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God…” [BOW p. 89]

“Through baptism you are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation and made to share in Christ’s royal priesthood. We are all one in Christ Jesus. With joy and thanksgiving we welcome you as member(s) of the family of Christ” [BOW p. 92]

You see, while canceling worship might be more convenient for pastors in our observance of family time, we are, in fact, neglecting the family time of the community of faith. Limiting family to one’s immediate family at Christmas is not Christian at all. We have to be honest about that fact. As members of the baptized community of faith we have to hold fast to the idea that for us, “family” has been expanded to touch the far-reaches of the church universal.

So is an hour on Christmas Day really a sacrifice when it comes to spending quality time with our family in light of our baptismal identity? I guess that’s a question pastors, members, and churches should ask themselves. But don’t worry, I hear 2016 will give us another opportunity to respond to such a challenge.

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