Wednesday, October 31, 2007

And So It Goes

Q: When is a report of 36 deaths considered good news?
A: When it's in Iraq.

What a world.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Nightmare Before Christmas - A Ministry Metaphor

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a wickedly delightful fantasy, filled with clever creativity and imagination, and provides a wonderful metaphor for ministry.

Consider Jack, the Pumpkin King, and the main character of the movie. He is not the mayor of Halloween Town, but he clearly sets the tone there. He is Halloween. Jack is wonderfully creepy, and you can’t help but be drawn by his energy and by the way he obviously flourishes in his role as the undisputed king of all things nasty, scary, and generally horrific to think about.

But it is a farce. Just under the surface, Jack is in pain. His energy and enthusiasm in performing his annual Halloweeny duties are shallow, and quickly evaporate as he moves out of the sight of the other residents of Halloween Town. He wonders if there might be something more, lamenting, “Oh, somewhere deep inside of these bones an emptiness began to grow. There's something out there, far from my home, a longing that I've never known.” Jack is being called.

He wanders, searching, through the wilderness until he comes to the magical entrance to Christmas Town, where he is completely captivated by what he experiences. Sliding into town he encounters light, joy, snow, laughter, music, the smell of cakes and pies – all of this gets hold of Jack and penetrates his soul. Simply put, it brings him to life. This glimpse of what might be is in such sharp contrast to what his own experience has been, his immediate response is to bring it all back home with him, to share with Halloween Town. Having glimpsed what could be, he is filled with a passion to realize it in his own world.

But it won’t be as easy as that, will it Jack? He has an awkward, difficult time trying to articulate the vision to the people of Halloween Town. They seem hopelessly caught in their own experience, and cannot seem to understand what exactly it is that is so appealing to Jack about this fantastic place he is trying to describe. For example, when Jack talks about hanging a stocking on the wall, one asks, “Does it still have a foot?” They simply do not, or maybe cannot, understand. Something about “stiff-necked people” comes to mind, or maybe a “faithless generation.”

And then – the unthinkable happens. Jack sells out. After trying once more, “Everyone, please now, not so fast. There’s something here that you don't quite grasp,” as an aside to the audience, he whispers, “Well, I may as well give them what they want.”

NO, Jack, NO! you want to cry out, Don’t give up! Keep the vision out there, man! But it doesn’t happen. He compromises his glimpse of Christmas Town, and allows Halloween Town values and expectations to infiltrate that beautiful, powerful, wonderful vision of what might be. Why, Jack? Where did that sense of wonder and awe go so quickly? What happened to the joy, the new life, the passion?

In order to “give them what they want,” Jack settles for a “Halloweenified” version of Christmas that is just awful - “Snakes and mice get wrapped up so nice, with spiders legs and pretty bows” – and it all goes horribly, horribly wrong. It looks kind of like Christmas, but it isn’t. Jack dresses up like Santa, but his tall and impossibly skinny body just isn’t right. The wreath he hangs comes to life and attacks the family. The reindeer are skeletons. It is an unsettling phenomenon that is neither Christmas nor Halloween, but something else altogether, and there is nothing right about it.

And to add one more level of madness to the story: Jack buys into it. Flying through the air in the sham sleigh, he allows himself to be overtaken by the Halloweenified Christmas and seems to forget everything that has led him to this point. He forgets the vision, and what’s more, he substitutes the compromised vision for the real one. It’s one thing to aim for a target and not quite hit it, but Jack redefines the target altogether. Jack’s target is whatever he happens to be hitting at the moment. In a mocking caricature of the true joy he knew in Christmas Town, he cackles, “I don't believe what's happening to me. My hopes, my dreams, my fantasies. Hee, hee, hee, hee!” But these are not really his hopes and dreams – and we all know that. His hopes and dreams are nowhere in sight.

Eventually, Jack himself realizes it and moans a lament, “What have I done? What have I done? How could I be so blind? All is lost, where was I? Spoiled all, spoiled all. Everything's gone all wrong.” Although he never meant to do harm, when he compromised the Christmas Town vision to the standards, norms, and expectations of Halloween Town, he has indeed done great damage. Jack himself never figures out exactly why everything went wrong, but he desperately wants to make things right again. He does so by freeing Santa Claus from the lair of the Oogey Boogey Man, and Santa himself goes off to set things all aright again, leaving Jack in Halloween Town to live as the Pumpkin King, which is really all he ever was anyway.

But things are different in Halloween Town. It is snowing. And the creatures take up Jack’s wondering question, “What’s this?” as they marvel at this new thing showering down upon them, while Jack gazes at the stars with his dearest friend, Sally, who has a complicated story of her own going on. The citizens of Halloween Town wonder, “What’s this? Why it’s completely new. Must be a Christmas thing.” It seems that somehow, in spite of all that has gone wrong, there is a tiny bit of Christmas Town working its way into Halloween Town, after all.

It’s all there – the real life, the calling, the wilderness, the glimpse, the proclamation, the misunderstanding, the sell out, the compromise, the sham, the buy in, the collapse, the repentance, the renewal, the real life transformed – sounds like ministry to me.

In my next post I hope to draw out those parallels with a little more intentionality. In the meantime, what do you think? Any resonance here?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

5 Practices - the Whole and the Parts

The Missouri Conference has launched a pretty snazzy new website that is centered on the 5 Practices of Fruitful Congregations. I hope that everyone checks it out, and that it becomes a place where congregation leaders visit frequently about churchy stuff. Bish Schnay-Z is going to keep a blog there, some links to other places, and a section with some good potential to generate some buzz called “Ideas that Work.”

I think there should be another section there, too, titled “Ideas that Pretty Much Sucked,” but that may be why I’m not put in charge of these kinds of things! But I think there is real value in learning from trying things that just simply don’t work, and I have plenty of examples to share. Remember the quote attributed to Edison? Something like, “I haven’t failed, I’ve just learned 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Here in Northtown, as we revamp things around the 5 Practices, we have uncovered a potential pitfall that I’ll call “over-compartmentalization.” It arose in conversations about budget and staffing for next year. We discovered that we were tending to make very sharp contrasts among the 5 practices, to the point of trying to assign staff members to particular practices exclusively. However, we don't really have the staff needed to organize like that, and I really wonder if it ever is a wise thing regardless of staff numbers. Rather, we have a part-time staff member who works with adults on all 5 practices, another part-timer who works with youth in all 5, and another (a volunteer) who works with children in all 5 areas.

So then we were trying to figure out “what goes where” in the budget of ministries. Is Sunday night Youth Fellowship a “Faith Formation” thing? Yes. But it also involves inviting new youth to join (Hospitality), worshiping together, mission trips, and giving to the church (the youth generously tithe their fundraisers to the general fund of the church). When the conversation drifts into such hair-splitting, we are guilty of over-compartmentalizing.

The intent is not to create five departments – a “Hospitality Department,” “Worship Department,” “Mission Department,” “Faith Formation Department,” and “Generosity Department” – like the congregation is just another business like any. It is tempting to do so, to be sure, and maybe it would have worked a few decades ago to organize a congregation like that. But we are living in the post-everything generation, where everything is “post-this” and “post-that” and “post-theotherthing” and this time (karios moment?) resists that kind of rigid separation into categories.

Instead, 5 Practices calls us to look at the local congregation as a whole and see how the entire community is engaged in ministry. To be sure, the ministry will rotate around a core group of people whose responsibility it is to facilitate the congregation’s ministry in a particular area, but we’ve got to tightrope that walk so that we don’t fall into the over-compartmentalization trap. It is tricky, but doable.

Also posted here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Circuit Rider Column

Yes, that is me in the current Circuit Rider magazine.

Click here to give it a read.

Joke du Jour

For everyone to enjoy, but especially my brother Brad, (and probably especially NOT for my friend Kyle):

When Jerry Garcia died, he woke up and found himself on a stage on which a number of instruments were set up.

A door offstage opened and in walked Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, John Lennon, Otis Redding and Buddy Holly. Each musician picked up his favorite instrument and began tuning up. Jerry walked up to Jimi and said, "Man, so this is what heaven is like."

Jimi looked at him and said, "Heaven? You think this is heaven?"

At that moment, Karen Carpenter walked in, took her seat behind the drums, and called out, "Okay guys, 'Close to You.' One, two, three, four!"

Monday, October 08, 2007

A Two Schnase Day!

My first one was in the sermon - I was preaching on being "ashamed of the Gospel" as in the Timothy reading for the day. Toward the conclusion, I Schnasied the congregation with my current favorite: "At some point, followers of Jesus must decide whether they will listen to the wisdom of the world or to the wisdom of God." I equated being ashamed of the Gospel with listening to the wisdom of the world. I think it worked pretty well. The Gospel makes some doctrinal claims and expects some discipleship responses on our part that seem pretty outlandish, even silly, when evaluated according to the wisdom of the world.

My second Schnase du jour was during the finance team meeting when somebody said that we needed to put together a budget so that people in the congregation would know what their money is supporting. I said something like, "Well, actually I don't think that's exactly right. Bishop Schnase says that people give because they want to make a difference in the world, to support a vibrant mission, or to foster positive transformation, not so much out of loyalty to an annual budget." Our lay leader then astutely noted that the leadership of the congregation might need to see a budget, but the people in the pews probably don't.

People are wondering just how to bring the 5 Practices stuff to life in a real congregation - small group discussions, book studies, websites, and things like that. But there is a risk of "gimmickry" with that approach, isn't there? We run the risk of thinking that, if we have a few book studies and slap a few ideas onto the internet, we've addressed and accomplished our task. But really (and I'm about to Schnase you here), "Answers will not come in easy-to-use new programs, through quick fixes, or by adopting new slogans." (p. 129) In other words, the answers we seek are not to be found in gimmicks.

Rather, the idea is that the "5 Practices of Fruitful Congregations" will be absorbed into the "congregational culture" which will then be characterised by "genuine hospitality, authentic worship, meaningful faith development, life changing outreach, and extraordinarily selfless generosity." (p. 130) This absorption may be one of the most difficult things a congregation takes on, and no amount of programming will make it happen. It must be an emergent, organic process that is spread person to person, team to team, class to class. Only then will there be an abiding, long-reaching change rather than a frantic scramble to find the "easy button" answers.

"Effective congregations change, improve, learn, and adapt to fulfill their mission, and [this book pushes] us to rethink our basic congregational culture, organization, and practice." (p. 9)

Sounds like a little more than a few book studies, huh?

Also posted here.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Bish Schnay-Z?

Around our congregation, we have a new verb: "Schnase." To "Schnase" someone is to quote or paraphrase from the book, "Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations." So if you say something like, "Of course, people who give with extravagant generosity do so because they want to make a difference, not just support a budget," you can then say, "...and you've just been 'Schnasied'!"

My friend Adam and I are having an ongoing Schnase-off, to see if we can work a "Schnase" into any given conversation. He's pretty good, and I'm playing catch-up most of the time. He is more of a subtle Schnasier, with an uncanny ability to weave the Schnase into the conversation so that you hardly notice he's doing it until ... wham! You've been Schnasied before you know it.

My preferred technique is to give advance notice, as in, "Get ready, I'm about to Schnase you." This brings the added excitement of giving the hearer an opportunity to guess what's coming and maybe preemptively Schnase me before I can get to it. Just adds a little drama to the situation. There's nothing more exciting than the preemptive Schnase.

Here's the latest snippet I've been mulling over: "At some point, followers of Jesus must decide whether they will listen to the wisdom of the world or to the wisdom of God." (p. 114) I'm just waiting for the right moment to Schnase someone with that! It's a good one, isn't it?

I imagine the scenario playing this way. "Pastor, I just don't see how we can put that in the budget next year, with the market acting the way it is." To which I calmly respond, "My friend, you are about to be Schnasied! 'At some point, followers of Jesus must decide whether they will listen to the wisdom of the world or to the wisdom of God.'" Beauty.

And now, I'm bringing the practice of Schnaseing into the Methoblogosphere. Certainly, in order to make it most effective, y'all have to order the book and read it. Only then will you be able to Schnase with the best of 'em. (Not to mention the little extra fringe benefit of a healthier congregation, of course.) Soon the Missouri Conference is going to lauch a "Five Practices" website where we can exchange ideas and thoughts about fruitful congregations, and then the Schnaseing will be all over the place. But I'm not waiting, I'm starting now!

Avoid the rush, start Schnaseing your friends and neighbors today!

Also posted here.