Monday, May 18, 2015

Take a Breath, Church

You rarely think about breathing until you are finding it difficult. As when you have just run up three flights of stairs or been swimming underwater for several seconds. And if it gets really bad, then breathing is ALL you can think about. You gasp until your body has enough oxygen to function normally again, and little by little your breathing slows and deepens, at which point you promptly stop thinking about it again.

Yet we are always breathing. While we live, we breathe. We are never doing nothing. We breathe. The oxygen infuses our blood. Our heart carries it through our body. Life is motion. Life is breath.

For the church, the Holy Spirit is breath. There are times that we take the Spirit for granted, as we do with our breathing, rarely thinking about the Spirit ... until we struggle. Until a poor decision gets us in trouble. Until a loved one dies too soon. If it gets really bad, then we gasp for the Spirit with huge hiccups of prayer and grief and unanswerable questions of “why.” And little by little, as time goes by, our spiritual breathing eventually slows and deepens, normalizing into a new version of our inevitable new life.

We are always in the presence of the Holy Spirit. While we are the church, the Holy Spirit is with us. God is never absent from us. We pray. Love infuses our lives. Our service carries it through the body. God is Spirit.

My prayer for the church is that we would be continually mindful of the presence of the Spirit among us. Just as breathing deeply calms the mind and body, may our deep prayers serve to calm the church and focus us on God’s presence, power, and peace.

That will require us to practice intentional awareness, to develop our ability to perceive the Spirit. Of course, there are times it is the mighty wind of Pentecost Sunday, and it blows our hats off. But much of the time it is just the tiniest puff of breeze, which we may very well miss if we’re not careful.

We are always going. Always striving. Always arguing. Always making noise. Always ...

Always out of breath.

And so, stop. Sit still. And take a breath, church.

Just.

Breathe.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

So, The Church Is a Mess...

There’s a new study out that reinforces a trend that has been on church leaders’ minds for years. It is a Pew Research Center report, and it verifies that the number of Americans who identify as “Christian” has dropped while the number of Americans who identify as “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “nothing in particular” has grown.

To be sure, over 70% of the population still says it is Christian, so we could still override a veto. But the trend is quite clearly a decline, and it has been for years.

Now, different church leaders will react to the trend in different ways, obviously. Lament, panic, resignation. But I’ll tell you what I think about it – I think it’s a good thing.

I have spoken to quite a few people who have left the church for one reason or another. As I’ve heard their stories, I have noticed a common theme: The church they left is not the church of my experience.

They are leaving a version of Christianity to which I have never ascribed. They are leaving a narrow and rigid form of church that bears little resemblance to the community of Jesus as I understand it. In other words, what they are leaving is an expression of the church that frankly I would leave, too, if I was a part of it.

And nine times out of ten, among the doctrines of the church they leave is included some variation of this idea: “There is only one way to be the church – our way.” And so when confronted with a church that they find void of meaning AND the idea that this is the only version of church there is, the only option is to leave.

The thing is, that’s NOT the only option.

There is a diverse spectrum of churches, of denominations, of congregations within denominations, of people within congregations. There is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to God, and so there is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to church, either.

Sure, it can be a confusing mess to sort through, trying to find a group of people to call your church. But the messiness is real. It’s the realest thing ever. It is truth. It’s people being people. It’s a beautiful mess. And sorting through the mess is most definitely worth the effort.

A significant problem is that we have spent too much time and energy insisting that church isn’t messy, that it shouldn’t be a struggle, that church is a neat and tidy proposition. The norms we project are actually false fronts, hiding turbulence and anger and doubt and fear. What a mess.

What a gorgeous, holy mess.

And so I do not lament that people are leaving. I’m not going to wring my hands and worry about the demise of the church. In fact, I celebrate the opportunity that arises. I am eager and excited to witness what the Holy Spirit is doing among the people who have left the church, what new expressions of faith are emerging, and what “church” is going to look like as we experience this messy, turbulent time together.

There are nicer things to call this mess, actually. Gil Rendle calls the present moment “our particular exodus,” a healthy journey through the wilderness to a new ecclesial identity. Phyllis Tickle says it is a “Great Emergence” similar to other historical “great” moments, like the protestant reformation, the east/west schism, and the monastic movement.

The only reason to lament people “leaving” the church is if your ecclesiology is so narrowly defined that it only contains your own personal understanding of what the “church” is. How dare we try to place such limits on what the Holy Spirit may be capable of accomplishing outside of the boundaries of what we think of as the church!


Instead, we who are the church should be celebrating the great work that God is doing in the world today, and asking how we might join in to help out! There's no need for us to be jealous of what God is accomplishing outside of the sphere of our understanding. The church is a mess, and I for one like it that way!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Christian Discipleship as Amoeba Tag

Do you remember playing “tag” as a kid? One person started out as the one who was “IT” and then ran around the playground trying to touch another kid, who then became “IT” and it was their turn (NO TAG-BACKS!).

A variation of the game is called “Amoeba Tag.” In this version, two people are “IT” and they join hands. Each person they tag joins on to the “Amoeba” by linking hands with the end person. When there is an even number of people linked together, the “Amoeba” can split in two if it wants. And you keep tagging people until everyone is tagged.

When Jesus said to his disciples, “You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24), he was basically tagging them. He might as well have said to them, “Now, you’re ‘IT!’”

Christian discipleship is more like “Amoeba Tag” than traditional tag. We reach out to others not to relinquish evangelistic responsibility to them, but rather to join together with them in the task of sharing the good news. Linked together as the church, we work together in a coordinated effort to reach out to others.

There’s another aspect of the game that the church might think about embracing: It’s supposed to be fun! This isn’t a competition. This isn’t a military campaign. This isn’t a numbers-driven business venture. This is the church!

The church is a joyous community of grace and love, so filled with the power of the Holy Spirit that it overflows in everything we say and do. If we can’t have a bit of fun while we’re sharing this good news, then how good can the news really be?

So let’s play tag, church. We are “IT,” so let’s join hands and run around the field laughing our butts off and reaching out to the other kids running around all over the place. Let’s have some fun!

Saturday, May 09, 2015

A Denomination-Wide Sabbatical

I have an idea for the future of the United Methodist Church. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that my idea is exactly what our denomination needs right now.

I think we need a sabbatical. All of us. A denomination-wide sabbatical.

One year should be enough time. We need a one year sabbatical to do nothing but worship and pray, reconnect with God, refocus our energy and renew our souls.

In that year, we do nothing else. No Bible studies. No mission trips. No church plants. No leadership training. No marriage license signing. No board meetings. No capital campaigns. No new member classes. No political advocacy. No evangelism programs. No fellowship events. No appointment changes. Nothing.

Rather, every resource, every dollar, every pastor, every staff member, every denominational board and agency, every United Methodist in every congregation around the world focused for an entire year on two things: worship and prayer. And literally stop doing anything else.

Let’s see, General Conference is in May of 2016. So, maybe they could designate 2018 as a year of sabbatical for the United Methodist denomination, which would give everybody plenty of time to prepare. (As with any significant time off, you need to plan ahead to make sure the processes and procedures are in place to get you through the time in a healthy way.)

Imagine the power of all 12 million of us on sabbatical at once. Imagine how radically counter-cultural that would be.

We would say no to the frenetic pace of the world. We would say no to imposing market-driven value on people. We would say no to the debilitating metric of unimpeded growth. We would say no to our over-scheduled, hyper-active calendars. We would say no to the relentless demand for instant results. We would say no to slick programs and perfect curricula and trendy books and hip lingo.

We would say yes to the living presence of God.

Period.

There are a few “plans” floating around out there about the future of the United Methodist denomination. Many of these “plans” are variations on a theme titled, “What the United Methodist Church Should Do About Homosexuality.” The run up to every General Conference features a quadrennial flurry of latest, greatest ideas. And this time around is no different.

However, my plan is unique among them. See, all the other plans have something in common: they all advocate doing things. To my knowledge, mine is the only plan that advocates actually stopping doing things. On purpose.

Sigh. I know, I know. It’s not going to happen, is it? But wouldn’t it be nice? Just to take a break, catch our breath, and remember why we do what we do?

Maybe stop nitpicking each other for a year? Maybe stop bickering? Maybe stop trying to one-up each other? Just pray and worship. That’s it.


And then, when the year is done, we get back to it. But we come with a new perspective, refreshed and focused. A little less grumpy. A little more gracious. And a little more ready to be the church that God wants us to be.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Everyone's An Angel?

God is still sending messages. God has spoken to human beings through all of history, and God is still speaking today.

The law was a message from God, sent through Moses. God spoke through the prophets of old, calling the nation to live worthy lives. God sent messages through the heavenly beings called angels, whose very name means “messengers.”

And ultimately, God embodied the message in Jesus. Jesus is the incarnate Word of God, the most complete expression of God’s message to the world. And after his resurrection, God sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in our midst, the ongoing presence of God with us even now.

And so, considering God’s ultimate expression in Jesus, considering God’s ongoing, unmediated presence with us .... are there angels any more? If God can speak to us directly in the Holy Spirit, what use is there for angels? Do they even exist?

Now some will answer, “Yes, absolutely. I know because I have seen for myself.” Others will say, “No way. Angels are myths.”

Still others will reply, “Maybe so, maybe not. I’m not really sure. Angels haven’t been a part of my experience, so I can’t say one way or the other.”

Wherever we personally fall on that spectrum, scripture does make one thing clear to all of us: we are to treat people as if each one is an angel (Hebrews 13:1-2). How would it change the way you looked at others if you thought to yourself, “What if he has been sent by God?” or “What if she has a message for me that God need me to hear?”

God is still sending messages, and it could come from ANYONE! There are definitely “Angels All Around.”

Saturday, April 25, 2015

3 Reasons Why Itinerancy is an Idea Perfectly Suited for the 21st Century Church

As an itinerant preacher, I am sent by the church to a community in order to do ministry in that community alongside a congregation for whom I provide spiritual, missional, and temporal leadership. Okay, so there are a lot of prepositional phrases in that sentence - so first take note of the basic subject and verb: I am sent. That is the heart of what it means to be itinerant in the United Methodist Church, to be sent.

Here are three reasons why the itinerancy is perfectly suited for the mission of 21st century church.

1) The itinerancy empowers prophetic ministry.
“I am sent ... by the church.” The mission of the church guides the bishop in his or her discernment process. The bishop then acts on behalf of the entire church, utilizing the authority granted her or him by the church, to deploy leaders for that mission. Once deployed, I am accountable to that very same mission, and the bishop holds me accountable to that mission through my district superintendent.

And for the church’s mission in the 21st century this accountability connection is vital. For example, sexism, racism, and any other “-ism” congregation members may harbor will not unduly influence the decision of who will lead them. For another, a preacher can say what needs to be said to proclaim the Gospel and empower world-changing discipleship, without fearing the consequences of making the congregation a bit uncomfortable when doing so. Yes, I am accountable to the congregation as well, but my “direct supervisor” is the superintendent.

2) The itinerancy allows the church to take context into account.
“I am sent … to a community in order to do ministry in that community.” The mission of the church happens outside of the building walls, and itinerant preachers are sent to share the good news in particular communities. That’s an important part of what it means to be Methodist, as our founder made abundantly clear when he said, “The world is my parish.”

In the 21st century, the “mission field” of the church is becoming more and more nebulous, and less and less reliant on the old “insider” models of ministry. We are much less concerned with bringing “them” into the church, and much more concerned with being the church “out there” in the world. As an itinerant preacher, I can be sent to where my particular skill set matches the leading edges of new mission fields most effectively, rather than hired by a congregation to be “their” pastor.

3) The itinerancy facilitates grassroots ministry.
“I am sent … alongside a congregation for whom I provide spiritual, missional, and temporal leadership.” Methodism has always been a movement led by the laity; frontier preachers were sent to new towns, and sometimes discovered that groups of Methodists had already begun meeting together long prior to the preacher’s arrival. The healthiest United Methodist congregations still follow that model for ministry today.

Which is exactly the right approach for the church in the 21st century. We live in an era in which “bottom-up” efforts are the norm, and “top-down” initiatives are regarded with suspicion. Institutions are distrusted and hierarchies are shunned. Grassroots efforts, shared on social media and spreading quickly within communities, are nimble and energized and have great power and effect. An itinerant preacher leads a congregation for a season, stepping into a flowing stream and encouraging, equipping, and cheerleading the lay-led ministry of the congregation, and then moves on to do the same elsewhere.


Of course, no church polity is perfect. I know colleagues who have not experienced the itinerancy in the way I have, and I do not want to belittle their experiences at all. This post was prompted by a post several of my friends shared online, so I’m sure there is disagreement among us as to the efficacy of the itinerant ministry in today’s UMC.

But I happen to think that the itinerancy, especially how it is lived out here in Missouri, is perfectly suited for the prophetic, contextual, lay-led ministry that comprises the identity of the United Methodist Church. I believe it is the ideal way to deploy pastoral leadership for the 21st century.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

I Am Zechariah

I am fascinated by the old priest Zechariah, John’s father, who appears in the first chapter of Luke. He is one of the few in Scripture who encounters and speaks with an angel. In his case, it is the angel Gabriel.

Gabriel brought Zechariah a message, but ol’ Zack wasn’t ready to hear it. He just couldn’t believe that the message Gabriel brought him could possibly be true. And he said so!

Well, things didn’t go well for Zechariah then, which is … unfortunate. But his story raises some pretty important questions for us to consider today.

Are we ready to hear a message from God? Even if it seems kind of far-fetched? Even completely unbelievable?

And then, how do we know it really is a message from God? How do we respond typically when someone claims to have heard a message from God? Especially when the message they “heard” may be something we don’t agree with?

If someone claims that “God told them” a tornado was actually divine retribution for a sinful society, for example, why does that make us so skeptical?

To be honest, if I had been in Zechariah’s shoes that day, my reaction would have been identical to his. And then I would have been the object of Gabriel’s ire.

I suppose the answer is … faith. We know God by faith. We receive salvation by faith. We live our lives by faith. And by faith we keep our ears open, to hear any and all of the messages God may be sending to us each day.