Let's keep dreaming.
Full text for MLK's "I Have A Dream" speech HERE).
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)
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.
It's around 11am, and our family is at the beach. It rained the first few days here, but now the sun is shining bright and the place is packed. We've carved out a few square feet of sand for our two folding chairs. We won't need much room, though, because the majority of the Lindsleys will be out in the water, out in the waves. I've always loved the body surfing/boogie-boarding thing, and I'm proud to have passed that same love on to my sons.
It's different being out there as a father, though. It's a bit of a juggling act between satisfying your own desires to enjoy the waves while owning up to your parental obligations. I have to shelve my desire to plunge headfirst into the oncoming wave to make sure my kids are safe. And "safe" in the ocean is always a tricky thing - that huge wave that doesn't materialize until its right on you, undercurrents and rip currents, and all the unforeseen marine life that - as I've had personal experience with - can cause, ahem, severe complications.
What makes it even more of a challenge is the difference between my two boys. My oldest shares my tendency to throw himself into something with reckless abandon. I want to go out to the big waves, he tells me. We can't, the lifeguard says there are rip currents out there, I answer. What does he know, he's way back there in the lifeguard chair! And so it goes. My younger son, though, is much more tentative. Or "smart," as his mother would say. He may want to follow his Dad and older brother, but for him, the threat overrides the potential thrill. But he's not going to sit up in the beach chair, either. So in his mind he's determined the parameters of how far he'll go into the surf, and he's not about to exceed it.
It's a lot to manage. In fact, it actually feels a lot like being a pastor.
The waves of change are swirling around the church in a big way these days, and in many ways it's been going on for years. Much of this change - all of it, perhaps - has come from the outside: civil rights movement, women's liberation, postmodernism, gay marriage and stances on homosexuality, the equalizing of the human experience via mass technology and social media. I could go on and on.
The point is, the church is facing change whether we like it or not. And we differ greatly on how we respond to and cultivate that change, even within a single congregation.
Some folks are like my older son, feeling the urge to plunge head-first into the waves of change. Why delay the inevitable? Things like the emergent church, contemporary worship, congregations that look and feel more like coffee houses, and even NEXTChurch in my denomination are all signs that some recognize the wave is coming - so why not go and meet it? We know we can't "change the change" any more than my son or I can alter the direction of the wave that's heading straight for us - as my friend and fellow songster David Lamotte sings, "The water's gonna win." As does change. Why fight something that is going to happen with you or without you?
Hold on, say people like my younger son. For these, change - like the waves - are not just a sign of something different, but the essence of the difference itself. And the very fact that "it" can't be stopped elicits fear - or, as writer Diana Butler Bass suggests in her recent book, grief over the loss of what was familiar and comfortable. There are degrees to this category of folks. Some remain stubbornly on the shore, plopped down in the beach chair and observing the change from a safe distance. Others, like my younger son, may wade in the surf, but only up to a point. They engage change in the church with conditions and qualifiers: contemporary music... but only at the early service. Women in positions of leadership... but not the lead pastor. Acceptance of gays and lesbians for church membership... but not for ordination.
And there's the pastor in the middle of it all. They're standing in the surf, calling out to one group of folks to come back, not so fast, wait up for everyone else. And they're calling out to others: come on in, it's not so bad, you'll be alright. They're well aware of the threats that can be seen - all those undercurrents and rip currents swirling around them - as well as the threats no one can see yet. They're trying to care for people and help them meet their needs, while also caring for the church and meeting God's needs.
Like I said, a lot to manage.
I got to thinking about this while scanning my Facebook feed this morning and coming upon this from The 70 Sent Project:
The church is a paradoxical mixture between the desire to transform a world that clings to old forms and prejudices, and the desire to find stability and peace in a world that is changing too rapidly. Often this paradox is found within the same person. The role of the church leader is to stand in the middle of this paradox, facilitating the flow of the Holy Spirit between the transforming and stabilizing impulses. (emphasis mine)
That's the huge task facing pastors and all church leaders in today's church: not trying to be everything to everyone, a common misconception (and the cause of clergy burnout for anyone who tries it). No, the task of those in ministry in the 21st century is trying to bring everyone together into some sense of cohesion and mission when people are different (thanks be to God for that, by the way) and when people respond to change differently. That along with facing the fact that the change, like that big wave, is coming. In fact, in a sense it's already here.
It's a challenge, to be sure. But it's also a wonderful opportunity and privilege, to stand there. Change means that God is in the midst of doing some pretty amazing stuff. Here's hoping that, wherever we are standing in the surf - right at the breaking point or a little further up shore - that we all eventually get swept up in the wave of God's change together.
In other words, time to get our sea legs under us.
Grateful to be an American today, and every day:
Grateful for freedom FROM tyranny and oppression;
Grateful for freedom FOR all people;
Grateful for freedom TO pursue these things, and to do it together, rather than simply acting in my own self-interest.
We're still very much a work in progress. But I'm still grateful today to be an American.
This morning I was asked to give the invocation at our local high school for their National Honor Society assembly. As with my invocation last year, I wanted to try and say something of substance, avoiding the vanilla invocations I suffered through at my high school assemblies back in the day. If I were seventeen years old and sitting in those seats, what would I want/need to hear? Events of the past few weeks, and especially news that a freshman at a nearby university committed suicide just yesterday, were on my mind as I put paper to pen (well, fingertip to keyboard) and wrote this:
Would you invocate with me, please...
God, I want to congratulate those who, in a few minutes, will hear their names called and make their way to this stage. I want them to know how proud we are of them for all their hard work and dedication; and that because we are all inextricably bound to each other as a family of sorts – sharing in each other’s joys and sorrows, celebrations and struggles – in a way their success today is everyone’s success.
But if “invocation” means “calling something out”, then perhaps there’s an important truth that needs to be acknowledged: that the underlying message we are gathering here to lift up today is not “You Are Smart.” Scholarship, Service, Leadership, Character – these four benchmarks of the National Honor Society stand apart from one another, and can only be united, can only be threaded together in the life of a person by one singular twine, one overarching truth. And that truth is love.
So as strange as it may sound, the message for today is not “You are Smart,” but "You Are Loved.” You are loved if your name is called, and you are loved if you name is never spoken. You are loved if you are first string, second string, or no string. You are loved if you are in the majority or in the minority; you are loved if you fit in perfectly or if you don’t fit in anywhere. You are loved if you think you know exactly who you are and where your life is heading, and you are loved if you’ve never been more confused and terrified. You are loved if the words you hear from the adults in your life are affirming, empowering, compassionate, caring; and you are loved if the words you hear from the adults in your life are critical, judgmental, spiteful, even abusive. You are loved.
And that love is always, always greater than fear. Greater than the fear that drives some to blow up bombs at marathon finish lines; greater than the hate that incessantly seeks to divide us over stark fault lines, where the “other” is always wrong and at fault; greater than the shame we feel when we are told we’re not good enough or that our worth is fully dependent on being more than enough. Love is greater than all of that.
So that’s the message I want these fine folks to hear today – those who will be inducted and those who won’t leave their seats. That you love them no matter what. And if they let that love carry them forward into the wonderful life ahead of them, then maybe, just maybe, they will not only learn to love you and love all of your people. Maybe they’ll learn the most basic and most difficult kind of love: to love themselves.
We invocate all of this in your name, AMEN.
(on a side note, five of our church's youth were inducted, joining the three already there. Yep, I'm proud.)
When I was in middle school, my aunt spent the night at our house in Raleigh in the middle of some travels. She had a friend with her; another woman about her age whose name I can't remember. I do remember that she was nice and had a warm smile, and that she had a really cool Bible. I know, just what a minister would say, right? Bear with me. The Bible was actually in comic book form, thus having immediate appeal to a 12-year old boy. I "read" nearly half of it that night before going to bed.
When I woke up the next morning, my aunt and her friend had already left to get an early start on the rest of their trip. But there was one thing of hers that didn't accompany them. I found the comic book Bible at my place at the kitchen table when I came down for breakfast. Inside was a long inscription from its former owner. She talked about how she enjoyed meeting me and how she was pleased with my interest in her comic book Bible. Which is why she was giving it to me, since her joy at knowing I'd get a lot out of it exceeded any joy she'd have in keeping it. She wished me the best and said she'd look forward to our paths crossing again someday.
I haven't crossed paths with that woman since - at least not yet. But the Bible is still with me. It sits on the shelf in my office, as it did in the office of my previous church, as it will in every office I ever have. And the thing is, it's not really there because it's a Bible. It's there to remind me that God's word can be a heartfelt inscription on the inside flap, and that sometimes the greatest gifts come from those who make a conscious choice to express gratitude in the simplest of ways.
I was reminded of that comic book Bible last night when a link to this article showed up in my Twitter feed, about a note left at a ramen restaurant in Austin, TX. Scrawled on a napkin to not only the waitress but to the entire restaurant, thanking them for the good food and service and the way both provided a much-needed lift in the person's day. The result of some pretty awesome ramen? It's possible. Slightly over-the-top? You could argue that. But I think you'd be selling the author short in either case. Much like my aunt's traveling companion, this person chose to do something they certainly weren't obligated to do: take thirty seconds to express gratitude.
Of course, those thirty seconds could've been used for something entirely different. Case in point: the infamous "I give God 10% why do you get 18" receipt left at an Applebees restaurant earlier this year. You can choose not to leave a tip if you so desire (although that's pretty crappy of you if you do). But why leave a note about it - and why oh why bring God into the mix? I digress.
There is yet a third option we have with those thirty seconds, and it's one you and I consistently choose nearly all the time: doing nothing. We're not overly vindictive or thoughtless along the lines of the non-tipping pastor person. Nor are we exceedingly gracious or reflective like ramen-napkin guy. We just....are. So there are no notes, no inscriptions; we simply move along with the course of things. All things being equal, we're not going to do anything extra with that receipt or napkin because it's not that big of a deal to us. Because we're in a hurry and don't have time to bother with it. Because it doesn't even register on our radar. Because doing nothing is safe.
You and I, our inclination in life is to play it safe. Self-preservation is built into our DNA, and it charts the course of our daily walk and our lifelong journey. And this isn't a bad thing - it's a big reason why our species has survived as long as it has.
But there's another reason humanity has thrived, and ironically it's because we don't always play it safe. We have those wonderful moments where we choose to take risks, step outside our comfort zone, chart new courses, veer off-script and write our own ending. And just between you and me, I wish I were better at recognizing those moments when they came around. I wish I were like my aunt's friend, who rather than instinctively pack that comic book Bible in her travel bag like the nights before, chose instead to veer off-script and write something in it and leave it on someone else's kitchen table. And to think - thirty seconds is all it took.
I mean, what would happen - what would seriously happen - if we made a point of going out of our way to be gracious to someone else? Leave a note on a napkin, shoot a quick text to someone, shake a hand and offer a smile. Something simple; something unexpected and unprovoked. This is not some kind of "pay it forward" thing. This isn't about karma or balancing the universe. This is simply about taking time to express gratitude for no other reason than the expression itself.
With our actions - or our inaction - we have the potential to enrich the life of another person, or shame that person, or do nothing at all for that person. All things being equal, which would you prefer to choose?
Chew on that while I take thirty seconds to write a quick note to the coffee house I'm hanging out in right now.
We all know that bullying is a big problem in our schools, and that it starts young. I have a fourth-grader who tells me stories of stuff he's seen in the hallways over the years that makes my heart sink. There are a lot of adults out there carrying the torch of putting an end to bullying - and that's great, because we need as big a chorus as we can get.
But let's face it: kids aren't necessarily going to listen to some grown-up they may or may not know. They're much more likely to pay attention to a teenager they see around town, who by virtue of their age and status in a small community with only one high school is the coolest thing since the latest Harlem Shake video (presumably a lot cooler).
That's why I was elated when I saw that a handful of students from our local high school had put together a short YouTube video to be shared with the students at my son's elementary school. Pastor pride also beamed forth, since nearly half of these kids are church members of mine (Emily, remind me never to get a drink from the water fountain when you're in the room ;-). So much about this video is awesome, including the production quality (done by the same church youth who created our church's capital campaign video earlier this year). More importantly is the way it highlights different kinds of bullying beyond the physical - verbal, cyber, etc. And the critical message at the end: that whether you're the bullier, the bullied or a bystander, it's up to you to bring it to a stop.
A word of explanation about the video's name - the mascot of our local high school is the Bears. The cool thing is that all four of our city schools have a variation of the same mascot. So it really is all Bears at all schools "bulldozing bullies."
I can't wait for my son and all his elementary school friends to see this video and know it was made by some high school buddies they'll likely bump into in the grocery store or at church on Sunday morning. I hope they'll tell them "thanks." I know I'll be.
(Click HERE if you can't see the video above)
He's also the frontman for a rock band I'm pretty fond of, as evidenced in a recent blog post. For years, Bono has been out there telling the world that we need to step it up in the fight against poverty. Now, in this recent TED Talk, he tells us that what we're doing is working and that we need to keep it up. As only an Irish lyricist can put it, "We can't get this done until we really accept that we can get this done."
Let's get this done. It'll be a Beautiful Day when we do (sorry, couldn't resist).