If you came here to find my Thoughts & Musings blog, you've found the old one.
To head over to my new Thoughts & Musings, simply click HERE.
If you came here to find my Thoughts & Musings blog, you've found the old one.
To head over to my new Thoughts & Musings, simply click HERE.
Sometimes it's inevitable. Sometime it's self-imposed.
There are a few changes coming in my life in the near future - more on that later. But one change I want to share with you now involves my blog of five years, Thoughts & Musings. After spending all that time with the same platform, I've made the decision to migrate it to another.
Moving a blog is no small task, the primary headaches being migrating subscribers and posts. I've been lucky to have built up a nice following over the years and want to make sure those folks make the transition - so be on the lookout for future posts telling you how to do just that.
Moving posts is a little more tricky - they are inherently tied to the platform they were originally posted in, so the only sure-fire way to do it is to move them manually. I have around 300 posts, so that's a lot of cut and paste.
So this is where you come in. I'd like to ask your help in determining what posts will make the cut. If there is a Thoughts & Musings blog post that you particulary remember - last month, last year, whenever - and you'd like to see it make its way to its new home, just let me know. Just give me the title in a comment on this blog post or on Facebook. If you can't remember the title, a subject/topic should be enough for me to find it. I'll locate the post and make sure your request is honored, copying it over to the new T&M blog when it goes live (hopefully sometime in November).
And if you're smarter than me and happen to know a way to migrate all posts over to the new platform, feel free to clue me in.
Thanks for your help in the midst of change!
To many people unaffiliated with a church, and even to some who are, "church" means being among other people who are just like you: look like you, talk like you, think like you, work and play like you, and believe like you. It is part of foundational human behavior built into our DNA - we are inclined to form ourselves into groups ("tribes," as author Seth Rogen likes to call them). And we are inclined to do so based on some common shared characteristic. The problem for the church comes when we let this, and not the gospel, be what defines us.
I'm convinced, along with lots of other folks, that if the American church of the 21st century is going to flourish and live into its calling in the future, it must first clear this hurdle. And it's got to be more than simply opening our doors and saying a hearty, "Y'all come!" Instead, we're going to need to seek out those who are not like us and engage them on their own turf. It also means not allowing doctrine and dogma to supercede the relational nature of the body of Christ - as Paul said, and certainly got raked over the coals, we are all one in Christ Jesus. No single truth is as simple and as scandalous.
I don't know if it's reassuring or depressing that the same problems we face today in the church were faced by that Galatian church a mere 25 years after the end of Jesus' earthly life. I guess it depends on how you look at it. The thing is, if we're going to clear this hurdle, we have to intentionally put ourselves in those uncomfortable positions where we, ironically, are not the authority - for that is how we demonstrate to those on the outside of the church that it is not about us, it was never about us, but it was and is always about God. And we have to be creative in how we do it - not for creativity's sake, but to demonstrate in bold and convincing fashion that we are truly willing to move on from what has not worked and plunge head-first into the unknown and into what may actually work this time.
And that is why I will forever love the story told by author Don Miller in his book Blue Like Jazz, of the Confession Booth. If you aren't familiar with this story, I dare you to read it below and tell me on the other side that you're not changed. If you've heard it before, don't pass up an opportunity to read it again.
Each year at Reed College they have a festival called Ren Fayre. They shut down the campus so students can party. Security keeps the authorities away, and everybody gets pretty drunk and high. Some of the Christian students in our little group decided this was a pretty good place to let everybody know there were a few Christians on campus. I said we should build a confession booth in the middle of campus and paint a sign on it that said, CONFESS YOUR SINS. I said this because I knew a lot of people would be sinning, and Christian spiritually begins by confessing our sins and repenting. I also said it as a joke.
But Tony thought it was brilliant. He sat there on my couch with his mind in the clouds, and he was scaring me because I actually believed he wanted to do it.
“We are not going to do this,” I told him.
“Oh, we are, Don. We are going to build a confession booth!”
Nadine smiled. “They may very well burn it down,” she said.
“Okay you guys.” Tony gathered everybody's attention. “Here's the catch. We are not actually going to accept confessions.” We all looked at him in confusion. He continued. “We are going to confess to them. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for those televangelists who steal people's money, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely, we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus. We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them.”
All of us sat there in silence because it was obvious that something beautiful and true had hit the table. We all thought it was a great idea. It would feel so good to apologize, to apologize for the Crusades, for Columbus and the genocide he committed in the Bahamas in the name of God. I wanted so desperately to apologize for the many ways I had misrepresented the Lord.
So we set to work on the confession booth throughout the beginning of Ren Fayre. And the further along we got on the booth, though, the more I began to wonder if our idea was such a hot one. As we began to put the finishing touches on it, someone opened up the curtain and walked in, saying they were our first customer.
“What's up, man?” Duder sat himself on the chair with a smile on his face. He said his name was Jake. “So, what is this? I'm supposed to tell you all of the juicy gossip I've done at Ren Fayre, right?”
“Okay, then what? What's the game?” he asked.
“Not really a game. More of a confession thing.”
“You want me to confess my sins, right?”
“No, that's not what we're doing, really.”
“What's the deal, man?”
“Well, we are a group of Christians here on campus, you know.”
“I see. Strange place for Christians, but I am listening.”
“Thanks,” I told him. He was being very patient and gracious. “Anyway, there is this group of us, just a few of us who were thinking about the way Christians have sort of wronged people over time. You know, the Crusades, all that stuff....”
“Well, I doubt you personally were involved in any of that.”
“No, I wasn't,” I told him. “But the thing is, we are followers of Jesus. And we believe he represented certain ideas that we have not done a good job at representing. He has asked us to represent Him well, and we've failed him in that.”
“I see,” Jake said.
“So there is this group of us on campus who wanted to confess to you.”
“You are confessing to me!” Jake said with a laugh.
“Yeah. We are confessing to you. I mean, I am confessing to you.”
“You're serious.” His laugh turned to something of a straight face.
I told him I was. He looked at me and told me I didn't have to. I told him I did, and I felt very strongly in that moment that I was supposed to tell Jake that I was sorry for everything.
“What are you confessing?” he asked.
“Well, there's a lot. I will keep it short. Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick. I have never done very much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened. Jesus did not mix His spirituality with politics. I grew up doing that. I know all of this was wrong, and I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because people like me, who know Him, carry our own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across. So I've not been a good follower of Jesus. There's a lot more, you know.”
“It's all right, man,” Jake said, very tenderly. His eyes were starting to water.
“Well,” I said, clearing my throat, “I am sorry for all of that.”
“I forgive you,” Jake said. And he meant it.
“Thanks,” I told him.
He sat there and looked at the floor, then into the fire of a candle. “It's really cool what you guys are doing,” he said. “A lot of people need to hear this.”
“I don't know whether to thank you for that or not,” I laughed. “I have to sit here and confess all my crap.”
He looked at me very seriously. “It's worth it,” he said. He shook my hand, and when he left the booth there was somebody else ready to get in. It went like that for a couple of hours. I talked to about thirty people, and Tony took confessions on a picnic table outside the booth. Many people wanted to hug me when we were done.
All of the people who visited the booth were grateful and gracious. I was being changed through the process. And I think those who came into the booth were being changed, too.
I'm not saying this single thing is the answer to all the church's woes (although part of me loves the idea of trying this out sometime). I'm simply suggesting that the thinking that led to this is what the church needs today - in order to remain faithful, relevant, true to its mission to transform lives and even the world.
So - what do you think? What new ideas does the church today need to put into action?
I am standing beside a tiny creek that runs parallel to Hwy. 103, about a mile outside of Mount Airy. I'm in that area where the ground becomes less firm, and I can feel my black Sunday dress shoes giving in to the soft earth. I am there with a dozen or so folks, including the family who invited me to be here with them after their loved one died in late spring; invited me to join them behind the small structure on the side of the road that used to house the family store. We've come to this place to spread the ashes of their beloved wife and mother in the creek behind the old store; a space that has deep meaning for them. Sacred spaces can be hallowed sanctuaries of brick and mortar and stained glass, but they can also be a small creek off a remote highway. And that is where we are now.
I am standing there with the full realization that I've never done anything like this before. Funerals and memorial services, graveside committals, even the burying of ashes - I've done plenty of those in my nearly 17 years of ministry. But spreading ashes in a creek? This is something new.
They are looking at me to tell me they're ready to begin. I've planned out a few things to say - but I've also left a lot of space, because I've done this sort of thing long enough to know when I need to script it out and when I need to step aside and get out of the way. And so I begin by acknowledging the beautiful day, by reading a few scriptures about rivers and water, and by telling them how rivers are a metaphor for life: they flow constantly, and they only flow one way. There's no reversing the course of the river, and there's no way to stop the water from running the way it goes. Life, it turns out, acts much the same way. And so as we commit these ashes to the waters, knowing they will be taken somewhere, I tell them that we commit our loved one to the journey that we are not yet able to go on ourselves. But one day it'll be our time to take a trip down the river, where we will meet our God and the loved one who went on before us.
I've said all I need to say. I motion to the widower and his middle-aged daughters, and together the three remove their shoes and step out into the creek, where the water's flow is strongest. Those standing on the bank are tossing small flowers in, and it is a beautiful scene.
And that is when Mumford & Sons' "Awake My Soul" starts playing.
I'd almost forgotten that they told me they were going to do this - a song they said she loved. With us unaware, the son-in-law had pulled the car up behind the small gathering and opened its windows, and now the space is filled with that familiar, flowing octave-D intro. Small flowers continue to fill the air and water as the words come....
How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes
I struggle to find any truth in your lies
And now I am certain of things I don't know
My weakness I feel I must finally show.
It is never easy to let go of our loved ones when it is their time. We are created to live; and while dying is a part of life, it's that part further down the river that we can't see. So we are afraid of it, for ourselves and for others. And yet, in order to let go, we have to go into our weakness - just as these three were doing, stepping into the chilly water and onto the rocky uneven creek bed, holding each other's hands for both physical and emotional stability....
Lend me your hand and I'll conquer them all
But lend me your heart and I'll just let you fall
Lend me your eyes, I can change what you see
But your soul you must keep totally free
They open the plastic bag and tip the end down so the ashes begin their descent into the flowing waters. The journey has begun. And as the water turns a smoky white, the descant fills the air around us like a musical benediction:
Awake, my soul
Awake, my soul
Yes, we are on holy ground, the likes of which I've never been on before.
In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die
Where you invest your love, you invest your life.
Memories of this person flow through my mind as her ashes now flow through the waters. Her love for music and the people who shared that love. Her passion for basketball - which reminds me of the last conversation I had with her at the Hospice home days before her death, when she snapped out of her cancer-driven fog long enough to describe in great detail the ball she was passing to me on some distant court. Her amazing ability to get along with everyone and smile perpetually, even as her body failed her. This woman had invested her love in so many places with so many people, and because of that her life would live on long after her remains made their way through the water into the woods.
The bag is now empty, and all the ashes have been sent on their way. And so the three step out of the water and back on to the marshy land. Tears fill their eyes, as they are filling the eyes of the rest of us. A flowing water of a different kind. The song is now picking up its tempo; the soft-flowing melody making way for the pulsing celebration as the creek begins to return to its normal color...
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
You were made to meet your maker
Let's keep dreaming.
Full text for MLK's "I Have A Dream" speech HERE).
This morning, NEXT Church shared a blog post from Tom Ehrich, noted writer and church consultant. I always enjoy Tom's thoughts because they push me and make me think, and I believe he has a good sense of where the church needs to go in the future in order to remain relevant and engaged.
Tom's thesis, in short, is this: rather than totally eliminating worship styles and ministries that are struggling, and rather than stubbornly staying the course, the church should "bless" what is there and "add" something new. This is not an entirely new concept, by the way. The twist Tom suggests is doing the "add" off-site. Other than obvious issue of acquiring or at least renting additional space (when most churches are struggling to maintain what they've already got), the idea has a lot of merit to it.
I pastor a congregation with a lovely church building that, in some parts, is over 100 years old. And after being here for ten years we finally launched a capital campaign this spring to fix a number of essentials (if you want the details of what we did, and watch a short video where through movie magic I sink into our former courtyard netherworld in flames, click HERE). We're wrapping up the project now, and it's been a great experience for our church.
Still, I think Tom has a point: "church" can't be just about the builiding. It has to be about the mission. And by "mission" I mean more than the annual youth work trip to some remote location or the food pantry the outreach committee gets volunteers for. The church of today has to start thinking of mission as the intentional extension of the church outside its own walls.
I'll never forget what a former Presbyterian colleague of mine said in one of his sermons. He observed, astutely so, that the general motto of the North American church these days, one we send out through our actions and certainly through our words, is this: Y'all come. That’s how he put it. Y'all come. Y'all come to our church on Sunday morning. We’ll open the doors for you. We’ve got some nice pews for you to sit in. We’ve got some great music and a good word or two to share with ya. Heck, we’ll even throw in a free bulletin that you can take home, if you want! Y'all come! And we are so proud of ourselves for our open, hospitable attitude.
But Ike wondered, is Y'all come really the motto the church should be communicating? Is it any wonder that the church today is shrinking, and that we are struggling to make a connection in people’s lives? Because if we’re honest with ourselves, Y'all come simply isn't cutting it anymore. And it's not hard to see why. Y'all come means everything is on our terms. We still get to set the rules, and more often than not we don't see a need to change them. Even more to the point: Y'all come means everything depends on “them” coming to “us.” It’s the way the church has traditionally operated, and it’s gotten us into trouble. As one scholar puts it,
We ring our bells, conduct our worship services, provide the traditional pastoral services of baptism, confirmation, wedding, funerals – and we wait for the world to come to us. We mount pulpits and preach sermons as we have done for centuries. We pursue our internal arguments about doctrine and order as though nothing outside has changed. But much has changed, and the people are not coming back. (Darrell Guder, The Continuing Conversion of the Church).
That’s why I've always liked Ike’s suggestion of what the church’s motto should be – not Y'all come but GO. Go – just as Jesus told his disciples at the end of Matthew. Go out into a world that is desperately searching for something to give it meaning, something to give it new life, something to give it hope. Don’t wait for them to come to you – just GO.
And I think that's at the heart of what Tom is saying here. Perhaps an additional space is needed to give the "new thing" a place of its own. But more importantly, churches should adopt a GO philosophy wherever the location. And, I think we have to be careful not to approach GO like some universal formula. What works for one church won't necessarily work for another. That's why some congregations flourish with the addition of a contemporary worship service, and others fall apart. It's up to each individual church to do the hard work of engaging discussions about substanitive (and not just stylistic) change in their own context, certainly taking cues and tips from what has worked elsewhere, and then seeing where God leads them from there.
Ultimately, GO is about the intentionality of engaging people where they are, rather than waiting for them to come to us. Because if we wait for them, my hunch is we're going to be waiting for a very long time.
What kind of "GO" things is your church doing? How is your faith community adopting a "bless and add" approach that works well for you?
Earlier this year our regional NPR station, WFDD, invited me to participate in an on-going segment of theirs called Real People, Real Stories. They had read my blog and thought some of them would make good five-minute audio essays. I've done three so far, including this one on taking my son to school the day after the Boston Marathon bombings, and this one on Thor the foster dog.
I was pleased when they asked me to record my blog post from a while back about Larry - the guy who came by the church seeking not financial assistance, as I had erroneously assumed, but hope (click on the pic below to listen). I've been careful in these essays not to push "church" too much, but they've been open to letting a pastor speak as a pastor. And I've been grateful for that - especially when it gives me a chance to paint a different picture of the church than what is so frequently seen.
To so many people in our society, church is a place where you are judged, where you are less than, where you are accepted only with a long list of qualifiers attached, where you have to look or act a certain way. I know this is the case, because I find myself apologizing to people about the church all the time. As I've said before, even they know we're getting it wrong.
What Larry taught me then and now about the church is that, at some elemental level, people still desperately want to see the church as a place of hope, despite our attempts over the years to not be that for them. People still have faith in the church, sometimes more faith that those in the church have in it themselves. And I realize now the amazing thing that Larry did in his visit: he came to church and showed me the church at the same time.
There is hope for the church, and it's not just because some of us are working hard to right the ship. There is hope for the church because folks like Larry expect and very much want us to be who we should be.
The church gave Larry hope. And Larry gives me hope.
(listen to the essay by clicking the pic below)
Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above
I have no idea what - or more likely, who - hymn writer John Fawcett was thinking of when he penned these words over 200 years ago. For me, at least, it speaks of people whose mere presence on the planet is a gift of grace, and a gift that continues on long after that person is no longer with us. It's rare that someone comes along that meets this lofty standard - but when they do from time to time, we give thanks to God and do our best to capture something of that person to share with others.
I guess that's the way I feel about Aimee Wallis Buchanan. She was a classmate of mine in my seminary years, and she was the husband of Bill, also a seminary classmate and long-time friend from my growing-up years in Raleigh (I still have fond memories of the two of us, and my Dad, with guitars in hand leading music for our Sunday night youth group gatherings at White Memorial). Aimee was also an amazing individual, gifted with a passion for ministry and a cornucopia of creative skills that probably never found their way into a single person before. Her most recent dream, Asheville Youth Mission, was a joint effort with Bill to bring those passions and skills together in their beloved mountain community.
This past January, Aimee died unexpectedly. We Presbyterians are well-connected in the social media world, and the communal sense of grief was palpable - for our personal loss, for Bill and their kids, for the church. We felt like a bright star had been snuffed out for all of us.
But then a conversation began. It started with my good friend David LaMotte and the kind of statement that can get people into trouble: So I have this idea.... A way to honor Aimee's life, to bring some sense of closure to our collective grief, and to support the vision Aimee was so passionate about at AYM. It felt good; it felt right. And it also needed Bill's approval. So we called Bill and shared the idea with him, and he loved it. Then we got to work.
The culmination of these conversations is A Life Well Loved: Remembering Aimee Buchanan. It's a compilation CD of various artists that came out of the conversations we had over the course of a few months. In Bill's own words from the album's Facebook page:
This is a project designed to honor the life of one who knew how to love well-- Aimee Wallis Buchanan. Her hospitality, compassion, and care for all God’s people, especially those on the margins of society, were an inspiration to many. Her love of the arts and her passion for youth ministry made a lasting impact on generations of young people.
Some of the artists on the album are regulars in the Presbyterian youth ministry world; others come straight out of the eclectic Asheville music scene. Two circles colliding in a way they probably never have before - which is appropriate, given Aimee's unique way of bringing together lots of different folks for a common purpose. Those artists, by the way, are: David Lamotte, The Secret B-Sides, Jeffrey Harper, Beth Williams, Peggy Ratusz, Jorge Sayago-Gonzales, Peggy Brown, Jerry Wallis, Rachel Pence, Josh Phillips, Heather Brown, the Asheville High School Band, and myself (and a special shout-out to Chris Rosser, who did a whale of a job mastering the final project).
And because its a hodge-podge of artists, the music itself is pretty much all over the map. Again, from Bill: There are a wide variety of musical styles included in the album-- from rock to folk, blues and ballads, and symphonic music as well. This only makes sense, because Aimee’s interests were wide and she was a welcoming presence for many different kinds of people, with diverse styles and ways of being in the world.
Even better - all proceeds from this album (a minimum $10 purchase, but you can pay more if you want) will go to support Asheville Youth Mission, helping to continue the dream she and Bill built together.
The release date is August 22nd - downloadable mp3 format only. My hope is that you'll mark that date down on your calendar and go check it out at: www.alifewellloved.org. For now, that URL takes you to the official Facebook page that you should "LIKE" and spread the good word to others. Because that's the kind of thing Aimee would've done: helping foster and grow those ties that bind, so the world can be a better place. And in this guy's humble opinion, it already is a better place, having had Aimee in it.
Somewhere out there right now - I feel pretty certain in this - there's a church having a very hard conversation. It is talking about change. It's a conversation they probably wouldn't have had on their own, but they've been forced into it. Membership is shrinking, giving is down, and the facility is getting older and needs repair. They have a nice traditional worship service and all the standard church programs and ministries, but the people aren't coming. So they know they need to change. And the change they are talking about pains them. That's because they are talking about ditching their traditional worship for contemporary. They're talking about giving the organ a long winter's nap and making space up front for a praise band. They're talking about hiring a pastor or youth minister whose reputation is more "cutting edge" than ministerial. They're looking at building a coffee shop in the narthex.
They are pained just talking about this change. Worse yet, they will be even more pained when the change they feel they have to make does not bring the people and sustained energy they think it will. Because it won't.
There's a powerful blog post making the social media rounds these days about why millennials are leaving the church (a millennial, in case you don't know, is someone born in the last twenty years of the 20th century - so, roughly your current teenagers through thirties). I read it and loved it. So did a lot of people. It's popped up multiple times in my Facebook feed. Within a few minutes of sharing it on my timeline it had nearly three dozen likes. And interestingly, it wasn't just the millennials who liked it. It was people in their 40s, 50s, even 60s and 70s. It was church members of mine, other Presbyterians, and people from all different denominations. And - not surprisingly - it was people who don't attend church. It was men and women, straight and gay; all races, all backgrounds. A fairly eclectic swath of American humanity.
Why did this article resonate with so many different folks? I believe it's because of quotes like this:
The assumption among Christian leaders... is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates – edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall… What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.
Yes. Can I get an Amen.
We know the church needs to change, but we're getting the change all wrong. And it messes things up for both the church and those who aren't here yet. It messes it up for the church because, when we focus simply on style, we unintentionally sabotage some of the best of what we have to offer. And it messes it up for those who aren't here yet because we aren't making the kind of change they need us to. So, once again, the church "just doesn't get it." And they're right - we don't.
Take worship and music, since this gets a lot of attention in church change conversations. For years, we in the church have operated under the assumption of a false dichotomy: older people want the pipe organ; younger people want a band and a screen. Older people want hymns, younger people want praise rock songs.
Maybe it's just me (I suspect not), but I haven't found this to be the case. The older folks I know are happy to sing new songs, provided they're "singable" and have a message they can connect with (which, if you think about it, are two pretty reasonable critieria). On the other end, when I lead music for youth conferences, I always get fantastic response from the classic, old-school hymns. At the Montreat Middle School Conference I was part of last month, we sang one tune that took on a life of its own - and I've done this sort of thing long enough to know that, when this happens, you sing it some more. Which we did. It wound up being the very last song at the closing worship and provided one of the more spiritually moving experiences of the week.
You know what song it was? Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing. Not exactly a recent entry into the praise music genre. Did I mention the part about 600 11-13 year-olds belting it out with conviction and passion?
There is good news for the church, and it is this: we don't have to sell out to get people to come. In fact, that's exactly what society-at-large is begging us not to do. We don't have to compromise aspects of our core identity in a cheap attempt to fill the pews on Sunday morning.
The bad news: changing substance is a lot harder than changing style. Anyone can install a screen at the front of the sanctuary or fashion a little coffee shop in the narthex. Changes in substance, though, involve deep, meaningful, honest conversations among pastors, church workers, church leaders, and the entire congregation about it's sense of identity and mission; and then "daring greatly" and thinking outside of the box to bring about substantive change that pushes the church toward being better representatives of Christ in the world - toward greater authenticity.
You've probably noticed I use the word "authenticity" and "authentic" a lot. There's a reason for that. Young people today can pick out a fake in a heartbeat - someone who is simply going through the motions or trying to be someone or something they're not. And they hate that. They hate that because, in a plastic, counterfeit, forged, processed, imitation world, people are longing for something real. And as the blog post highlights, they're telling the church loud and clear:
We want an end to the culture wars. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against. We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers. We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.
I read this and can't help but think: this is precisely what the church is NOT known for these days. Society hears ad nauseum about the Westboro Baptists of the world protesting another funeral, or congregations throwing their full weight behind radical political ideology, or churches that mistaken a strong sense of personal conviction with arrogant theological certitude where they are always on the winning side. It is almost as if we're living in some crazy parallel universe where this is the norm. Where else does a successful organization describe itself by who and what it is not? Where else does a group grow by clinging to inflexibility and rigidity? We're fooling ourselves if we think people see this and go, "Yeah, I wanna be part of that." They don't want to be part of that kind of church, because even they know it's not being faithful. Even they know it's not what Jesus wants us to be.
The church does not have to sell out to change. We can present a more authentic form of Christianity by doing the things Jesus did: loving all people; being comfortably present with others in the uncertain gray of life; aligning ourselves not with a Republican or Democratic agenda but with the kingdom of God agenda; telling and showing people who we are rather than who we are not. Those substantive changes - and not the stylistic ones - will be what pulls the church back from the precipice toward greater relevance and presence in the world. And I believe the people will come - because in my conversations with these folks, they really want the church to be the church. They're rooting for us to get it right so they can come on board and be part of something we should've been all along.
That's what I'd tell that church out there that's contemplating painful changes - not whether it needs to change, but what kind of change it needs. It sounds terribly cliche; but the change we need to make is to be more like Jesus. After all, if there ever was an example of substance trumping style, it was that guy.
I've received a lot of positive response from my recent post about pastors standing in the surf of change. NEXT Church reblogged it the following week, and a number of pastor friends have told me they're sharing it with their sessions. So I've decided to do more of these posts over the next few months. If future-of-the-church musings are not your thing, I'm sure I'll slide in a music critique or cute family anecdote post. But this is what's front and center in my mind and in my life right now, and I'd love it if you'd engage it with me.
Oh, and we'll call this little series Standing In The Surf, in deference to the initial post and because I really dig the beach.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. - Romans 12:2
It's a Thursday afternoon and I'm leading music for the Montreat Middle School Conference at Maryville College (which, if you didn't already know, is a pretty amazing little Presbyterian school you should check out). As part of leading music, I'm also heading up the voluntary conference choir, preparing a few tunes for Sunday worship. I confess to being a bit uncertain about the latter. Songleading is right up my alley, but conducting a choir is not. It feels like something that requires formal music training, of which I have frighteningly little. Alas, the cliff was there, and I chose to jump. And gravity is irreversible.
So here we are at our first rehearsal and I'm both thrilled and overwhelmed at what I find: a cacophony of mature and pre-pubescent voices that don't fit neatly in soprano/alto/tenor/bass categories. I take a different approach. I have them sing the parts of the song one-by-one; and then invite them to group themselves according to which part they feel fits them best. One part is slightly off the beat; the other is more set in the rhythm, and the last is an all-out arena rock "whoaa!" Thankfully, this plan seems to work, and everyone is singing their parts just fine, and it's sounding pretty good…..
And then I hear something else - something different, something that doesn't fit the plan. I motion the choir to keep singing while I listen harder. It is someone in the "whoa" group. I keep listening....and then I figure it out: it's this little girl on the first row, right in front of me. Blue eyes, pony tail. Sixth grade, tops. She is singing the "whoa" just fine, but in a new harmony; a third up from the one I taught. I hadn't instructed her to sing this. She's doing it on her own, and it sounds incredible.
I look down at her; and as soon as she sees me doing this, she clams up and immediately goes back to singing the part as prescribed. Interesting, how her instinct was to interpret my glance as disapproval. When we finish a few bars later, I lean down and ask her if she was the one singing the different part. Reluctantly, she says yes. And I tell her to keep singing it because it is awesome; because it is her shining through, because she took something I had given her and made it even better. Those blue eyes beam. We sing it an extra time just to re-experience the beauty of it.
I had actually forgotten about the whole thing until something in Derrick's sermon that evening triggered it and got me thinking about the ongoing challenge of change and growth in today's church. We all have a place and a purpose in the body of Christ - kind of like a choir, really. Like Paul's great words in the 12th chapter of First Corinthians, we have gifts and skills; we have mouths and eyes and ears and limbs and the like.
But it's curious how the church has addressed this over the years. I think of the typical "time and talent" sheet churches hand out. Ear? Sure, I can be an ear. The church needs a nose? I'll sign on for that. And so on. It's nice, but it's also mighty confining. I mean, think about it: Here's a list of things we've done before, things we've always done; and we need you to do them again. Because that's what we do in the church: we do what's always been done. So sign up for something that's on this list. You get to choose which part you want to sing, but we get to make the parts up.
But what about the blue-eyed, pony-tailed sixth grader who has a part to sing that nobody's heard before? What about the church member who has a gift to share that's nowhere to be found on the time and talent sheet?
What about them? The truth is that most of the time they won't do a thing - they'll just conform. And that's a problem. A big one. We're big on conforming in the church, even if we claim not to be. Without realizing it, we send out a vibe that says, "We love the idea of growth and change, but we're not so hot on actually growing and changing." We toss around new ideas that never find their way out of a session meeting or committee; we claim to want to move into the future but can't get over the grief involved in letting go of the past; we say we want the church to attract new people but are content with telling them to come to us, rather than going out and meeting them where they are.
I'm so thankful that girl didn't conform to my choir. I'm glad she sang her own harmony and made the song much more beautiful than I ever could. And you know why it worked? It worked because she wasn't just singing something crazy and contradictory. She was paying attention to and listening to the voices around her, adding hew new voice in the mix in a way that complemented theirs. This wasn't an individual excursion, it was a communal affair. As it should be with the church.
Sounds funny to say, but we all need to be blue-eyed, pony-tailed sixth graders. Finding our voice in the church and letting it shine. Taking that "time and talent" sheet and writing a space at the bottom that says, "OTHER." Sensing the opportunity to take something that's good and make it even better. And then just doing it. Doing it whether we're given permission to our not. Doing it even when other voices within (and even out) are telling us to clam up; don't do anything crazy; just play the game, just sing the part, just conform.
The question for leaders in the church, then, is this: how do we equip our membership to not only think outside of the box but act out of it as well? How do we help people find their own unique voice in the mission of kingdom-building and sing their own part loud and proud? How do we give permission for people to dream up what is next for the church?
I think the key lies in preaching, teaching, and cultivating conversations about precisely the need for people to dream up what hasn't been created yet. I think it lies in giving them permission, as many times as needed, to not only latch onto the "new thing" God is doing in their midst (thank you, Isaiah), but to help them be aware that there is a new thing. And I think when they actually do sing something new, we need to resist the instinct to bring them back into compliance. Instead, we ought to recognize how beautiful it really is, and celebrate that with them; and then equip and encourage them to keep doing it.
The church of today and tomorrow will grow only if we choose to sing a part that hasn't been created yet.
That's what a blue-eyed, pony-tailed sixth grader taught me today. I wonder what she can teach you.