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

Keeping Christ in Christmas

Christmas has a special way of really bringing out both the best and worst in many of us. I was reading an article the other day about how we can “save Christmas” by demanding that retail stores drop their conventional, “Happy holidays” line for the more religious, “Merry Christmas.” And it made me think of one particular experience I had that has just stuck with me.

I vividly remember one particular day of the Christmas season a few years ago when I was trying to finish my shopping. I was at a local retail store in the town I was living in at the time and I was behind a man who seemed to be growing more and more impatient the longer we stood in the line. I figured it was merely a symptom of the typical holiday anxiety — long lines mean blood pressure elevations for many of us. But he surprised me when he finally got his turn to check out in the line and decided to speak up to the frazzled sales associate.

“Ma’am, please do me a favor and save your ‘Happy holidays’ line. I’m a Christian and I’d appreciate it if you told me ‘Merry Christmas.’ I just hate how you stores try to take Christ out of Christmas.”

There I was, with my own front-row seat to this exchange. And actually I thought the man made a lot of sense, really. Who did these stores think they were reducing the true meaning of Christmas down to a bland, innocuous notion of “Happy holidays?”

As the man left, I quietly agreed with him and even felt very justified in my seasonal discontent. I left the store that day wondering if I could help start a revolution to take Christmas back from department stores who would dare to remove Christ from the holiday. I buzzed out of that store, bags in hand, ready to take over the world and rectify this injustice.

It was a cold day and snow flurries had begun to fall. The traffic was slow and I was enjoying the Christmas music playing in my warm car. As I was exiting the parking lot, I was so excited about this revolutionary idea that I almost missed noticing a man who was standing at the entrance of the shopping complex. Since the traffic was slow I was able to get a good look at what he was doing. He was a disheveled man who looked like he hadn’t seen the right side of soap and water for some days. He was staring blankly at the traffic leaving the shopping complex holding a simple, handmade sign that read: “Will work hard for food. Very hungry.”

Yes, even at Christmas people find themselves hungry and hurting and hopeless. It’s such a wonderful season for so many of us that it can be easy to forget this. That day I was excited about a mission to “put Christ back into Christmas.” It never occurred to me that I might be driving right past the best opportunity to do just that.

[This article ran in the Macon Telegraph on Saturday, Dec. 10]

Friday Prayers: Teresa of Avila

Here is a prayer from St. Teresa of Avila. Read more about her here

Lord,
Thou knowest better than I myself
that I am growing older and will someday be old.
Keep me from the fatal habit of thinking
I must say something on every subject and on every occasion.

Release me from craving to
straighten out everybody’s affairs.

Make me thoughtful but not moody;
helpful but not bossy.

With my vast store of wisdom,
it seems a pity not to use it all;
but Thou knowest, Lord,
that I want a few friends at the end.
Keep my mind free from the recital of endless details;
give me wings to get to the point.

Seal my lips on my aches and pains;
they are increasing, and love of rehearsing them
is becoming sweeter as the years go by.

I dare not ask for improved memory,
but for a growing humility and a lessening cock-sureness
when my memory seems to clash with the memories of others.
Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally I may be mistaken.

Keep me reasonably sweet, for a sour old person
is one of the crowning works of the devil.
Give me the ability to see good things in unexpected places
and talents in unexpected people;
and give, O Lord, the grace to tell them so.
Amen.

It’s Not That Easy Being Green: The Church’s Quest for Relevance

 

 

Relevance. It’s a word you seem to hear more and more in church circles and leadership training seminars. The mainline church has been in decline for over 50 years and, many argue this can at least be partially attributed to the fact that, by and large, the Church can’t seem to remain relevant in an ever-changing world. If we can’t speak the language of a changing world, there’s no way we can ever hope to have a viable presence in said world.

It’s no secret that one of the biggest signs of this lack of relevance shows up in the lack of persons between ages of 25-35 on Sunday mornings. I’ve heard many make passionate and well-founded arguments that “you have to understand young people if you want them to come to church.” “This generation will take or leave the church.” “They aren’t like their parents or grandparents.”

Now besides the fact that such statements are vastly over-simplified and do not reflect any sort of consensus among younger adults (or their parents and grandparents for that matter), there is something to be said for the fact that a gulf between the church and society in America at large that is becoming more and more evident with every study of worship attendance and membership that comes out.

As a member of this elusive demographic, I would like to explore this idea of relevance in the hopes that I might at least spark a hearty discussion in the process.

Generation of Target Consumers

Somewhere around the mid-1970s or so a revolution in advertising happened. You see, ads are always run at particular times of day on particular channels during particular shows in order to target particular people. Around the early to mid 70s toy companies decided to shake things up by advertising straight to children. Whereas they always centered ads around parents and tried to attract parents into buying particular toys, these companies took to Saturday morning television (prime-time for kids) and centered their ads right at kids so they could then beg their parents for whatever the latest and greatest toy was that morning.

What does this mean for the church’s quest for relevance?

For starters, if you’re centering this quest for relevance around that elusive 25-35 year old demographic, you need to understand that we’re the first generation ever that will be advertised to from the cradle to the grave. Therefore, any quest for relevance that is anchored in advertising will very easily become white noise to a young adult. The church doesn’t need to try to be “hip” or “cool” in order to attract young adults. Frankly, the church isn’t very good at that stuff.

Secondly, the style of worship your church offers has much less of an “attractional” element than you might think. So many churches think, “if we just offered that rock band style of music young folks will knock our doors down.” That isn’t true. Very rarely do young post-grads ever search out the nearest church with the biggest rock concert to offer on a Sunday morning. Young adults will, however, ask a trusted friend or a co-worker about the church they attend. And this church could come in any shape, size or style–just so long as someone they know and trust is there to welcome them.

Relevance or Authenticity?

You see, if the church really wants to speak to younger adults, rather than striving to be “relevant” why don’t we just be authentic. Honesty goes a lot further than folks give it credit. If you don’t believe me just look at a big chunk of Ron Paul’s supporters–younger adults longing for a politician who will be honest and not speak from talking points. And the church ought to try that for once–speaking from the heart instead of a script of doctrinal talking points.  

If you want your church to be relevant, then it won’t happen with slick ads or flashing lights and loud music. It won’t happen only in the form of a preacher who wears t-shirts and blue jeans and who sits on a stool to preach on Sunday mornings. It won’t be a part of any sort of manufactured and packaged effort that hopes to make your church somehow “attractional.” You don’t boast about “being real” either–you just are real and don’t make a big deal about it.

If you really want to be relevant or real for younger adults, then why don’t you do some truth telling about yourself and the world we live in? The world is a complicated and messy place and, frankly, it can be hard to stomach simplistic theology that tries to make God and the meaning of life into a 2+2=4 formula.

Why don’t you ask us what our passions are? Why don’t you sit down and listen to our dreams? Our fears? Rather than imposing some set of assumed “needs” you see younger adults having, why don’t you just ask? Remember that when, as a church, you attempt to “meet the needs” of younger adults without listening and learning you often just project your own needs upon folks you don’t even know. Just know that when you do listen and learn and love you have to be ready for some truth-telling in return. If the offer of Christ is to come in the form of love, then it can’t have an agenda. These young adults may not come to your church right away. They may drift in and out depending on where life is taking them–and that’s okay.

If you want to speak to the issue young adults face, be relevant if you will, then try being bold about who you are as a church. Talk about issues that matter beyond the walls of your church and leave room for questioning. Let us bring our black, hispanic or even gay friends to church because, after all, many of us simply see them as friends who don’t need a special pass to be allowed into worship. Talk about relationships in ways that aren’t trite and simplistic. Our lives are complicated and we need help navigating the rough waters of relationships without having a judgmental wave try to knock us off course. In all of this, don’t try to be everything to everyone and just try being authentically who you are.

When you do worship, dare to sing big beautiful songs about God and the world and not the pithy little anthems that only tells the story of my faith or my salvation. There’s a big world out there and we need the language of faith that recognizes we aren’t actually the center of that world. These songs can be sung with both pipe organs and electric guitars. Heck, many of us might even like it if you occasionally mixed a good banjo in with your guitars. And when you finish singing these big beautiful songs, dare to send us out into the world like we might actually be able to make a difference. God’s grace is big and mysterious but we need to know that it’s with us nonetheless, even when we don’t totally understand it. Oh and please, please, please do the sacraments often. Don’t rid the church space of mystery and iconography. I’ll let you in on a little secret–mystery is actually one of the biggest reasons many younger adults attend church (even if it is sporadically).

As a wise frog once taught us, “it’s not easy being green”–but it is beautiful. Rather than wasting a lot of time and energy trying to be relevant, why not just dare to be the church. And know that you’ll have to ease some of us along and teach us a new language. But if you’re faithful to that language, not sacrificing it for the sake of “relevance” or growth, you might be surprised who shows us ready to hear an actual word from the Lord on a Sunday. They might even decide to put that word into action the other six days of the week as well. If you don’t believe me, just go down to your local coffee shop or happy hour bar and just ask a young adult yourself. Tell the truth, be authentic, and don’t worry if it makes you look a little green. “Authentically green” is a good color for the church.

Friday Prayers: Paul Wesley Chilcote

 

This was in one of the devotional resources I use reguarly. It’s worth sharing…

“Created in God’s own image–with the capacity to love–we seek to love God with our whole being and love our neighbors as ourselves. Faith is the means to this loving end. In other words, built upon a firm foundation of trust in Christ, our lives move toward the goal of love–the fullest possible love of God and the fullest possible love of all people and things in God. What an audacious vision, to be immersed and lost in God’s love! The Wesleys described this goal as perfect love or Christian perfection…and is this not the one burning desire of the heart–to be filled, immersed, and lost in this love?”

“Gracious Lord, you fully know and fully love all you have created: grant me power to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge, that I might be immersed and lost in your love. Amen.”

 

[writted by Dr. Paul Wesley Chilcote in A Life-Shaping Prayer p. 31-32]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Are We Doing Here?: Questioning our Methodist Mission

A lot of ink is in the process of being spilled over what ails the United Methodist Church. Everyone seems to have their own take on what our shortcomings are and what could ultimately save us. With General Conference coming in 6 short months I’m sure we’ve only scratched the surface of ideas to save our denomination. It is in the spirit of offering ideas that I would like to explore an avenue that could inspire us to think anew, or at least differently, about who we are and what we’re about as The United Methodist Church.

Russ Richey explains in his book, Doctrine In Experience, that from the outset, Methodists saw their purpose as one of Providence. With Methodism’s timing in America, at the beginning of a new nation, Richey notes:

“Methodists conflated the kingdom of God with the nation, construed denominational purposes in terms of those of a Christian America, and in making the church subservient to Christian nationalism, intimately tied the former’s health to the later’s” (p. 21)

Now this problem isn’t exclusive to the UMC by any stretch. Protestantism in America as a whole fell victim to tying its mission too closely with the utopian notion that somehow America would, unlike its European older siblings, form itself into the perfect mix of Nation/Church. The past 200+ years have illustrated the slow demise of this mission. One of the major problems churches all over the country now face is a lack of vision and mission. I would argue that much of this is due to the fact that our earlier purpose was faulty at best. When the promises of democracy and liberty as the ultimate form of being the church failed and the realities of pluralism in a global society revealed the fault-line in the vision of a so-called “Christian America,” The United Methodist Church (along with all other mainline denominations) suffered a blow to its structure that we’re now all trying to assess and hopefully heal.

So what has Providence looked like throughout American Methodist history?

For starters, the historical questions that have been asked of Methodist preachers at ordination over the many, many decades can offer a glimpse into our earliest views of providence. The 3rd question, What may we reasonably believe to be God’s design in raising up the Preachers called Methodists?, became nuanced very early. Over the years this answer has offered a statement of Methodist purpose through the wording: to reform the Continent, and spread scriptural Holiness over these lands. And thus our purpose from the beginning was tied to the development and evolution of the nation.

Methodist historian, Abel Stevens, drew the providential connection of church and nation firmly. In his book, Compendius History, Stevens sketched Methodist system as one mirroring that of a machine. It was no mistake that he sought to link the physical work of James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine, with the moral work of John Wesley. Stevens firmly believed that the mechanistic design of the Methodist system was a perfect fit for a nation encountering the evolution into the Industrial Age.

Matthew Simpson, the Methodist pastor/historian famous for being a close confidant of Abraham Lincoln, extended this vision of a conjoint mission between the Methodist Church and America. For Simpson, it was through the experience of the Civil War that the Methodist Episcopal Church found itself wedded to the nation. If the American Revolution offered the roots of our “revolutionary spirit,” Simpson saw the Civil War as the fundamental act whereby the American Methodist Church separated itself as a church unto itself. Therefore he told the amazing stories of American church growth. He reveled in the success of the institution that displayed superior organization and efficiency. But when it came to providence, Richey notes that Simpson let the nation be the beacon of light:

“Such claims had led [Simpson's] predecessors almost inevitably and immediately to invocation of providence. Simpson made much less of providence than they. When he did speak of it, the nation rather than the church came into focus” (p. 31)

In linking the mission of the church to that of the nation, Methodism essentially practiced a form of Christian Triumphalism. And now, in a post-Christian nation/world, we’re left to fight the temptation to fall into a new sense of triumphalism. Many are both very critical and very supportive of the Call to Action statement offered by the Council of Bishops. It’s a major structural change that seeks to address the excess and inefficiency identified as a primary source of our “lack of vitality.” But just as the Methodist church has done before, it adopts major practices from the American culture to find a source of providence. The structural changes promise a priority on the building of congregations. We’re no longer to be a connectional church as much as we’re called to be a collection of churches. But the problem is, as far as I can tell, we still don’t address our lack of vision and self-awareness. “Making disciples for the transformation of the world” easily gets linked to church growth when we fail to recognize the measures of what disciples look like and how they are formed by the grander vision of what the church is called to be (found in paragraph 201 of our Discipline but often overlooked in favor of the “bumper-sticker” approach mission statement). All we seem to be left with is the natural inclination that a bigger church will be a better church and we need to get bigger in order to get better.

I’m a self-avowed critic of the Call to Action not because I don’t like accountability, and not even because I don’t think statistical reporting is a good thing. I think there’s some merit in how the Call to Action addresses both the need for accountability and the need for diagnostics as a church failing to live up to God’s call. My concern is in the end-game. What do we believe God is calling, nay demanding, of us as a 21st Century Christian denomination? What do we think will actually come of building more churches? And if providence is at the heart of the Methodist mission, then what does that look like?

Whatever we think will come of this, we should be wary that we don’t fall into the trap of creating yet another manifestation of Methodist mission shaped by American ideals. That experiment didn’t work the first time. So we need to spend some time thinking and praying about not only where to go, but who we actually are. If we’re going to spread scriptural holiness by forming disciples in the practices of holy living, we can’t domesticate this mission into any sort of vision of Christian America or  franchised brand of the Methodist system.

 

Friday Prayers

One of the practices I’ve come to enjoy is finding prayers of saints, theologians, and even the most ordinary Christians. I’ve begun a collection of prayer books ranging from the daily offices to simple books written by various authors. I hope to make it a weekly post to share a prayer that I find.

Gracious God, we thank you for the gift of prayer. What an extraordinary thing that we can pray to you, unburden ourselves before you, place our cares, woes and joys before you. I confess I find praying an awkward business. I keep thinking, “Who am I to pray?” But I know that to be false humility, hiding my prideful desire to be my own creator. So we pray a prayer of joy in prayer, asking that we become your prayers for one another. Amen.

[Written by Stanley Hauerwas in his book, Prayers Plainly Spoken, p. 23]

It’s More Than a Book: A “Disciplined” Perspective on Wesleyan Leadership

Leadership seems to be one of the new buzz words around the church these days. No matter where I go or what meeting I’m attending, inevitably someone will bring up the issue of leadership. Part of the reason could have a little something to do with the fact that no matter what situation it’s brought up in, it’s also followed by reasons why we need to improve leadership in the church. This recurring topic has led me to ask a question: What does leadership in the Wesleyan tradition look like?

As much as we become enamored with various models of leadership, I would like to advocate that whatever means we use to inform our leadership, we don’t neglect the richness of our Methodist tradition in the process. It’s my belief that our United Methodist Discipline serves as more than merely a book of church law. It can and does offer a perspective into a distinct Wesleyan form of leadership–one that has shape and distinct voice on how one is to lead within the Body of Christ. And this form centers around the various meanings of the Methodist word discipline.

I begin with a list from Russ Richey’s book, Marks of Methodism, which is volume 5 in the series, United Methodism and American Culture. Richey notes 9 different ways we understand the term discipline in the Methodist tradition:

  1. It is a book developed to inform church practice;
  2. It was a means of guiding class-level discipline and oversight for members and leaders of classes. Generally disciplinary cases would be heard at quarterly conferences;
  3. The disciplined life has historically been a “mark” of Methodist living. Being Methodist meant disciplined living;
  4. Discipline as explicit practices that guide holy living. One engages in acts of discipline in order to uphold a disciplined life;
  5. Discipline as covenantal living. It was a Methodist norm that Christian living be viewed in terms of covenantal living with both God and neighbor;
  6. One is found to be “under discipline.” This is especially pertinent of clergy who are bonded in covenant to the Discipline and community of clergy;
  7. Discipline as fidelity to the gospel. One must hold in tension the relationship between fidelity to gospel and denomination;
  8. Discipline as the distinct good order of the church. United Methodists have held that discipline is a distinguishing “mark” of the church; and
  9. United Methodism has understood discipline or order to be an essential ingredient to polity, structure, mission, operation, ministry and governance of the Church.

In all of this, one can see that discipline is a book, an exercise of ecclesiastical judgment, a way of living, a set of practices, loving mutuality in oversight, a recognized accountability, the state of being faithful to the gospel, the good order of the church, and the polity or governance of the church.

So what does this say about leadership in the Methodist tradition?

For starters I think our view of discipline offers a temperance of any new, hip model of leadership we might want to adopt. There is a great deal we can learn from business and the corporate world. Corporate leadership models can inform the way we operate efficiently in an ever-changing world. I’m a big advocate of learning from “secular” leadership models. But we have to be careful that in our pursuits of efficiency, we don’t surrender our distinct identity as leaders of a Wesleyan church movement.

Over the last 25 years or so we’ve inched ever-so-subtly into a world that prioritizes functionality over structures that discipline. Rather than discipline that governs we prefer disciple-making and from functional order as our identity we prefer a more fluid form of organization that is contextually informed. None of this is wrong, per se, but we at least have to be honest about what these trends and priorities mean for the church.

For example, we can’t merely see “disciple-making” as the primary aim of the church if we neglect the paragraphs that follow in our Discipline outlining the definition of the local church (paragraph 201) where it’s described what a disciple looks like and how disciples are to live into the character of the church. As leaders we have to recognize that our Discipline outlines specific Wesleyan values in forming disciples. And this orders the way we faithfully seek to help congregations in the journey of disciple-formation. If we neglect these structural points in favor of the more simple approach of merely, “making disciples for the transformation of the world,” we inevitably equate disciple-making with recruitment.

Secondly, we should view our discipline (both the book and the order of life) as an expression of what it means to be the church. In other words, moving too far away from our distinct heritage of leadership will eventually lead us to operate in a way that is not Methodist. Shane Hipps makes this point when he argues that eventually “the medium becomes the message.” He notes this reality in the world of technology but it’s true in organization as well. If we communicate a way of being that is not Methodist for too long, even for the sake of so-called efficiency, eventually we won’t be Methodist.

Finally, we have to see our discipline not only as a way of ordering the church, but also as a means of ordering our leadership. We don’t merely need to exhort discipleship, we have to embody it. We can’t just pull the Discipline out to check the rules on how to order committees if we don’t pull it out to inform us on how to uphold Wesley’s “General Rules” as a means of Christian living. It will take some creative reading because much of the richness of our Discipline has been lost under ambiguous categories that seem to regard the richness of a Wesleyan theological perspective as just quaintly historical.

As a young clergy person I’m excited to see how leadership takes new shape and form in a new century. I’m especially excited to continue growing and learning as a leader. I just hope that in this process, we can take this old book off the shelf, dust it off, and discover the richness of what a Wesleyan leader actually looks like.

 

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