Thursday, July 31, 2008

Escape Into Worship

Every now and then you read something that actually takes your breath away. This morning I had that experience, thanks to my friend Beth who sent me a link to this article from The Lutheran.

A Truly Political Liturgy” by Mark Galli

It came out of a question Beth has been mulling over just lately: “When did worship become a ‘break’?” As in, should we think of our corporate worship time as an escape? The context for the question was a comment about how babysitters were needed during worship in order to “give parents a break.” Hence the tangential question, Is worship a “break”?

If so, what is it a break from? What is it an escape to?

In the article, Mark Galli affirms that worship is an escape from one world into another:

Our sense that worship feels like an escape is in part a good thing. “The liturgy begins … as a real separation from the world,” wrote Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann. One of the points of liturgy is to take people out of their world and usher them into a strange new world. The world the liturgy reveals doesn’t seem politically or socially relevant at first glance. But the world it reveals is more real than the one we inhabit day by day.
The “strange new world” of God’s reign on earth is revealed in worship, like pulling back a curtain and taking a peek out a window. And the world that is revealed, the place to which worshipers escape on a weekly basis is miraculously “more real than the one we inhabit day by day,” which gives us hope. God has something else in mind for creation, something other than hatred, violence, poverty, hunger, prejudice, and all of that nastiness we witness all the time.

So church should be different; worship should offer an alternative; maybe liturgy should feel a bit strange … or unusual. As in “not usual.” By definition, it is. Galli:

In other words, the liturgy immerses us in the society of all societies, the kingdom of all kingdoms, the community of all communities. Whatever we long to see in our nation or community is only that much more in God’s order. We are often tempted to shape our churches to look like the culture or to change the service so it feels more socially relevant. It is logical at one level, and there is no question that we have to be culturally and socially sensitive. But the liturgy shows us a deeper logic and relevance—the world that is dawning and will never end.
I’m always asking, “What makes a church a church?” In other words, how is a church different from a club or a business or any of a list of social institutions that crowd our mailboxes with flyers and letters asking for contributions and other assistance. It seems to me that for a bunch of years in recent memory, the Church’s central question was, “What do people need?” Community demographics were diligently studied in order to answer that question. And when the “felt need” of the community was identified and expressed, the church allowed that need, whatever it may have happened to be, to co-opt the Gospel in priority.

That isn’t always a bad thing, in and of itself. But it edges up against a kind of “bait-and-switch” evangelism that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If the church draws people in with a promise that their needs will be met, then starts talking about discipleship which entails thinking not of one’s self but of the needs of others, are we truly being faithful to our mission? My fear is that the church is so over-concerned about drawing people in, that we are just so happy when they come we tend to de-emphasize or flat out ignore the call to discipleship, out of fear that all of those people will leave.

I do not believe that worship and “real life” are two completely separate spheres of existence that never meet. I believe that worship happens in the midst of our lives, at any time and any place. My point is not to separate Sunday morning from the rest of the week. But there is (and should be) an element of other-worldliness to worship. Galli:

If not for worship, our vision of a good and just world would slowly fade. We would begin ever so gradually to believe the world’s lies, that this is all one can reasonably hope for, that we must accept life as it comes to us. After participating in worship, we see this lie for what it is and re-enter the world with a vision of the way it’s supposed to be.

So I thing worship is a break, Beth, in a way. Worship is an escape from the world as it is into the world as it should be, as God wants it to be. Whether or not that “break” really means a break from your kids, well, that’s another question, isn’t it? Worship is about celebrating the Divine/human encounter, and responding to that encounter by announcing and embodying a strange and wonderful new way to live.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Distinctly Methodist?

What would make a congregation distinctly Methodist? Other than a big ol’ cross and flame on the sign outside, of course. How would somebody be able to tell that a particular congregation was Methodist?

Just walking in the door one time on any given Sunday, I’m not really sure what that would be. We’re such a diverse denomination. But I’m not really concerned with a one-time impression. I’m thinking more deeply, like a core identity question. Over time, some things would emerge that would be marks of a distinctly Methodist congregation.

It would be connectional. Methodist identity is formed in large part by the connection itself. Congregations are not isolated and do not operate as self-contained units off by themselves, but work together in ministry and cooperate in community and relationship with one another. Preachers itinerate in order for this to happen more effectively. We pool our financial resources, too, and put them to work in global ministries that are more effective than any one congregation could muster alone. The congregational apportionment is not the “bill from the conference,” it is a manifestation of our global connection.

Theologically, the congregation would emphasize grace, and salvation as a way, process, or journey from sin toward a renewed relationship with God. Rather than emphasize a single moment of “conversion,” a Methodist congregation would affirm that salvation is both instantaneous and gradual; and there are moments of conversion all along that way. As a corollary, there would be a “here-and-now” quality to the theology, not completely neglecting the afterlife, but definitely centering on present discipleship as a response to the eternal life given by God through Jesus Christ, and realized in the living presence of the Holy Spirit.

The central, foundational source for everything a Methodist congregation would do would be the Bible. Meetings would begin with Biblical reflection. Sunday School classes and other small groups would read Scripture together regularly. And further, (as Scott Jones wrote, “Scripture alone … yet never alone”) Methodist congregations would rely on tradition, experience, and reason to interpret Scripture. Thus the library in a Methodist congregation would contain a wide array of current, relevant sources on scriptural interpretation, using history, theological writings, testimonies, discussion and reflection resources, and so forth.

There would be balance between mind and heart, so that knowledge and piety would walk hand in hand. Scientific endeavors and historical scholarship would not be belittled; nor would prayer retreat weekends at the monastery. It would not be assumed, for example, that the creation of the world either happened exactly like it says in the Bible or exactly like “the scientists” theorize, but there would be room for both together. Wesleyan theology was formed in a crucible comprised of both Enlightenment and Holiness.

There would be balance between social and personal, so that justice and righteousness would be seamlessly woven. Homeless shelters would be supported and social activism to alleviate human suffering would be common. And at the same time, personal relationships with God through Jesus Christ would be nurtured. John Wesley’s Aldersgate moment happened when he realized that all the stuff he’d been telling other people about God applied to him personally, too, and he responded to that realization by working to end poverty, improve health care, and eradicate the slave trade. A distinctly Methodist church would be neither a social action agency nor a glorified self-help group.

Finally on my list, there would be singing. This one is personal for me, as a singer. Methodists sing “lustily and with good courage,” as John Wesley encourages us to do still today in the front of the hymnal. There is nothing in the world like a Methodist congregation in full-throated praise of almighty God, singing a familiar and well-loved song, practically knocking the roof off the rafters, with smiles on our faces and joy in our hearts. A congregation who has stopped singing has lost something distinctly Methodist.

If you have any to add, or want to remark on any of my suggestions, I hope you post a comment. Tell me if you think a connectional, grace-filled, scripturally grounded, thoughtful, devout, socially active group of Jesus-loving people singing praise to God at the top of their lungs sounds like a Methodist congregation to you!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Cross and Sail?

I was talking with Caden this morning, who goes to preschool here at the church.

"Do you work on a ship?" he asked.

"No," I said with a puzzled look.

"Then why to you have a ship there?" he wondered, pointing to my nametag.

On my nametag is a cross-and-flame Methodist logo. Which I guess looks a bit like a sail on a mast, especially if you're Caden. I never noticed that before!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Is it Satire or is it Offensive? Or is it both?

Have you seen the cover of the New Yorker this week? Kind of crazy, huh? Barack Obama in a Muslim outfit, Michelle Obama dressed like a militant terrorist, U.S. flag burning in the fireplace, picture of bin Laden on the wall. Hmm ...
The "New Yorker" says it's satire. Obama and a bunch of other people say it's offensive. I don't know exactly where the line is.
Of course, what they did was take all the right-wing criticisms of the Obamas and put them into cartoon form. So if this is offensive, it's offensive because the people who said the stuff originally were offensive. But if it's satire, it's satire because the "New Yorker" really doesn't believe all the stuff and is making fun of the people who said it originally. That would make it offensive to the original offenders, then, I suppose.
So yeah, it is possible to think this picture is offensive for more than one reason. You can be offended because it depicts the Obamas celebrating in the Oval Office by doing just what you thought they would do all along, in which case yours is a "see I told you so" kind of offense. Or you might be offended because the New Yorker is giving legitimacy to the right-wing fears about the Obamas by iconizing them on the cover, in which case yours would be an "Oh, please" kind of offense. Or perhaps you are offended on behalf of the character of the Obamas, in which case yours is a "Oh no, they would never..." kind of offense. It is even plausible to be offended because the New Yorker is depicting the burning of a U.S. flag at all, no matter what you think about Barack and Michelle Obama.
What do you think? Satirical / offensive / satiricoffensive? (Ha! I made up a word!) I'm looking forward to reading a comment or two ...
One thing's pretty certain, though. It will probably sell a bunch of magazines!

Monday, July 07, 2008

Assuming Church Growth

When I was appointed to Northtown UMC, the average worship attendance was 150. Four years later it was 200. When my family arrived, our two kids doubled the size of the Children’s Ministry. When we left, there were 25 kids involved regularly. We added staff, we started a student intern program, we reorganized the ministry structure of the congregation.

I get church growth, and I get that there are a lot of ways to make it happen. A lot of people are hopeful that we can figure out a way to make it happen here at Campbell UMC.

However, I do not get church growth when the only motivation seems to be “…because we are not growing.”

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about my disappointment with this year’s Annual Conference session, and couple of people I really respect a lot disagreed with me – one in a blog comment and one via an email conversation. It took me a while to understand why they were disagreeing, because it seemed to me like they were disagreeing with a point that I had not intended to make. It was as if I had written, “Church growth is not important.” At least, that is how it seemed from their responses. I do not believe that church growth is not important, and I honestly did not mean to imply anything like that.

Here’s an implication I intended: Church growth strategies, when presented as overly simplistic tasks that lack deep theological grounding and are motivated by fear and anxiety, are insufficient to sustain congregations in their ministries. That is a point that I intended to make, and I’ll stand by that one.

Here’s how growth happened in North Kansas City. First, it was never my deal alone, it was always a communal effort. Second, we never called it a “church growth” program, we just had a congregational vision and everyone worked their tails off to make that vision real. And third, we thought a lot about creating structures and processes more suited to a bigger church with the goal of growing into those structures and processes over time.

Essentially, we just tried to be the church, knowing that the presence of the living Christ was with us every time we gathered together. We invited people with warmth, friendship, and hospitality. We worshiped with energy and passion. We studied together with honesty, relevance, and intentionality. We served our community and our world with boldness and restlessness for God’s justice. And we gave of ourselves with extravagance, bringing every portion of our lives to Christ – time, talent, money, service, prayers, presence … everything!

And here’s the thing. If a congregation does that stuff, it will grow. If a congregation does that stuff well, growth is assumed because it is a natural consequence, and there is no need to belabor it. Dead horses can only take so much kicking.

I guess what I’m really saying is that Church is more than a set of simplified tasks, more than getting increasing numbers of people in the doors, and the guiding principle for the church cannot be anxiety about decline. Think about it, trying to raise money by saying, “Hey, send us money because we don’t have any” is probably not going to work so well. Or, trying to get young adults involved with the church by saying, “Hey young adults, come to our church because we don’t have any young adults” – well that just doesn’t make any sense.

And likewise, discipling one another for Jesus Christ by saying, “I’d like to invite you to come to church because our numbers just keep going down and if this trend continues we’re probably going to die” is more than likely not going to work so well.

Rather, let’s pray sincerely, think deeply, and work hard to be Christ’s church, in all its complexity, beauty, and messiness. Let’s be church with such excellence that growth is a natural consequence, not the only thing we ever talk about.

Citational addendum entered at 5:00 p.m.:
"Change for the sake of change or to preserve the institution is not sufficient."
- Bishop Robert Schnase, 5 Practices