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Going up?

The votes are in.  It is clear that, in many and various ways, the church is slowly but surely abandoning the cross as its primary identity.

The new hotness? The arrow.

And if you doubt this is true, think of all the churches that have an arrow pointing upward, or “right and up” as the business world calls it, in their logos. As their logo. It’s the new “thing” and it speaks to optimism and the “you can do it” vibe that much of Christianity is giving off these days.

You don’t have to Google too much to find one.  You probably will see it on a bumper or as a window cling on your way home from work today.

And that’s not bad, necessarily.  But it certainly isn’t the cross.

Sermons are now “TED talks.”  They’re “how can I improve my life?” talks instead of “how does Jesus ask me to give up my life?” proclamations. (And I love me some TED talks)

And, look, I’m all for practical and relevant sermons.  I think I give them. And I’m all for trying to improve myself and others.  I hope I do that in some ways.

But I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t die on the cross so that I can learn how to reach higher in life.  I’m pretty sure Jesus talked, lived, and died in such a way that makes me desire downward mobility rather than upward mobility.

The downward mobility of washing feet.  The downward mobility of kneeling with those in grief. The downward mobility of embracing a life that banks more on repentance and grace rather than “trying harder” or “getting it right.”

In my neck of the woods so many churches are embracing the arrow over the cross.  The arrow of “make your life better” instead of “God is embracing you where you are, and believe it or not, that is better than constantly trying to make your life better.”  And I get why it’s happening, at least in part.  Arrows can speak to transcendence, a desire that humanity has been wrestling with since we first started to think bigger than our stomachs.  But the problem is that arrows promise a false transcendence; a transcendence that requires you to “keep climbing” instead of giving up.

But the cross speaks of giving up.  Specifically giving up your life for the sake of others.  And only then realizing that your life is given back to you in a new way.The cross speaks to the truth of human fragility, human vulnerability, human suffering and, subversively, Divine hope.  The arrow speaks to the lies of stair-stepping our way to salvation and human moral progress in such a way the sacrifice is less about “what I give up” and more about “I’m going to work harder.”

A difficult truth to swallow for some may be this understanding, which I’ve come to see as true: sometimes I find people following other faith paths (and sometimes even no faith path) living a more cruciform life than those with Jesus fish on the back of their cars.

And it’s not about wealth or church attendance or even belief statements, necessarily.  It’s about, as Jesus says, “Losing your life to gain it.”  It’s about starving the all-consuming ego monster in deference for the Other in front of you.  It’s about God resurrecting you more than you trying over and over again to resuscitate your happiness, self-worth, career, what have you.

This is something that 12 step programs understand so well, and something that we’re missing in the pews (or auditorium chairs, if that’s your thing).

Now, before you write that response below, I have to clarify something: I’m not for living or wallowing in total depravity.  I’m not for shunning the gym or canceling your therapist.  I am all for self-betterment in the non-annoying, non-cloying, non-consumerist ways it can happen (spoiler alert: that audio book will not “take away your Mondays”…but you knew that before you bought it and you bought it anyway because you’re willing to try anything to get rid of that feeling, right?).  This is not just a “grumpy church person” rant.

I think these things form and shape us.  And I think arrows are bad news when it comes to spiritual life.  They look like good news, but as a Lutheran I must “call a thing what it is.”  And it is bad news.

Because we don’t climb our way out of life.  This life is not about the climb.  We can’t climb out of that life, no matter how high you go, but we can live in such a way that we give up that life in exchange for a different one not so intent on moving up, but more intent on having the Spirit move within.

But the Spirit does all sorts of thing that will make you unhappy.  Things like:

Ask you to give up your life for the sake of others.

Ask you to put down the self-help book, to help the other selves around you.

Ask you to speak out against injustice  and own your role in the system (a system that promises you ascension at the expense of others).

Things like convince you that God is less interested in how much money you make, and more interested in how much money you decide to keep.

And, ironically, that’s exactly what we need.

maxresdefaultThere is an exciting but difficult reality facing the mainline church: the seismic shift mainline (and other) congregations are feeling will be in full effect in the next twenty years (which the sainted Phyllis Tickle calls “The Great Emergence“).  Right now we’re just feeling the tremors, and even these small shifts are causing extreme anxiety!

Which means that the landscape will look radically different in the near future, and I’m not trying to be an alarmist, but we need to start considering what might need to be in place so that we can move with the shifts, and we need to do so from a multiplicity of angles: pastor, evangelism, congregational structure, ecclesial hierarchy…all of it.

Many conversations around this topic focus on the pastor, specifically how we’ll have to embrace bi-vocationality or even employ circuit pastors as congregations dwindle to the point that calling full-time clergy will no longer be an option.

That’s an important conversation.  I fully realize that my generation may be the last who can expect to make a full-time living in mainline churches with this odd way of being in the world that we have named “Call.”  In some ways, seminaries today are training the ecclesial equivalent of a cobbler: a noble but antiquated profession.  That is to say, while much of humanity still wear shoes every day, the work of a cobbler has changed significantly (as in, they’re largely out of work).  I have no doubt humanity will still seek spirituality and look to religion as some sort of compass (when Google fails them), but it will not be the same.  It just won’t.

I, however, want to look at this seismic shift from the place of the congregation, or more rightly, from congregations.  How might congregations be organized now, or re-organize themselves now, to prepare for this inevitability?

There are a couple fronts already being worked.  Congregational renewal, missional training efforts, alternative (at least to traditional forms) worship styles are popping up all the time it seems (beware the hipness!).  Like advertisements during daytime TV, they all claim to have the fix.

But I want to move the lens out even wider than the individual congregation.  Move the focus out to the neighborhood.  And then wider still, to maybe a section of the geographical landscape.  As a point of reference, consider my own locale: Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill here in North Carolina.  In this geographical area we have 13 ELCA congregations, some just a few miles apart.

Why do we maintain this kind of density?  The short answer has to do with tradition, identity, and an allegiance to an old model of church planting.  The longer answer has to do with a merger in 1988 that happened without much sacrifice in the pews, causing churches of the same denomination to end up literally across the street from one another.  That is a lack of strategic vision, a “let’s play nicely” way of operating on the surface that, in actuality, is Darwinian “survival of the fittest” at its worst.

I’m not saying the 1988 merger that formed the ELCA was bad or wrong; far from it.  Indeed we’re one of the only denominations to come together despite disagreements.  Most other denominations simply fracture (looking at you, other Lutherans).  I’m just saying that it was done without the strategic vision necessary to ensure sustainability of mission (it deferred instead to sustainability of form).

But as I gathered with some area clergy yesterday, all of us sitting around the table in a first meet-and-greet of sorts, I made the bold claim that in 20 years one of our parishes would no longer be around (at least one).  And it’s not like any of our congregations are in trouble on paper; they’re not.  We’re all growing (in different ways), and doing good ministry.  But for how long?  With the seismic shift happening, how long with this model last?

The truth: not long.

And then I said this: what if all of the churches around the table started to live like the Acts community in scripture?  That is, what if instead of thirteen individual congregations being present in this geographical area, known colloquially as “the research triangle,” what if we pooled our resources, pooled our laity, pooled our creativity and ideas and just created Triangle Lutheran Church?

And Triangle Lutheran Church has eight sites and fifteen pastors, each individual site retaining it’s particular tradition(s) and flavors, though joining together in missional efforts, corporate identity, and even in specialized ministry (as the context dictates).  Live in East Raleigh?  Head to our Good Shepherd site or St. Philip site, depending on which side of Falls you live on.  Out in Cary?  Check out our Our Savior’s campus.

Nothing earth-shattering here as far as ingenuity goes, right?  But polity-wise this would be a seismic shift for our mainline denomination.  Perhaps big enough to match the seismic-shift already occurring…

What does this accomplish?

First, it is my conviction that this will begin to stave off the accelerating number of congregational closures that are taking place in the mainline church.  Banding congregations, and pastors, together not after they’re dwindling/dead, but even when they’re growing helps morale, accountability, and stops the siloing effect that is plaguing our churches today.

Secondly, yoking pastors together (with a Head/Executive Pastors at the helm of the parish) will provide a structure for mentorship that is desperately needed in the profession today.

Thirdly, we don’t engage in the creativity-killing practices that typically infect multi-site congregations, specifically when it comes to proclamation.  Pastors will preach and preside at individual sites weekly, none of this “live-streaming,” consolidating, muting of messaging that creates cultic personalities for clergy.

Finally, with pooled resources (and that’s a non-negotiable…too many yoked congregations fail because they fail to truly and fully pool their resources), logical distribution practices, and pooled missional efforts, a parish like Triangle Lutheran Church could afford a localized missionary (or two!) for those radical experiments needed to work with the new evangelism landscape this shift will bring about.

None of the above is new.  In fact, I think it’s probably the oldest model of church out there.  But we need to get back to it.

Look, I do not think the Church is going to die (or, following the story we tell every Sunday, stay dead for long).  But I do think congregations and even whole denominations will.  And my question, no…not a question anymore but a quest. My quest is to help ensure that there is still this particular voice being heard in the world.

Another way of saying that is: God’s not going anywhere.  But will we be the ones telling the story?  And if we want to be, how will we change to make it happen?

 

2165374689_0c605b8e92_bTransparency note: my bias is toward pastors in these situations, mostly because that’s my vantage point.  That being said, I do recognize that it is really difficult when someone comes in and starts changing things a community has held dear for centuries.  I welcome all responses.

This last week I heard another example; it was the second time in as many weeks. I heard about another colleague who had received an anonymous note or had been the recipient of anonymous passive-aggressive behavior from someone at the church who was disgruntled about something.  They were crestfallen.

Actually, I hear about these incidents a lot.  An image of Sisyphus always comes to my mind when I hear about these incidents, because that’s exactly what it feels like to get feedback you can’t do anything with. Anonymity provides the critique without the accountability…

Quick aside: speaking from experience, anonymous feedback is the worst kind of feedback.  It makes it absolutely impossible for follow-up, encourages tactlessness in messaging (after all, if no one knows it is you writing, you can be as mean as you like), and most disappointingly, it is endemic of a passive-aggression that seems to be fostered in the communities of faith.  It’s not scriptural. God is highly relational in the scriptures, so don’t you think we should be, too?

My advice? Throw it in the trash.  I’ve been blessed to have calls where I’ve received relatively few anonymous notes.  I can say I’ve not been the victim of bullying that I’ve seen some of my colleagues endure…which is a good thing.  But I wonder if I’m the exception.  I hope not, but I wonder.

Let’s be honest: if you can’t sign your name to a note or a criticism, it’s not worth sending.  If you can’t stand behind your statement, it’s not a conviction but a predilection.

But my above advice is just a short-term solution.  I think there is a larger issue that we have to deal with in some way, and it is this: many churches simply do not want the pastors that seminaries are producing these days, and many new pastors simply do not want the pulpits available.

Let me explain myself before you send me that anonymous note…

My seminary class was full of idealists.  We had, and many still have, a strong conviction that God in Christ is active in the world, and that as pastors we would connect people to God’s action and the world would start to look differently, first at the individual level (for hearts changed), and then at the communal level (for societal change), and then at a systematic level (for world change).

That’s still our vision, at least one that I cling to in big and small ways.

But I also know that, at least in some ways, social justice can be talked about as a savior in some instances…and that’s just not scriptural.  It’s evidence of the Savior’s work.  It’s a call of the Savior.  But social justice is not Jesus; it’s easy to fall into that rabbit hole, though…especially when Jesus is largely thought to be assumed in the church’s work.

We need Jesus along with justice, people.  We don’t need exclusive “social justice,” but rather “social Jesus.”  We need growth in faith while also being invited to act on that faith in real, tangible, life-changing/system-changing/world-changing ways.  We need that Jesus who speaks to our inner faith and discipleship growth as well as calls us out of our comfort zones to engage the world.

…”Social Jesus.”  I might trademark that…

And I wonder if sometimes the seminary community doesn’t find themselves falling down that rabbit hole in much the same way university students find themselves becoming entrenched in this cause or that, siloed off into affinity groups for action.  Group think can be a powerful force, even in a place of robust dialogue.

On the flip-side, faith communities can also become that siloed place where group think takes hold.  Jesus has often been talked about, communicated, and felt in particular ways in a particular community, ways that people are reluctant to change.  Particular patterns of life together are largely assumed to be universally understood in many communities of faith. Pastors are often expected to reinforce these particularities.

This, too, is a rabbit hole, the hole of particularity.

Traditions and community rituals form us together, but sometimes they also wall us off from new ideas or new expressions of the faith.

And so when you have two entities coming together from siloed places of formation, both with ideas of how and what they’re supposed to be doing, there is not only a gap in expectation, but a gap in understanding about what is going on.  The one believes they’re called to lead a people into finding out where God is active in the world, matching the two up; the second believes they’re calling someone to reinforce for them that God is active in what they’re already doing.

Now, forgive me for the broad brush-strokes.  This is certainly not true for every pastor or every faith community.

But I’m trying to figure out why I’m seeing so many of my colleagues leave the profession (or think of leaving…the stats are surprising), “take a break” from the profession, or trudge along into the headwind of anonymous notes and continual barrage of insults that I’m really not sure happens in any other profession, at least not the way it does for pastors, all the while nursing addictions, depression, self-loathing, or a callousness unhelpful in the profession.

Think about it: in what other profession, other than perhaps politics or a CEO of a non-profit, do you have the people you serve as your literal boss, even though they ask you to lead?  And even in those cases just mentioned, there is a level of abstraction from the person serving to the person being served.

As one meme nicely put it: pastors are the only people who get complaints when they don’t visit people who don’t want them there in the first place.

Imagine sitting at someone’s bedside as they’re sick or dying, and that person has had a history of trying to systematically stand against everything you’ve tried to do in your ministry at a particular congregation, and you have to be their compassionate hand and voice in that moment. Yes, it’s part of what we’re called to do, but let’s not pretend there’s not just a little bit of bitterness there on either side of that situation, and quite a bit of psychological violence as some pastors must minister to people who have said horrible things about them.

Jesus does say bless the ones who curse you for my sake, but he didn’t say that you have to preside over their funeral or entertain their insults to the grave…

Added to this gap in expectation are three more glaring issues that we continue to skirt around: pastors leaving seminary today often don’t look like their predecessors in style or theology (not to mention gender or race) than even a decade ago, some churches are in the pressure-cooking process of dying already, and my generation in particular is deciding that life is too short to do work for people who dislike you (mostly because we’ve seen our parents or our mentor-pastors endure it for years, and we just won’t live like that).

Those three issues create a perfect storm for dysfunction, vocational crisis, and just really bad behavior that looks nothing like Jesus and everything like evil.

Of course there is some fragility that we must be honest about.  Pastors: you need a thick(er) skin.  Let me walk that statement back for a second and re-state it:

WE need a thick(er) skin.

My skin has grown thick(er) over the years, but there are still soft spots.  And I still get frustrated, especially when complaints pile one on top of the other with this work.  Reading and re-reading Friedman’s work and the Psalms has helped with this.

But the Office requires it; demands it.  And the back-biting and dysfunction in communities of faith is not new, nor does it just affect certain flavors of churches.  Just look at the issues that Charles Stanley had when trying to assume the senior pulpit at highly conservative First Baptist in Atlanta alongside the issues that progressive Riverside Church in New York City has had finding a stable presence for their pulpit.  Or, just look at Paul’s advice to that church in Corinth who just couldn’t get their act together.  It’s not new.

I think what is new is that many from my generation of pastors just aren’t feeling the Sisyphean work is worth the pain, and that the situation is literally one of life and death for some churches who see continual decline and some pastors who find themselves trying to fit (or not) into a role they feel they never signed up for.

Pastor: ask for good behavior overtly.  Expect it. And if you’re a Senior or Lead Pastor, it has to come from the top down.  I cannot tell you how many colleagues have left calls because they’ve been bullied by congregation members and the Lead Pastor hasn’t had the stomach to do something about it.

But in a broader sense, I am seeing a really disturbing trend. My fellow clergy are entering parishes that simply do not want their ministry, despite calling them to the pulpit.  They want something else.  Sometimes they say that they want something that looks less like 2016 and more like 1956, or even 1986 (impossible).  Sometimes they say that they want someone who looks more like the pastor they had as a child than one of their grandchildren (even though their grandchild is exactly the person they want in the pew).  Sometimes they just want to get rid of the pastor, a “return to sender” to the Bishop…that’s just not how it works.

And I’m seeing fellow pastors who just don’t want the congregations they’re being called to, either. Sometimes because they don’t want to/can’t offer the ministry desired of them from the people.  Sometimes because they don’t identify with anyone in their congregation in theology or age, and loneliness catches up with them.  Sometimes because their creativity is stifled (though from the pew it can feel like things are changing for the sake of change), and sometimes because they just can’t make their zeal in seminary translate into a zeal for the people they’re called to serve.

And we say things like, “the system is broken” when it comes to matching seminary graduates and congregations.  And that is true; it is broken.  But that’s not the whole story.  It’s not all about bad matches.

It’s also about bad expectations on all sides.  It’s about a changing church and a changing world that we all give lip-service to, but aren’t quite sure how to actually be in yet.

A greater part of the narrative, greater than any of us might want to admit, is that the pews don’t look like the pulpit anymore and we’re all having a hard time figuring out how to do ministry together because of that.

The church today is a church different than a decade ago, and certainly a century ago.  And pastors are asked not only to lead congregations to faith, but also be marketing experts, small non-profit managers, funeral directors, and miracle workers, all without rocking the boat.

And our seminaries just aren’t training pastors to be all of those things.

And the result of that is often passive-aggression and the unhealthy tension of bad behavior and burn out and splitting churches and, well, you get it.

Is my hypothesis right?  Do churches just not want the pastors seminaries are producing, and pastors the churches that are offered?  Are expectations just so radically different on either side?

None of this is helping the body of Christ, by the way.  And this kind of stuff (really, would YOU join a church full of such strife?) makes many into reluctant Christians…if they stay at all.

We have to figure this out. Together.

 

 

 

 

492284448_640Amidst the hand-wringing going on in churches these days over empty pews and the supposed death-knell of American Christianity there are still pockets of mainline churches growing steadily.  I’m not talking about those “quickstant” congregations that form and grow quickly in an instant.  I’m talking about those established faith communities who remain on a steady path of growth and health.  There are reasons for this growth, just as there are reasons that churches decline.

American Christianity is crowded.  There is a re-balancing going on.  It’s a system looking for stasis.  Great books have been written about this (of particular note is _The Great Emergence_ by recently deceased wonder-woman Phyllis Tickle. Buy it, be encouraged, be inspired, and be prepared to change the way you do and see things).  But these books have had a hard time settling into the pews of the average, aging, mainline church.

Let me be clear: I think there is a place for those congregations within the body of Christ.  I don’t think that quickstant congregations are providing food for all of a hungering humanity, and often I find that people who eat from that buffet make their way down the line and into our congregation wanting something more…substantial.

But it is true (and has become one of my mantras): people will put up with crappy theology for good programming.  And they will because, at the end of the day, at the end of the Beth Moore Bible Study where they’ve really only found one thought helpful in the half-hour but tons that they’re not sure they can swallow (though the company was good and the treats were tasty), after that sermon by that pastor where fear of the “______ agenda” (choose your favorite boogeyman, from either side of the spectrum) was trumpeted, they’ll go home and still think what they want to think.

They’ll still believe what they want to believe.

When I say “programming,” I know you’re thinking of clubs and initiatives and activities.  And that’s part of it.  But I’m talking more about a general feeling, a general ambiance, a general approach to life and ministry and the work of God in the world.  I’m not talking about struggling churches needing to “do” more, necessarily.  I’m talking about struggling churches needing to change the way they are experienced more.

When I look around, I see three main reasons (plus one more) that people aren’t joining your church.

  1. There’s no reason to.  You’ve made it too “easy.”  There’s no impetus.  I hear congregation members say all the time, “It’s so easy to join!  Just show up at this Saturday class.”  And at that Saturday class you’re pumped with information about the history of the church, the particular denomination, how you can join the altar guild and teach Sunday School, and all you really want to do is figure out how any of that is going to help you deepen your spiritual life.  No, seriously, that’s the problem.  You think you’re aiding the process by making things quick and simple, when really people (especially folks in their 20-30’s like me) want a process of formation.  We want something more ancient than “sign on the dotted line.”  That means nothing to us.  We’ve done that with every school loan, with every car payment, with every other obligation that is now simple and easy to do with a swipe of the finger or a click of the button.

    In reality, I’m post-membership when it comes to churches.  At the basest level, it’s just a form of counting.  But if membership means an invitation to study the mystery of faith deeply, to put some skin in the game with time and talent and treasure, to enter into a process of formation over the next few months whereby we’ll openly discuss the tenets of faith…for as time-consuming as it sounds, it also sounds like something that will fend off the feeling of being consumed by time that I currently have, allowing me to set aside moments for spiritual study.

  2. Your church is depressed.  You hear it in the singing.  You hear it in the reading.  You see it on the outdated website that is still announcing Christmas services in late March.  You see it on the faces of the long-time members who look at you during the sharing of the peace, wondering if you, too, will head out the door and never return…you with your young face, your energy, your desire, your passion.

    One of my first preaching gigs before being called to a full-time church was at a little church in a first-ring suburb.  The parking lot was overgrown. I couldn’t figure out where the front door was because all of the signage had faded.  I walked in and through the church, was met by an elderly woman who handed me the check for my work…which I immediately wanted to give back because, when I saw the 7 people who came to services that day (including me and my wife and the pianist!) I knew they needed the money more than me.  The place was depressed. The floor was depressed.  There were cobwebs in the balcony, evidence no one had been through there in ages.  I heard the elderly woman mention to another woman about how there had been a fight over worship styles a decade ago.  This was what was left: a church who didn’t show scars, but still open and bleeding wounds.

    It would not grow. It was depressed.

  3. You do nothing well.  Yeah, that sounds harsh.  Go with me for a moment.  We live in a time where excellence is highly desired.  Gone are the days when the organist could flub a few notes and everyone would chuckle to themselves and say, “That’s just Millie…”  Gone are the days when a pastor, clearly unprepared, could live off the grace of a congregation and recycle that sermon from three yeas ago.

    Now, I hear you: good communities extend good grace, and we shouldn’t celebrate the fact that those days are gone with too much fanfare.  It is an indication of a lack of tolerance on humanity’s part.  But the church that fails to recognize that “making it nice” is as important as good theology is one that fails to see what is on the minds of the people who come through the door.  Yes, the community will draw them in eventually.  But they have to come back multiple times for that to happen, and to even come back a second time takes intentionality on everyone’s part.

    What is your church good at, by the way?  Is it stellar preaching?  A great music program?  Youth and family programs?  Service? Christian education?  If you can’t name what it is currently known for, then it is not known.

    I once interviewed at a church who told me that they “were the friendly church.”  I applauded their self-identity, but knew it wasn’t enough.  You can be the friendliest baker around, yet if those cakes aren’t good, I’m just not coming back.  Likewise, just being “big” is not an identity, either.  Big churches struggle, too.  Cultivating skill for a community is freeing.  It’s freeing because it gives you purpose again.  Yes, the church’s main purpose is to praise God and make Christ known.  But knowing your preferred medium can focus your energies in a way that breathes life into your common existence.I promised one more…

  4. You don’t matter.  Again, go with me here…tough pill, tough wording, throw down your defenses, I’m trying to get your attention. This relates to #3, but it deserves to stand on its own.  Your current membership may see the benefit to this community’s existence, they’ve got strong bonds here. But do others who aren’t on the inside see it?Your theology isn’t relevant.  You’re either ignoring the world or providing too many answers that just don’t ring true with experience.  With a globalized world, the preacher must talk about current events.  And, I would add, not in a way that provides answers, but provides launching points for discussion.  Because folks my age can Google most anything.  The beauty of the Google for us is that we’re provided with a list of articles, links, memes, images.  No direct answers there, just opportunities to engage lenses in that search for truth.  Churches that have turned into answer-machines may be popular for a while, but it just takes that one person meeting that other person who they really like but who differs from them to start that de-conversion process.Likewise, churches that ignore the world aren’t giving us any context for spirituality.

    “If heaven is the goal, then approach me right before death.  What?  I don’t know when that will be?  Well, I’ll just take my chances then.”

    That’s actually the mindset (and I don’t think heaven is the “goal,” btw).

    Jesus walked in a world with political, social, economic, and spiritual forces at play.  We, too, walk in a world with all of these forces.  Jesus engaged them.  Are you really telling me that the church can’t or shouldn’t?  Add to that the fact that your church doors are always locked and largely only used on Sundays, and why bother? Yes, God will still deserve praise, but that church down the street that actively lets people use their space and engages the world does it better than you, and people will just head down there.

    If this is you (and be honest…it’s OK to arrive at this spot…all living things die eventually) then do the hard, tough, but faithful thing and sell your building, giving the money to the poor or to plant another church.  Jesus tells the rich man in Mark 10 to do this.  Perhaps the church rich in property can hear that as themselves.  Or are we too attached?

Let’s be honest with one another. I really do think that this can, at the very least, be a starting point for analyzing what a faith community is facing when numbers are dwindling, expenses are the same, and there is a genuine desire to impact people’s lives with the story of God’s work through the Christ.

And let’s also be honest: big isn’t always better.  If your church is one going for more intimacy, smallness, embrace it!  Jesus gathered twelve around him; small by design is not bad or wrong by any means.

But there are some real reasons that people aren’t joining, aren’t coming back; real reasons why they’re choosing that church down the street.  I think these are some.  Any more?

3087694160_65e7783731_oMark’s 9th chapter, a small but hearty portion of which is the Gospel lesson for this Sunday, speaks directly to fear.  Here’s how it goes.

Jesus and his close friends were walking to school one day. You could tell by the way they walked that Jesus was the leader of this would-be gang.  Thomas hung behind a bit, not sure if he should join.  Judas snuggled in close to Jesus’ shoulder, feasting on every word (and every envious glance from others) that this new-found friend provided. James and John walked a little ahead tripping each other at the feet.  Peter and Andrew both fiddled with a pocket knives and some shaveable wood…they were always doing something.  Doers, those two. And the rest? Well, not much else of note for the rest of them.

And as they were walking, he kept on telling his friends about how anyone who wants to save this failure of a school system needs to break away from the need to be popular, take a risk to propose some new, innovative, even scandalous ways of doing things.  And though it would get negative attention and probably even get them expelled, the new life that would follow would be worth it.

Honestly, his friends were only half-listening.  They’d been hearing this all year from Jesus and they still couldn’t make heads or tails of what he meant, though his presence certainly made life more exciting at school.  But if you could look into the recesses of their hearts, some of them actually did start to understand what he was saying…they were just afraid of what it would mean for them and chose a convenient ignorance on the whole matter.

Besides, soon they’d rule the school the way things were going.  And even teachers and administrators listened to the most popular students.  In fact, as they rounded the block past Peter’s old house they started having hushed conversations about which one of them would be “the enforcer,” Jesus’ right-hand guy.  And also who would be the “gate-keeper,” you know, the one everyone had to get through to get to Jesus.

This was important stuff!

First period began.  Half of the friends headed toward Algebra II where they would ponder invisible integers in an attempt to come up with real-world answers (for some of them this would be their life’s work).  A few others skipped class to smoke in the bathroom, warming themselves with nicotine before heading into the classroom.  And a few other stuck by Jesus in the opening class of the day.

As the shop teacher unrolled a scroll of blue-print paper for the day’s project, Jesus turned to John and asked what they’d been talking about.

The shop teacher began passing out smaller copies of the blue-print, interrupting John’s halting explanation of their hushed conversation over greatness.  As the paper landed on the desk Jesus spied it: two beams of wood joined at the center with long spikes.  It was to be an example of an impressively massive marking post to let everyone know that “something important happened here.”

They’d each be constructing their own.

At the back of the class was a little boy.  Smart.  He was known by Jesus, but John and Peter and the rest didn’t pay a lot of attention to him.  He was different than they were in many ways.  But he was smart, and that day he’d just happened to throw together an imaginative example of a clock built from ordinary parts.  No sun dial, this.  It had a motherboard, wires, and a digital display with a tiger print face.

He was proud of it.

As the class period was drawing to a close, barely anyone had finished their assignment.  Some had abandoned the project altogether; others just figured it was too hard to start and didn’t.

The little boy himself had been working on a different project, though similar in scope.  It was strange to some people, but that was nothing new for the boy.

As the bell rang everyone got up to leave.  The young brown boy with the clock in his bag who had been working on a different project walked up to the teacher, proudly displaying his gadget.

The teacher looked at the boy, and the clock, and just wasn’t sure what to make of it.  Was it dangerous?  Was this boy dangerous?  He did, after all, work on a different project than most everyone else…

The boy was escorted to a different room where the chief principal and the secretarial scribes interrogated him with the school truancy officer.  It became clear that a different official outside of the school would have to be summoned, and in walked the Stateys.

It was deemed that the boy would be too dangerous for the good of the people, and he was cuffed and showed the door, leaving his clock behind.

Meanwhile, Jesus and his friends were standing by their locker, having seen what was going on.  As the boy passed by, Jesus turned to his friends and, in a bold move, pulled the young boy into the middle of them.

“If you want to be the greatest,” he said, “you must be willing to stand with, no…more than that…become this one that the world writes off.”

As he was saying this a Statey pushed Jesus out of the way, causing him to tumble backwards, the contents of his backpack spilling out.  Amidst the pencils, pens, and planner that came tumbling out was that blue print of two crossbeams gathered at the center.  It landed square on the floor as if to mark that something important was about to happen.

And Jesus fell straight back onto it, hands splayed out.

And then the friends got it…though the rest were confused about what they were seeing.

Let all who have ears to hear, hear.

An Endless Falling

Greetings Disciples,

I’m not sure how to describe these last two weeks.

On Thursday morning as I was packing for vacation, my eyes were glued to the news, tears welling up in them, as I heard of the massacre in Charleston, South Carolina.

Charleston, where my wife and I honeymooned.

South Carolina, sister to my home state.

In a church, where on any given week I spend the balance of my time, both personal and professional.mother-emanual-ame-church-in-charleston

That day Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, put forward a statement.  You can read it in full here. In it Bishop Eaton identifies that both the shooter, a member of an ELCA congregation, and two of the victims, The Reverend Clementa Pickney and The Reverend Daniel Simmons who both attended a Lutheran Seminary, are “our own.”

She’s right, of course.  I’d take it one more step, though.  All…

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Upon the chair the child sits. Upon their head our judgment sits.

Upon the chair the child sits. Upon their head our judgment sits.

It is absolutely a sign of my privilege that I forget that racism is alive.

I get “down time” from the uncomfortable, awkward, demeaning, and violent ways that racism infects conversation and interaction.  I don’t mean it’s not there.  I mean that I get a rest from realizing it.

Which is no rest at all.

At our local church assembly yesterday I came out of a workshop session and was talking with a colleague.  A member of local congregation that he knew came up and started chatting as well.  And then it got weird typical:

Colleague: “How did you like the morning workshop you attended?”

Congregant: “Wasn’t helpful.”

Me: “Yeah, I think we were at the same one.  It wasn’t helpful for me, either.”

Congregant: “Yeah. All I want to know is what you do when your Confirmation students look like this.”

And as he said the words “like this” he pointed to a chair sitting nearby.

A black chair.

Colleague: <red face>

Me: “I don’t get your question.”

Congregant: “You know, like this.”

Me: “What are you saying?”

Because if you’re going to say it, say it.

Congregant: “When they’re black.”

Me and Colleague: “…you teach them.”

And I turned back to my colleague and resumed our conversation…and the man left to go somewhere.  And I knew I was giving him the cold shoulder.  And I knew I was angry.  And I knew I didn’t know what to say.  And I knew I felt bad about not knowing what to say.

And then later on we would go to vote on anti-racism legislation for our church and vow to be against racism in all it’s forms…a sea of blue cards would fly up, easily passing it…

Send the medicine, Lord. We’ve got the sickness already.

And here’s the thing: I don’t think he knew his words were hurtful.  That’s not me making an excuse for him; there’s no excuse.  Equating anyone to the color of an inanimate object is really inexcusable and tacky and all sorts of sad.

But it was another knock on my heart at how deep the system is.  Because I imagine that this man probably thinks he’s open and welcoming to everyone.  I imagine he thinks that he’s an ally.

And I imagine that in some ways he is.  But in subtle ways, he’s not.

Louis CK had a stand-up bit on the season finale of SNL a few weeks back.  It was really awkward, as most of his bits are. But this particular act was really in poor taste, I thought.  Nothing is funny about child molestation.  Social commentary is one thing. He went too far.

And it’s too bad that the parts about child molestation overshadowed the whole routine, because I actually think he hit on a nugget of reality in the monologue that is good to ruminate on, even if uncomfortable.

He talked about how he’s not racist, and how when a black man in a hoodie walks into a convenience store late at night while he’s shopping the aisles, he has to continue to repeat to himself, “I am not racist. I am not racist. I am not racist.”

And that, there, is what I’m talking about.  Because for as much as he’s “not racist,” the subtle triggers that have been given to him by the media, by privilege, and by his own uncomfortability in being absolutely present in situations that test the tribal mentality of his cultural upbringing still persist.

Because Louis CK is racist. And an ally. He’s both.  And pretending he’s not won’t do any good.  And he knows that. Because the minute we forget that the system is alive is the minute it steals from you, like it stole from me in the exchange with the man yesterday.

Because if I had been present in the moment, I would have been more forceful in telling him, point blank, how uncomfortable his words made me feel.  How when he pointed to that chair, all I could see is my own Confirmation students sitting there.  And how their heritage is so important to them. And how I could see them looking down as this man pointed at them as if they are an issue that he had to figure out.

If the man is having trouble teaching students of any race, then the man is the issue, not the student.

I speak out about the overtly racist system all the time.  I forget about the subtle racist systems…and it always steals my voice. Because it exists in me, too. And it is pernicious.  And it operates under the radar for most of us (and in most of us) who consider ourselves allies.

Oh the subtle ways we’re racist…even in the church…maybe especially in the church…