Saturday, January 28, 2006

Young Adults and the Church: Themes

Thanks for the comments on my last post about the Young Adult workshop I'm leading. I am going to utilize many of your thoughts tomorrow afternoon. I'll be sure to give full credit where it is due ;)

Seems that one important theme is to beware of thinking that the latest gadget, worship trend, or other gimmick is going to fix everything. Adam M. said, "it's authentic relationships that keep the church growing, not smoke and mirror 'modern' worship." Similarly, Adam C. wrote, "The last thing I want to do is cater to the consumer lifestyle by adding a guitar just because I think that is going to get young people." Authenticity and relevance are values that young adults hold in high regard.

Another important theme is to promote an outward focus rather than inward. Kyle asks, "[Young adults] have moved into our community but is knocking on doors or leaving a brochure the best method now?" Dave's practical suggestion was to "take them out into the world and go see a concert, go bowling, see a movie, etc." Before starting any ministry at all, Brad says, "The first question any church should ask is who's our audience. Who's in our community?" In other words, the issue is to reframe the situation from "bringing more young adults into the church" to "taking the church into your community and into the world."

The third theme I hope to be able to communicate tomorrow is that young adults are individuals living in community, not a homogenous generation. For example, Mike pointed out a key difference between young adults who are parents and those who are not. Dave wrote, "[Young adults] are ready to think for themsleves, and find out who they are." Kansas Bob notes that people want a church that helps them "experience God's presence and actually brings them closer to the Lord." And the reality is that each person does that in a way that is personally unique to who they are created to become.

I am going to use scripture, the Book of Discipline, the thoughts of Bishop Schnase, a few case studies, and hopefully a whole lot of group discussion during the session tomorrow. Keep me in your prayers. I'll let you know how it turns out!

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Young Adults Workshop

I'm leading a workshop on Sunday afternoon called "Ministry of Young Adults." It is a part of our District Lay Leadership Training event.

In the workshop, I am going to refer to the remarks of Missouri's Bishop Robert Schnase that he has posted on the Missouri Conference website. Here is a bit of what he says.
The average age in our conference is 57, the average age in our society is 33.
Each generation speaks a different language.

And more...
A hundred years ago you might have had three generations in church that shared the same preference in worship style, music and entertainment. Now you may have four generations, each with their own distinctive preferences.

In 20 years, we’ve lost 40,000 by simple attrition, but haven’t replaced them. It’s not that everyone just up and left. It’s a front door problem, not a back door problem. The older generations are being asked to do what is so hard: to support music and worship styles that are foreign to them. But we must understand we have to reach these younger generations and there is a limited time to do that.

Do these thoughts ring true for you? I am happy to say that the average age of the new members we recieved here last year is 35. (And that includes one 95 year old woman in the mix!) But the reality to which Bishop Schnase points is alarming, indeed. Speaking in a sweeping, possibly unfair, but nonetheless-containing-a-kernel-of-truth generalization, people in their 20s and 30s talk, look, and think differently than older people. How is the church responding?

So I ask, if you were leading a workshop on "Ministry of Young Adults," what would you say? Or perhaps, if you were attending a workshop on the topic, what would you like to hear?

Monday, January 23, 2006

The Preaching Art

The painter had stepped away for a few moments, leaving the work to sit in the air. Her representation of reality was exposed to anyone who happened to walk by with a camera. The expression of her artist's eye, the most personal of gifts given by her Creator, a manifestation of the intimate inner-workings of her creative impulse: laid bare for the casualest observer's intrusion. I felt a bit like an interloper, an invading force, a violator of a private space.
But I also felt a great sense of wonder at the vulnerability of the painter away from her easel. Was she not frightened that her creation would be vandalized, or perhaps knocked over by a sudden strong gust of wind? What a risk she took! What trust; what strength of character! She had put her idea out there in the middle of the sidewalk and then stepped away, allowing anyone at all to make anything they wanted out of it.
Kind of like a preacher, isn't it? A preacher pours out the innermost depth of her soul into every phrase of her sermon. A preacher studies, looks, prays, listens, studies some more, then lays bare her representation of reality for the congregation who has come to worship. Bold colors, subtle brush strokes, the interplay of light and shadow, all are painted onto the sermon's canvas with the skill and passion of a creative mind and an artist's eye. The most personal gift given by the preacher's Creator, exposed to the casualest of observers.
Then she steps away. Tired and sweating, she leaves the sermon there in the middle of the sidewalk, where malicious vandal or errant gust of wind may find it. What a risk she took! What trust! The preacher cannot guard with jealousy every jot and tittle of sermonic pronouncement. She must step away, and allow the words to sit in the air.
Maybe someone will come by with a camera.
Then again, maybe not.
Then the painting is gone, and the preacher gets started on the next.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Happy Birthday Me!

Well, everyone, Enter the Rainbow is one year old as of this week. Click here to read the first post I wrote.

Clip Art Gone Awry

You gotta check this out: click here.

Disciple Making - Leave Your Nets!

For two weeks now, the lectionary has led us to consider stories of people being called to follow Christ. Last week it was John 1:43-51, where Philip and Nathanael get the call. This week we are reading Mark 1:14-20, in which Simon, Andrew, James, and John are invited to follow. It is one of the functions of the church to continue this ministry of making disciples of Jesus Christ. What does that look like in today's world?

Too often, deciding to "follow Jesus" merely involves quitting all of your bad habits and adopting new, good habits. When we die to our old life in order to be born anew in Christ, we tend to consider that old life as comprised of all the nasty stuff we want to eliminate - partying all night, smoking, sleeping around, cursing, drinking too much, etc. We leave that stuff behind and give ourselves to Jesus, as if Jesus is some divinely sanctioned self-help program.

But what was so bad about the lives of Philip, Nathanael, and the four fishermen? It is likely that they had a few bad habits, to be sure, but the scripture does not mention this. No, these are not examples of quitting the bad stuff in order to start living right. The disciples are invited to leave their perfectly fine, good, healthy lives and follow Jesus. Nathanael is affirmed as a person "in whom there is no deceit." He is a good person who is invited to leave it behind. Simon and Andrew are fishing, like they did every day, and they leave their nets (not their bad habits, notice), to follow him. James and John are working the family business with Zebedee, whom they leave behind (their own FATHER) in order to follow Jesus.

The point is not that we just give up the BAD stuff to follow Jesus; the point is to give up the GOOD stuff, too! Let's not minimize the demands of Christian discipleship by reducing it to a method for personal improvement. Accepting Christ into your life CAN eliminate all that "bad stuff," but the person who comes to Jesus based on that foundation has built a shaky house, indeed. The moment the temptation and opportunity to engage in that "bad stuff" arise again, Jesus leaves the scene.

John Wesley encouraged Methodists to pray as a part of the renewal of the covenant,
"I am no longer my own, but thine....
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal."

The point being, give it ALL over to God, not just the "bad stuff." I'm not sure the church is doing such a great job in communicating that message to the world. "And immediately they left their nets and followed him." All of us are at heart just regular folks trying to live our lives as best as possible. It is into these regular lives of these regular folks that Jesus comes and says, "Follow me."

P.S. - (This little extra bit seems to fit in somewhere, but I couldn't make it flow into the rhythm of the post above. Enjoy this bonus material at no extra charge!):
I think U2 is onto something with their song "Walk On." On the journey into life, "the only baggage you can bring is all that you can't leave behind." And then there is a list of all of the things that you can and should leave behind: "All that you fashion. All that you make. All that you build. All that you break. All that you measure. All that you steal. All this you can leave behind. All that you reason. All that you sense. All that you speak. All that you dress up. All that you scheme..." That doesn't leave very much, does it?

Monday, January 16, 2006

Martin Luther King's Legacy: Brownback Doesn't Quite Get It

Senator Sam Brownback wrote a guest column in the Kansas City Star today giving homage to Martin Luther King, Jr. (This, by the way, is the new definition of irony.)

Brownback writes, "King dedicated his life to the advancement of individuals in need," (italics mine)

But I say, the advancement of individuals in need is hardly what King was dedicated to. Oh, he was in favor of it, to be sure. But he was dedicated to nothing less that the transformation of society and the establishment of justice for all people in America and throughout the world. Brownback makes King sound like he ran a local food bank. Running a food bank is an awesome ministry, and worthy of much gratitude, but King was about something more fundamental and communal than that. There is a difference between doing the works of justice that King did and doing the works of mercy that happen in food banks every day.

Brownback writes, "King’s commitment to the advancement of those in need not only transformed our once oppressive society into a symbol of freedom and democracy, but he also ushered in a new consciousness of the importance of charity toward each another." (italics mine)

But I say, oppression in our society is not a thing of the past. The way Brownback writes, you would think that King's dream is realized and there is no more work to do. There has never been a more noticeable difference between rich and poor in the United States. Prejudice against women and minorities is alive and well. The very young and the very old in our society are systemically devalued. No, there is still plenty of work to do before our country attains the high ideals King attempted to hold us to.

More Brownback: "We most truly live up to the legacy of King when we help others."

But I say, we most truly live up to the legacy of King when we unflinchingly stare injustice and oppression in the face and insist that things must be different than they are, in spite of the threat or even the act of violence perpetrated against us. King would not have received death threats and eventually been assasinated if all he had wanted was for us to "help others," like Senator Brownback seems to think. The legacy King left the world was much more profound than offering a helping hand to a neighbor in need.

I applaud the good Senator's effort to highlight the importance of acts of mercy, or helping people in need. We do those acts every day here in Northtown. But to blunt the force of Martin Luther King's impact on our society by trying to make him just another social worker doing good things is an offense to the truth. King was an extremist, and demanded that we all be, as well. In his letter from Birmingham City Jail he wrote, "So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice - or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?"

And read this closely, from the same letter: "The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church's silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are." *Sigh* There is still so very much work to be done. And honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King is more that closing the Post Office and writing a check to mail to the food pantry. As King put it, "If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands."

Friday, January 13, 2006

Missouri Ministers' School - Reconciliation 101

I have been away for a week at Missouri Ministers' School, an annual continuing education event for the United Methodist clergy in the Missouri Annual Conference. This year, our faculty included Willie Jennings, Ruth Duck, and Philip Wogaman. The theme of the conference was reconciliation, with the title, "Can Holy Ground Be Common Ground?"

The conference was really good, but I think it was a little heavy on the "theory" and kind of light on the "practice." There were some excellent theological conversations that left me asking the "So what?" question. In other words, how exactly is the church supposed to live this out in our "ministry of reconciliation" in the world today?

Another observation, our faculty this year were obviously somewhere on the left side of the theological sphere, and espouse ideas that might be labelled "liberal" or "progressive." They basically agreed with each other the whole time. (And, I must say, I basically agreed with them the whole time, too!) However there was no counterpoint offered. There was no one whom we might label "conservative" there to offer another perspective of reconciliation.

So it leads me to wonder, what does the ministry of reconciliation look like to people with a different theological perspective than Phil Wogaman et al? Is it as simplistic as saying, "Reconciliation implies assimilation and homogeneity"? In other words, in order to be reconciled with "us" you must become like "us"? Surely not. That sounds like the Borg, not the Church. And yet, to me, that is how it seems. Please correct the error of my thinking here if I am wrong, but a lot of contemporary Christianity seems to think that reconciliation means we can be together as long as the group with less power becomes like the group with more power. (And that seems to apply to independent churches as well as mainline protestantism, I am sad to say.)

This last week, even without a healthy counterpoint, the faculty of the Missouri Ministers' School sketched a picture of reconciliation that shows us living together in Christ even in spite of our differences. And I wonder, had a more conservative lecturer been there, what would she or he have had to say about that?

Thinking Like a Diamond

Vinny commented on my last post: "Man, get beyond this one-dimensional thinking." I'm not completely sure if he was commenting to me or one of the commentors, since he used the salutation "Man," which I assume is a generic "Hey you," and could referred to anyone. Nonetheless, in responding to his remark, I would like to just say "Amen" and I hope no one interprets my own thinking as one-dimensional.
Phil Wogaman talks about the metaphor of a diamond cut into multiple facets. Every facet of the diamond allows us to get a glimpse of the center of the jewel, but from a different angle and with a different resultant sparkle. The "truth" is the center of the diamond; our individual perspectives are the facets.
I like it! I've got my facet, you have yours. Now let's talk about our facets and how they illuminate the truth for us, with the faith that, at the core, it is the same truth that is being illuminated.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Beyond the Labels

Back in October, I wrote about the difficulties of dialogue. I offered the observation that the real difference in our society is not between "liberals" and "conservatives" but rather between "idealogues" and "contextualizers." There are right-wing and left-wing idealogues, and they are pretty busy bashing each other over the head with their respective perspective. Most of us, however, are contextualizers, able to see that the different circumstances of our lives have shaped us into who we are and what we believe. Contextualizers may disagree with one another, but at least we can talk together.

(Unfortunately, you have to be an idealogue to make headlines.)

Enter a wonderful column by Ellen Goodman in Wednesday's paper. Goodman draws from Philip Tetlock's book, which in turn uses Isaiah Berlin's essay. (Got that?) Anyway, Berlin uses the characters of the hedgehog and the fox to describe the way people think. Quoting Goodman, "The close-minded hedgehogs are those who know 'one big thing' and relate everything to that single, central vision. The open-minded foxes 'know many little things' and accept ambiguity and contradictions." In public discourse, what we hear most are hedgehogs battling; there is no air time for foxes.

The church has hedgehogs, too. The church is filled with people who believe one big thing, and any evidence to the contrary is minimized or ignored altogether. For example, I would say that a Christian who believes the church is only a social justice agency and minimizes or denies any personal salvific relationship with Jesus is a hedgehog. In addition, a Christian who believes that once you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior everything will be fine and if all the poor, hungry, homeless people would just accept Him too their lives would be better, is also a hedgehog. The question is not whether you are liberal or conservative; the question is whether you are a hedgehog or a fox.

Of course, if the idea in which you stake your belief is big and vague enough, you can make the case that being a hedgehog is a good thing. Like for example, you could say, "The one big thing I believe is that God is love, and everything else is related to that." Or your "one big thing" might be that Jesus is Lord or that there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet or that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is reaching out to touch the world with his noodly appendage. But if you make your "one big thing" too broad, it misses the point of the metaphor at hand.

God's world is a wonderfully diverse and ever changing mix of differences, contrasts, and tensions. Each of us chooses how we deal with that reality. Either curl up and put out your spines like a hedgehog, effectively defending yourself against all threat but blind to any goodness. Or engage the ambiguity and difference with cunning and cleverness like a fox, so that your nose might get stuck a time or two but you will grow better from your life experiences.

Pat Poll

I just want to ask y'all, about Pat Robertson, on a scale of 1 to 10 (where 1 = "ignore him because he is an irrelevant joke" and 10 = "actively seek his downfall because he is doing great harm to Christianity") what do you think we should do?