Chicken Houses and Change

animal-avian-beak-891223The old saw that says rural churches have a hard time with change may be getting tired.  All you have to do is look around those churches to see that a lot of things are already changing.  Maybe the question isn’t whether we will change, but how.

It seems like every other day now I see a new field being cleared here on the Shore to construct new houses.  No, it’s not a residential boom.  Much as we need some attention to our housing market, the new residents are of the feathered variety.  That’s new revenue for the county, but as I look at all these long, new buildings, each of which can probably house 20,000 birds, I wonder what the change will mean.  How will we manage the byproducts of such barns?  What’s the impact of having that many chickens in one place?

Change causes us to ask big questions and, even in the country, there are changes afoot.  When churches confront the questions change presents head-on, they may find an exciting new chapter ahead.

41yErQDxaLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Jacob Armstrong’s book, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation, is built around the idea that churches thrive when they adapt to new conditions.  I’ve been returning to this book over the last few months and looking at it through the lens of rural churches.  I appreciate that Armstrong, who began a new church in the Nashville suburbs, recognizes that every group of people being asked to go somewhere new is going to have a “Back to Egypt Committee.”

“There are three things that the Back to Egypt Committee will say to you.  Be ready for them.

We won’t have all we need.

It was better back in Egypt.

You have to do it on your own.” (54)

As it turns out, each of these is a lie.  A good understanding of how God works will show that God will provide, that slavery to the past is not better than the journey to something new, and that God will give us partners for the journey.  What we need, Armstrong says, is to hear the same promise that God gave Joshua—be strong and courageous.

I appreciate the way that Armstrong recognizes the potentially helpful role of conflict in moving forward.  “Healthy conflict is actually a time saver,” he notes.  “As we take the courage to engage in healthy conflict we are actually more honest and open with our people and can more quickly move towards where God wants us to go.” (60)  For the many leaders who are averse to conflict, (and I count myself as one of them), it helps to realize this reality.

Ultimately, as with all things related to the church, it comes down to the mission.  If we are committed to being what God calls us to be and to doing what Christ called his Church to do, we will let that guide how we think about change.  Is our current practice hindering us from seeing what God is doing in the world? Can we cultivate meaningful relationships doing something new?

Can we handle change?  We will.  The question is how?

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Why Churches Can’t Be Normal Again

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photo by J.D. Mason via Unsplash

Sometimes I have a fantasy that March 2019 will come, the special General Conference of the United Methodist Church designed to heal our rifts will have passed with a grand reaffirmation of our union, and we’ll all go back to normal.  That’s the funny thing about normal in the church, though—there’s no going back there.

Being the Church in the 21st century is going to involve some of the basics that have made us the Church through the previous centuries, but one of those basics is that the Church does not exist for itself but for God and for the new people God is welcoming in to the body of Christ.  And new people will need new spaces.

At least that’s the argument of Jacob Armstrong, the founding pastor of Providence Church in Mt. Joliet, Tennessee.  In this continuing series where I dialogue with Armstrong’s book, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation [Abingdon, 2015], I have tried to think about the implications of the ideas here for rural communities like the Eastern Shore.  And much as I love the church as it was, which raised me, it’s hard to look at the changing world around us and argue with Armstrong’s thesis:

“A major adaptation is needed to reach people who have stopped feeling the need to come.  Almost everything will have to change. When worship, children’s ministry, youth ministry, and adult discipleship are all built around knowing what to do with the people when they get in the building, we can’t make incremental change here.  An adaptive change is required.” (28)

Easy to say for a guy who is starting a church without a building, (which is what Providence Church did), but that congregation eventually did move into its own space and now they faced a challenge—fighting the temptation to turn inward.  Armstrong proposes a question to counter that temptation: “There are many ways to leverage the land and the buildings you have to serve the community, but for a couple of events a year I suggest pretending like you don’t have those things.  How would you reach out and encounter new people if you did not have a building or land?” (30)

41yErQDxaLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_For Providence Church this meant holding a free cookout at the local trailer park, recognizing Armed Forces Day with a community event for military families, and showing up at public places and festivals.  Several churches on the Eastern Shore have tried similar things.  Franktown UMC has done that cookout in a local trailer park under a tent.  St. John’s took over the Pocomoke coffee house for a young adult night.  Grace Church went out on the Parksley square for a Halloween Trunk or Treat.  Drummondtown and Metropolitan churches marched together in Accomac on the Fourth of July and Trinity UMC has taken a decorated golf cart and a kazoo band into the Cape Charles parade.

Efforts like these not only help the community know about the churches, they also help the church see and get to know its mission field.  We break the pattern established by that unusual period that reached its peak in the 1950s and 60s when it was possible to build something and they would come.  What happens in our buildings is still vitally important to who we are, but the new people God desires to know about the good news of Jesus are now going to be “out there” for the most part.

I do recognize that the fantasy I have about “getting back to normal” is just that and that the future will have some discomforts as we do the work of adjusting, whatever the shape of our denominational home.  But I also get excited when I recognize that God’s Church does have a future and that the mission it has always had will not be changing.  In fact, I do believe that I am meeting that future in the faces of those who are searching for a home in God’s love.

Sure, there’s no going back.  But there are a lot of places yet to go!

How to Part Ways With Gadites: A Review of Olu Brown’s New Book

imgaeprofileWhen Olu Brown imagines the conversation between Moses and the leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, it’s a poignant scene.  These two tribes, who had traveled through the wilderness on the promise of a new land, were stopping short of the goal, requesting to remain behind as Israel moved on across the Jordan.

“Moses looked at the two tribal leaders with tear-filled eyes and a scratchy throat and said, ‘Goodbye.’  In all the years of his leadership, this was one of the most trying farewells for him despite it being a simple combination of two words, good and bye.  The more he thought about these words individually, the more conflicted he became on the inside.  How can a ‘bye’ be good?” (40)

Leadership Directions from Moses: On the Way to a Promised Land [Abingdon, 2017] is the rare leadership book that deals with the pain of loss.  Olu Brown is, by all accounts, a transformational pastor, leading the fast-growing, multi-cultural, multi-campus Impact Church in Atlanta.  But Brown knows that every journey, even toward fantastic church growth, has its grief.

Numbers 32 is not well-trodden turf for leadership lessons.  Moses’s decision to let the Gadites and Reubenites go their own way seems like a minor chapter in the story of the Israelites.  But Brown discovered it in his devotional reading and builds a case for its usefulness to leaders.

thumbLeaders will face times when their focus will be tested by those who hear different dreams and promises.  They will have to choose to confront these competing visions and make tough decisions.  They will have to have difficult conversations, more and more as they get closer to the goal.  When others choose a different promise, leaders will have to let them leave.  And they will have to face the consequent void as a space with the potential for new life.

“For most of my vocational life,” Brown says, “I have described these places and spaces as being empty and powerless.  However, I now know that what I was actually experiencing was the divine transformative dynamic of being available.” (66)

Every seasoned leader knows that sometimes subtraction is addition.  Olu Brown plumbs the depth of this truism with new eyes and a creative appropriation of an old story.  This slim book is not a compendium of lists and ‘to do’s for anxious pastors seeking a promised land.   It is an honest reflection on what you lose and gain along the way.

How to Get Out of the Inner Circle: Ministry with the Poor

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photo by Tom Parsons via Unsplash

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” [Philippians 2:5-6, NRSV]  This, I believe, is one of the greatest biblical expressions of what ministry with the poor means.  In this passage, Paul gives us an image of God’s identification with humanity in all its limitations and also how God took on that humanity to restore it.

So if our ministry as Christians is to model Jesus’s, (“Let the same mind be in you…”), what does it say that we have so much difficulty getting beyond mere charity to really being with people in poverty?

41yErQDxaLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_“In so many churches, what they call missions or working with the poor is simply donating,” United Methodist pastor Mike Slaughter says in the book The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation [Abingdon, 2015]. (23)  If the measure of our ministry were clothes, kits, and shoeboxes, we’d have to say we’d arrived.  But most of us know what we really long for is relationship.

We are, as United Methodists say in their most ubiquitous confessional prayer, “a church that has not loved its neighbors and has not heard the cry of the needy.”  But Jacob Armstrong, the principal author of The New Adapters, feels this is “our greatest opportunity, because when we connect to the stated vision of Jesus, the church is unleashed…To do this we must move from inward-focused ministries and simply having ‘missions’ and ‘outreach’ as subsections to a church that sees all of its ministries as focusing on the poor, which includes everyone.” (15)

This is not a matter of glossing over the differences and affirming that “all lives matter.”  It’s a way of seeing with the eyes of God and knowing that God not only doesn’t shun our poverty, but enters into it because our poverty is the best we have to offer.  God sees us as we are and loves us all the more.

So Armstrong encourages churches to grasp the reality that “the gospel is not good news unless it is good news to the poor.” (15)  So how can we see the poor around us—in our neighborhood, in our community, in the world beyond?

rawpixel-com-384899In small churches, we often pride ourselves on the ‘family feel’ of our congregations.  Even churches despairing about declining attendance will often list their welcoming hospitality as one of their greatest strengths.  But how far does that perceived welcome extend beyond the doors.  When we are encountering people who find churches to be intimidating, are we able to see through their eyes?

Here’s an experiment: Find someone who doesn’t attend church and ask that person to talk about her/his experience of church.  No need to try to convince them to change in the moment.  Just listen and see if you can hear in their stories the deep desires of their hearts.  What would it take to touch those needs?  How are they the same as yours?

At the end of the experiment, you may have a glimpse of what church looks like through their eyes and that will be useful.  More useful may be the relationship you have started to build with someone who is, like you, looking for a place to belong.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.  Beyond donation, find connection.

How to Make Your Church Inefficient: The Winn Collier interview continues (2 of 3)

fullsizeoutput_18a7In the first part of my interview with Winn Collier, pastor of All Souls Charlottesville and author of Love Big. Be Well.: Letters to a Small-Town Church, we talked about his decision to set his novel in a small town.  We also talked about the use of letters as a way to tell the story of a pastor and his congregation.  In this segment we dig deeper into why small congregations should treasure a particular kind of inefficiency.  Click on the title link for my review of the book.

I know you lived in Waco, Texas.  Did you grow up there?

From sixth grade on, yes.

Before Chip and Joanna Gaines turned it into what it is today right?

Exactly.  Now it is the Magnolia Mecca.

Yes, and with the new Baylor football stadium.

Oh, it’s massive.  Yeah, it’s changed drastically since when I was there.

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Winn Collier

So, when you were there it was probably more of a small city.  You’re living in a small city now.  How much is Charlottesville or the places you’ve lived before in the place you imagine in the new book? 

[The fictional town of Granby is] definitely smaller than any place I’ve lived so in that sense its feels very different but it feels like a lot of places that I’ve maybe visited.  It’s probably more like places that I drive through and maybe towns that I’ve visited when we lived in Colorado.  One of my favorite authors is Kent Haruf and all of his stories are set in one fictional town in Colorado, and there’s just something I think that I love about that.  So it’s just where I go.

Where I live now on the Eastern Shore is very rural and I’m working with a whole lot of churches that feel like the kind of church you’re imagining in the book.  Confronting a  narrative of despair and decline is a huge challenge.  Do you see new opportunities even in places like that?

Absolutely!  I absolutely do.  In fact I think in some ways these small, rural churches are actually on the front lines of what’s happening because it’s a place where we are grappling with the most human realities that we are struggling with.  Sometimes in massive churches with massive resources, that are run in many ways like a Fortune 500 corporation, they are actually more disconnected from some of the harsher struggles that our communities are facing.

I’m not trying to paint one as bad and the other one as good. I think these large churches also are able to amass energy and resources towards large questions and they are able to ignite some kind of movement and responses to things.  Sometimes it’s really helpful and sometimes it’s very short-sighted.

In some of our larger expressions of faith it’s just very difficult to keep the human at the center and if the incarnation tells us anything is that this joining of humanity with God is at the very heart of what God’s doing in the world.  To be large and efficient you have to, in some ways, reduce the inefficiency of what comes from human relationships.

In the smaller churches that’s not even a question.  Everything is inefficient. And that’s seen typically as a real negative and I want to say: Let’s flip that story because it’s not.  It has its own struggles.  It has its own questions about sustainability and we have to be creative about those sorts of things, but there are things a small church is attuned to and can respond to and be for people that a large church absolutely never can.

“To be large and efficient you have to, in some ways, reduce the inefficiency of what comes from human relationships. In the smaller churches that’s not even a question.  Everything is inefficient. And that’s seen typically as a real negative and I want to say: Let’s flip that story because it’s not.”

In some ways, lots of small churches spread all over the vastness of our country is actually our hope way more than a growing handful of massive churches.  So I think that there’s actually a lot of hope there and in lots of churches where people are.

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_What I find most encouraging and interesting and hopeful is those small churches that really are reflections of their community.  They really are a part of the fabric of the life of that community.  They’re living out a parish model that most of the rest of us are doing our best to try to fabricate and so were left at the end of the day doing the best we can.  We do have to do the best we can but doing the best we can is trying to fabricate something.  That’s why we have things such as small group ministry.  It’s important because where else are you going to get connected?  But we have to be honest and say were having to do this because we are so uprooted and because our lives are no longer bound together.

Yeah.

We’re no longer working in a couple square blocks or neighboring our neighbors farm, and were no longer going to one another’s place when it’s time to harvest, pulling up tobacco or corn or what have you.  We’re no longer showing up at the same diner at noon for lunch as three or four of our other friends and we’re going to see them two or three times a week because there’s only one or two places to eat in town.  We have three churches to choose from and it’s one of the three and five times a year those churches are going to get together and do pancake suppers.

That kind of life that was so common fifty years ago, for many of us, because we’ve moved to urban centers, has been obliterated and so now we’re trying to find ways to get people in proximity.  That’s always, to some degree, going to feel orchestrated because it is.  In small churches all they have is each other and the storyline they’re being told is that’s the problem, and I think it’s a gift.

Winn Collier is the pastor of All Souls Charlottesville.  His blog can be found at winncollier.com

The final segment of this interview, ‘God, love, God, love,’ can be found here.

The Greatness of the Small: A Review of Love Big. Be Well.

IMG_7336When Amy Quitman writes a letter to the unknown pastor that the Pastoral Search Committee hopes to call to their Presbyterian church in the small town of Granby, she includes an invitation that would set the hearts of potential candidates like me aflutter:

We want theology, but we want the kind that will pierce our soul or prompt tears or leave us sitting in a calm silence, the kind that will put us smack-dab in the middle of the story, the kind that will work well with a bit of Billy Collins or Mary Karr now and then.  Oh, and we like a good guffaw.  I’ll be up-front with you: we don’t trust a pastor who never laughs. (5)

Jonas McAnn, unhappily stationed in a cubicle as an insurance company employee, answers the invite, as you might expect he would.  After all, his folder of potential church profiles and questionnaires is sitting beneath a stack of books that includes the likes of John Irving and Karl Barth.  Burned by his previous pastorates, Jonas is tired of plans, programs, and church growth strategies.  A lover of beauty, he is looking for an opportunity to be a pastor:

“Lots of churches don’t actually want a pastor,” he writes back to Granby Presbyterian.  “They want a leadership coach or a fundraising executive or a consultant to mastermind a strategic takeover (often performed under the moniker of evangelism or missional engagement)…Too much pastoral leadership literature recirculates anxious efforts to make the church significant or influential or up-to-date, as if they need to harangue the church into becoming something.  I think my job is to remind the church that she already is something.  Can we settle down and be who we are, where we are?” (12-13)

The epistolary match-making works and soon Jonas is moving his family to the mountains of Virginia.

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Winn Collier’s Love Big. Be Well.: Letters to a Small-Town Church [William B. Eerdman’s, 2017] is a gentle, human love story that begins with these two letters and continues with many more.  It is a novel that has big things to say yet finds its transcendence by staying close to home.  For instance, when the church plans for a new eucharistic table, two members suggest using trees from the church property and Jonas reports:

Now, every Sunday, we receive grace around a table intricately woven into our story, our place.  It’s true that a church in Seattle could feast at this table, but it’s also true that it wouldn’t mean nearly as much to them.  Particulars matter.  Stories matter.  Places matter. (130)

There’s more than a little Wendell Berry in Collier’s small town characters.  They value the small, the local, the sustainable.  And they celebrate the elemental gifts of long-lived community.

Pastor Jonas is continually directing his congregation’s focus to interactions that could be easily overlooked, such as the significance of a BBQ dinner with friends or breakfast at Stu’s with the Order of the Roasted Bean.  “Showing up, doing the work, being together–that’s our liturgy,” Jonas writes to his congregation.  “And it matters.” (99)

As a denominational official in The United Methodist Church who works with many pastors and programs, I appreciate Collier’s empathetic portrayal of a small church and its clergy leader.  Explicitly and implicitly, those who labor in small churches are often told that they don’t measure up–that they need to be more than they are.  Jonas pushes back:

When religious experts suggest an identity update, the whole proposal amounts, in my book, to nothing more than a grand slogan and a fresh coat of paint.  We could try to re-envision ourselves as a community center or a social advocacy firm if we want to wrench ourselves trying to fit into someone else’s clothes.  But look, we are the church.  We’re incompetent at most endeavors, but the Spirit has gifted us with divine energy to live into a simple and straightforward vocation.  Gathered at Jesus’s table, we feast on true life and then disperse into our run-of-the-mill lives as witnesses to the Kingdom of this Jesus who loves the whole world.  The world needs more of who we are, not less. (26)

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Winn Collier

Rural churches and pastors are having a hard time of it these days.  The letters that Jonas writes to his parishioners are a tonic for weary souls seeking to be faithful with what always seems like less.  Shining through Jonas’s words are those of the author, who shares his art and wisdom as the pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.  (Winn also writes regularly on his self-titled blog.)

Without calling attention to itself, Collier’s writing delves deeply into questions of prayer, baptism, and the nature and mission of the Church–all sprinkled with humor, quotes from literary and theological greats, and a lot of love.

Jonas McAnn is the kind of pastor I want to have and strive to be.  Winn Collier is the kind of writer we all need for such a time as this.

Check out my interview with Winn Collier.

Security in An Age of Gun Violence

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photo by Kathy Hillacre via Unsplash

The recent shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas got our attention because of its grisly violence and its location – a church in the midst of Sunday worship.  It was a church like many of ours on the Eastern Shore.  A video of the church’s service the week before the shooting made the rounds on the Internet and it shows a praise band, not entirely in sync and singing a bit off-key, but nonetheless joyfully.  Children fidget in the pews.  The passing of the peace goes on a little too long, but there is genuine affection among the congregants as they wander the room and hug.

Police say the same camera that records the services was running last Sunday, too, when the gunman came to First Baptist Church.  I don’t need to see its horrors.  They’ve been repeated too many times in too many places – in country music concerts, nightclubs, elementary schools, movie theaters, and other churches.

Following the shootings at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, we had a meeting of our Eastern Shore clergy to discuss church security with two law enforcement officers.  We discussed practical ways to improve security during our worship services.  Rev. Rebekah Simon-Peter offers some very useful pointers in a recent article that appeared on Ministry Matters, and I commend it to you for review.

There are things we can do to be wise and we should.  But we should never be under the illusion that we will eliminate our vulnerability.  It’s part of what being a follower of Jesus means, coming together with the armor of God, which is very different than the armor of the world.  In fact, United Methodist churches are officially “weapons-free zones” by action of the General Conference.

What churches do, in their vulnerability which is their strength, is to bring light to situations where death and darkness seem to reign.  Rev. Stephen A. Curry is the pastor at La Vernia UMC in the same county with First Baptist Church.  In a recent New York Times editorial, he talked about the things churches have done since Sunday:

“Immediately after the shooting the churches started receiving and making offers of help. They rushed meals to those grieving and to the emergency workers. They were called on to help fund funerals and host a blood drive. Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, nondenominational — it didn’t matter.”

The larger conversations about reducing gun violence need to happen, too, but we ought not to overlook the strength Christians can show to others in times like these.  Advocacy for new laws and casseroles to grieving families are what “thoughts and prayers” look like.

Ultimately, Curry says, we are at our best, not when we become armed fortresses, but when we are church:

“A church in Wilson County [where La Vernia and Sutherland Springs are located] is a community center where good people strive to do good for fellow human beings. A church in Wilson County is a home for extended family to share their lives. A church in Wilson County is a place where we come to mourn losses, grieve the death of a friend or relative, celebrate the joys of life and love. A church in Wilson County is a place where we connect with the God who loves us, watches over us, and, in the end, welcomes us home.”

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Learned to Love the Reformation(s)

640px-Luther95thesesFor many years, I taught Reformation history as part of the Course of Study School at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas.  I didn’t want the course.  My interests were medieval and contemporary, not the stodgy theological arguments of Luther and Calvin.  But there was a year when the regular faculty member couldn’t teach it.  I took it over for a summer and ended up staying with it for over a decade.  Me in the ultimate dead white guys course.

I tried to stir things up by being a contrarian.  I started the first session each year with three “radical suggestions”:

  1. Reforms in the Church started a long time before Martin Luther (supposedly) tacked up his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517,
  2. Medieval Catholicism was the source of great spiritual comfort and dynamic theological thought, even into the 16th century, and
  3. The Reformation was so diverse and its characters so distinct that it is more appropriate to talk about a plural “Reformations.”

I think there are interesting things to explore with each of those statements, and so I did each summer with willing and interesting groups of local pastors from across the south central region.  We had debates in character over disputed theological points from the period and they are among my favorite memories from teaching.  If I do say so myself, we brought the Reformation to life, redeeming it from its musty reputation.

So this week, as we observe the 500th anniversary of Luther’s most iconic act, I am appreciating what I learned in teaching.  I see the period that produced modern Protestantism as a mixture of promise and failure, like most human eras.  The downsides were dramatic: the further fragmentation of the Christian Church, a wave of religious violence and persecution that produced large-scale suffering and death, and a Protestant-Catholic split that is only just beginning to heal.

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“Grudgingly I acknowledge that Tickle’s optimism about that process comes in part from something I never used to believe the Reformation had—dynamism.”

But the Reformations also unleashed and uncovered latent capacities within the human spirit and the Christian Church.  In both Protestant and Catholic circles, learning and literacy flourished and new universities were formed.  Reformers reclaimed the centrality of Scripture as a source of continuing vitality and inspiration for the Church.  Dramatically new forms of Christian community and mission emerged, and though some went off the rails in their novelty, others were both faithful to the tradition and necessary for the times.  Our own Methodist movement, though it came along 200 years later, was part of that explosion of organizational creativity.

517bFEQdmkL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Phyllis Tickle gets the credit for popularizing the saying, but she quotes Anglican bishop Mark Dyer when she notes that “about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.”  In her book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, Tickle stated her belief that we are in the midst of the latest shake-up in the Church, sorting through what needs to stay and what needs to go.

Grudgingly I acknowledge that Tickle’s optimism about that process comes in part from something I never used to believe the Reformation had—dynamism.  Luther, Calvin, Menno Simons, Wesley, and all the unnamed women and men who made the Reformations what they were may have descended into the history books and receded into our minds as dusty caricatures, but they believed there was something vital in the Christian movement that could still be accessed when we tutor ourselves in the Living Word.  Having lived with them in the classroom and with my great students through the years, I believe that, too.

The Myth of the Cosmic Skybox

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photo by Frank Köhntopp via Unsplash

It has finally happened.  I seriously had the thought that I would not attend an event just because I knew that, two days later, I would receive the dreaded email evaluation.  “It will only take 5-10 minutes of your time,” the email will say.

Great.  I’ll get to it right after the questionnaires related to my last hotel stay, the meeting I attended last week, and the consumer survey from a store I visited in a town I’ll probably never return to.

I know from whence these come.  In their pursuit of excellence and quality, the organizations and businesses need feedback on how they’re doing.  They want to improve at their core mission.  They appreciate my offering tips.  Sharing is caring.

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photo by Damian Zaleski via Unsplash

Yes, but scoring is boring!  Worse than boring, the endless surveys assume that I have a judgment to offer (on a functional 5-point scale) about everything I experience.  And if they just fiddle with their formula enough they’ll be able to hit my sweet spot.

Actually, I DO have judgments to offer.  Ask me to consider for a minute and I’ll be able to find a number of things that could be better.  The towels in the hotel bathroom did look a little worn and threadbare.  The speaker’s mic had a kind of tinny sound.  And come to think about it, the paper towels we bought had an odd perforation pattern.

I could do this all day.

Perhaps that would be helpful to someone, but when it comes to the life of the Spirit, I’m not so sure.  I appreciate churches that strive for excellence in hospitality and worship.  And I definitely notice when its not done well.  But if we’re talking encounter with God, am I really qualified for the job of consumer critic?

Survey Monkey questionnaires, like every online tool of evaluation, are a product of the modern world in which the autonomous individual is assumed to have a cosmic skybox inside them from which she can stand, detached from the earth and context, and cast an all-knowing eye at the thing before her.  It’s not a bad assumption if you just want some feedback on the sound system in the theater, but it’s more problematic if we’re talking about worldviews.

The essential things in this world, (like the deep pulse of the natural world, the complex bonds of family, and the mystery of a holy God), all have their hooks in us before we ever find words to describe them.  To imagine we can understand them fully or stand apart from them enough to pass judgment on them is an illusion.  Not that we shouldn’t use the gift of reason to explore them more fully.  It’s just that these big realities don’t pass before our skybox like a parade.  And we ought not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, as Paul says in Romans 12:3.

51A7VfV9RNL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Too many surveys and I begin to feel that I am more autonomous, more god-like than it’s good for a creature to feel.  More powerful is to stand before the God who knows me and to feel that I am connected to—somehow inside—a reality much larger than I.  How well does our worship, our common life lead us into such a realm?

In her poem “Two Pigeons and One Dove,” Mary Szybist looks at a tree and writes:

“Nothing stays long enough to know.

How long since we’ve been inside

anything together the way

these birds are inside

this tree together, shifting, making it into

a shivering thing.”

The birds don’t need a skybox.

Taking Hospitality Out of the House (& Keeping Worship Weird)

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Photo by Julio Casado via Unsplash

Preachers are fond of quoting Annie Dillard’s devastating critique of worship as she experienced it in a traditional church:

On the whole, I do not find Christians outside of the catacombs sufficiently sensible of conditions.  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense or the waking god may draw us out to whence we can never return.  —“An Expedition to the Pole” in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982)

To me the better line is her under-the-breath horror as a make-shift folk band comes to the front to lead the Sanctus:

“I would rather, I think, undergo the famous dark night of the soul than encounter in church the dread hootenanny.”

But no matter.  Either quote will do and Dillard’s withering words are good medicine, even 35 years hence.  Though Dillard herself recognizes that, even if we had more appropriate worship wear and the most excellent of music, we would still be unprepared to meet the living God.

21w56ZraclL._BO1,204,203,200_I’ve been thinking about Dillard as I consider what it is that we are asking people to do in worship.  At best practice churches, we hand visitors coffee and feed them doughnuts.  We put friendly faces at the door and make sure that they are greeted by at least five different people.  We make our bulletins visitor-friendly and we are sure to highlight entry points to the congregational life in our announcements.  We don’t assume they know what the acronyms mean and we print the Lord’s Prayer in case it is unfamiliar.  We have good lighting and clean sanctuaries, free of dustbunnies and spiderwebs.

The truth of the matter is that most churches, as much as they try, will never match the expectations of hospitality that have been set by the commercial spaces we inhabit.  We’re not going to out-hip the coffee shop or exceed the bright, cleanliness of Whole Foods.  And the sanctuary is not going to mimic the comforts of home.

I’m not making an argument for abandoning the practices of radical hospitality.  The habit of welcoming is essential to a body that believes that it may be thereby “entertaining angels unawares” as Hebrews says.

But the culture that surrounds the church has diverged so sharply from the culture of the church, that a more effective hospitality is embodied in going into those other, non-church spaces to be a real human person there.  To be a real-live Christian in the wild.  It’s an old saw now, but the days of setting a shingle out in front of the church and saying, ‘Y’all come,’ are long gone.  It’s more about going out and saying, “I’m here.”

Which means that worship is freed from its anxious superficiality to be an encounter with the fire that tells who we are.  Why pretend that the worship space is as non-threatening as an aisle of Wal-mart when it summons us into the presence of a fierce and holy God?  We are immersed in the idolatrous identities offered to us by our screens and other inputs.  Where can we practice being something different and where can we learn what it means to be splayed out before an all-consuming Presence?

41G1+De1i8L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In her magisterial book, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, The Doctrine of God [Fortress, 2015], the theologian Katherine Sonderegger ponders Moses’s burning bush encounter with God and highlights its earth-shattering implications:

“It is a wonder that Scripture does not end here, at this blinding fire.  It is a wonder that Moses is not annihilated—consumed—by the Name uttered to him in the wilderness.  For all the other apocalypses in Holy Scripture can only pale before this Naming, the annihilating Speech of God as Subject.  This is the end, the finality of all creatures, of all reality.” (222)

I don’t want to seduce the world to church by promising that we are all a few tweaks and life hacks away from perfection.  I want to be in a place that reminds me of the “end” Sonderegger talks about.  A place where I am told that the distance between what is and what should be is a chasm that can’t be crossed short of total surrender.  And yet that salvation is closer to me than I am to myself.

I want to keep worship weird.