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).
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.
Okay, so granted, it wasn't the best planning on my part. Nevertheless, less than 24 hours after the closing of the 2013 NEXT Church Conference in Charlotte, there I was: lying on a hospital bed in the pre-op, all gowned up and ready to go. It was a torn meniscus that had brought me there; and in standard surgery fashion there was a whole lot of "hurry up and wait." Three hours of it, in fact. So I had plenty of time to think amidst the beeping and humming of machinery and the impending dose of drugs that would send me off to la-la land.
(and as a quick aside, I think every pastor should have surgery at some point in ministry, preferably for an actual ailment that requires it. I'll never look at hospital visits and pre-surgery prayers with parishioners the same again, having been in the bed rather than standing beside it.)
Anyway, so I had a lot of time to think in that pre-op room. And I won't lie to you: I thought about NEXT.
I thought about this relatively new movement in the Presbyterian Church (USA), described on its Facebook page as "sparking imaginations, connecting congregations, and offering a distinctively Presbyterian witness to Jesus Christ." I thought about the way co-organizer Shannon Kershner further explained that it is not an affinity group pushing any doctrine or issue currently being contended with ad nauseum in our denomination. The one thing that binds those in NEXT together is relationship. Relationship with each other and relationship with Jesus. The fact that NEXT makes this their focus and stubbornly refuses to be parlayed by any special interest group or agenda is precisely why I and many others are on board with it.
I thought about all the people there, around 650 of them. Honestly, it was like a high school class reunion for not one year but twenty or thirty. Pastors and laypeople, friends and new faces. Retired preachers and folks not yet ordained. Southerners and Northerners, Midwesterners and West Coasters. And a new category made possible in our social media age: people I've known for a year or more, conversed and engaged with, but have never actually met in person until now. A shout-out to Facebook and Twitter for creating this new way of knowing people, where the first face-to-face is not the beginning of a great friendship but the continuation of it.
I thought about something Steve Eason said in his sermon on Monday evening worship - something that struck me as tweet-worthy:
I think this speaks to a major reason why NEXT Church has taken off the way it has. We all recognize the cultural shift the church has endured over the past 50 years. Gone are the days where no one dared hold a soccer game on Sunday mornings; where pastors were bestowed with de facto mayor-like authority in their communities. Study after study has shown the sharp decline in mainline denominations that's reflected in greater pew vacancies and shrinking budgets. For some, the only appropriate response is an alarmist mindset rooted strongly in fear. NEXT, however, chooses to view these changes in a positive light as God's intentional process of creating something wonderful and new.
Around this time, some lady stuck me with an IV, so I had to think about needles for a minute. When she was done, though, I went back to thinking about NEXT.
And I thought about all the wonderful speakers. And you know the really cool thing? They weren't the "big names" you typically see at these type of events. That's not how NEXT rolls. What they're more into are the unsung heroes who are quietly doing some amazing "next-ish" things in their contexts. So we heard from the Caucasian man and African-American woman who have teamed up to revitalize a defunct and crumbling church facility in Philadelphia; the seminary president who used thirty seconds of a Janet Jackson video (FYI, it wasn't "Nasty Boys") to share the story of a growing student body that at one point numbered seven; the Washington DC-based pastor who unpacked worship liturgy as improv; the pastor in Columbia, SC who equated God's spirit to live music as opposed to 16-bit MIDI. Every voice mattered, official speaking role or not; and it had nothing to do with the size of one's congregation or how many degrees are hanging on the wall.
I thought about what is NEXT for the church - something that is tempting to immediately jump to, like the kid who stares at the wrapped present under the Christmas tree wondering what's inside. I thought about the fact that this journey we're on in the NEXT Church is not a formula or five-step plan that can be implemented in actions steps to acheieve "maximum results."
NEXT is more like jazz, really. The Spirit moving in and through us, gently reminding us that we're not directing the band but are the called and equipped players offering our unique voice and gifts to the ensemble. And the sound that is produced is the sound of a church that is not looking to be "successful" as much as it's striving to be faithful.
That's all that I was thinking. And then they wheeled me into the OR and hit me with the good stuff. I don't remember much after that, but I do remember the last thought on my mind was how there is no better and more exciting time than now for the church to be thinking about what's next.
It's called an "Imagination Installation," a local movement of sorts in the area; and per its website it's about "harnessing the collective power of our community's dreams." Which, in case you're wondering, is awesome. So was this wall - dozens of small lime green signs tacked and taped all over the place, each with the simple title "Imagine When...."at the top, and lots of space underneath for folks to write whatever.
So the sermon would have to wait awhile, because in truth I was looking at tons of little sermons on the wall of this coffee house, and it's always good when the preacher gets preached too. Here are a few that particularily spoke to me:
...the word "can't" is lost from the spoken language
...people "make each other right"
...we decide to invest in happiness instead of war and hatred.
...nutritiuous local food is abundantly available everywhere and is preferred
...elected officials work for the good of the people, not for the power of the office
...human beings realize we are stewards of this earth, and no more important than any other living being
...we are not strangers
...there is a woman in the White House!
...we recognize that "the kingdom of God is here" (no waiting required)
..very child can squish mud between his or her toes in a creek
..we dream together to empower each other, rather than live in isolation
...we grow food rather than lawns, and share that food with our community
..we all Iive in the moments like our dogs, cats and horses do.
...our economic system rewards cooperation, collaboration and generosity over competition
...we all realize we are happier the more we give and love others, rather than how much we get and are loved.
...public art is on every corner in downtown Winston-Salem
...we know that life comes from death
...color is a hue that a painter uses to transform the canvas :-)
...the health care system is healed
..all pets have an owner that is loving and caring and a comfortable place to be
...corporations figure out that creativity and innovation comes from liberated, encouraged and respected employees
...children and adults go outside and play every day
...education rewards innovation and creativity more than compliance
...every child comes home at the end of school to a loving family member and a plate of cookies and milk
...each of us life our lives with respect and honor of all living beings
...we all remember that we're one big family
...people have the courage to be themselves
...we all let our authentic selves shine!
Of course, I got in on the act. Here's the one I did. If you know me, this should come as no surprise:
You know what I liked most about this excellent use of coffee house wall space? It's "Imagine When," not "Imagine If." It's only a matter of time, folks. Let's get busy.
I have a lot of favorite MLK quotes. I think this one's my favorite:
Here are some others:
I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. And the beautiful thing is that we are moving against wrong when we do it, because John was right, God is love. He who hates does not know God, but he who has love has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.
I submit to you that if a man hasn't discovered something he will die for, he isn't fit to live.
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for mankind to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
Let no man pull you low enough to hate him.
Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.
Happy MLK Day, everyone.
A few years back, I read this book as part of my doctoral studies on preaching in a postmodern culture (and if you have tons of time to kill, you are welcome to read my dissertation HERE). The book talked about the need for the church to be authentic. Sounds simple enough, I know. But its not. Authenticity is a huge problem for today's church, as more and more congregations are either trying to mirror society with flashy "programs," or swing the other way and draw lines on who is in and who is out - all in the name of "growing their church." When in fact, what people are desiring most from the church, I think, is for it to be authentic. To be who they are; to be comfortable in their own skin. To be real.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately, as my church just finished an amazing Bible study on Phyllis Tickle's insightful book The Great Emergence and considered at depth some of these issues. Then today, this article found its way into my RSS feed. Please take five minutes to read it. It's written by a man named Christian Piatt who took a decade hiatus from the church for a variety of reasons. What brought Christian back to the church, he says, were four things in particular:
He concludes with this powerful statement:
I can hear great sermons online. I can download more great music to my iPod than I can listen to in a lifetime. I can join a country club and feel like I’m a part of some fancy, exclusive group. What I can’t necessarily get in other parts of my life is authenticity.
As a pastor I see people come and go in the life of the church. And it's true; folks are often attracted to churches because the preacher preaches great sermons or the church has a great youth ministry or the choir is dynamic or the sanctuary is lovely. But those kinds of things, I've found, don't sustain them for the long haul. Preachers come and go, the choir will occasionally hit a bum note, and youth eventually do what they're supposed to do and grow up and leave (and, sometimes, their families with them).
More and more, I'm convinced that what attracts people to a particular church, and what keeps them there, is that they sense at some deep level that their church is authentic. Not that it has all the answers, but that it's a place where you can ask all the questions. Not that it knows exactly who it is and what it's called to do in the world, but that it's committed to the ongoing journey of discerning that. Not that it understands itself by negation (we are not this; we are not that...), but that it understands itself by affirmation (we are this; we are that...). And most importantly perhaps, not that it is defined by its fears, but that it is defined by its hopes.
I realize I'm a little biased, but I think people would be knocking down the doors to get into a church like that. What do you think?
Chalk this up to the "Why-didn't-I-think-of-this-before??" category. Ignore the sappy music that runs throughout and focus instead on the "outside-of-the-box" thinking that's taken place. Man, I wish I could do that.
(Video HERE if you can't see it)
Most every Sunday in church I close with a benediction that is a hybrid of my own words and the words of Fred Craddock, professor at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. His words, I've always felt, are so profound:
Live simply, love generously, speak truthfully, pray daily, and leave everything else to God.
Craddock has a way with words that many of us can only admire from a distance - a master storyteller where the message hits you in the face, and he never has to explain what that message is. You already know it before you realize you do. There's a story in particular I was thinking about earlier today and thought I'd share it here. I'm not sure what made me think of it, but I'm glad I did. Now it's your turn. Enjoy.
I was invited last year, in mid-October, to the University of Winnipeg in Canada to give two lectures, one Friday night and one Saturday morning. I went. I gave the one on Friday night. As we left the lecture hall, it was beginning to spit a little snow. I was surprised, and my host was surprised because he had written, “It’s too early for the cold weather, but you might bring a little windbreaker, a little light jacket.”
The next morning when I got up, two or three feet of snow pressed against the door. The phone rang, and my host said, “We’re all surprised by this. In fact, I can’t come and get you to take you to the breakfast, the lecture this morning has been cancelled, and the airport is closed. If you can make your way down the block and around the corner, there is a little depot, a bus depot, and it has a café. I’m sorry.” I said, “I’ll get around. I put on that little light jacket; it was nothing. I got my little cap and put it on; it didn’t even help me in the room. I went into the bathroom and unrolled long sheets of toilet paper and made a nest in the cap so that it would protect my head against that icy wind.
I went outside, shivering. The wind was cold, the snow was deep. I slid and bumped and finally made it around the corner into the bus station. Every stranded traveler in western Canada was in there, strangers to each other and to me, pressing and pushing and loud. I finally found a place to sit, and after a lengthy time a man in a greasy apron came over and said, “What’ll you have?” I said, “May I see a menu?” He said, “What do you want a menu for? We have soup.” I said, “What kind of soup do you have?” And he said, “Soup. You want some soup?” I said, “That was what I was going to order – soup.”
He brought the soup, and I put the spoon to it – Yuck! It was the awfulest. It was kind of gray looking; it was so bad I couldn’t eat it, but I sat there and put my hands around it. It was warm, and so I sat there with my head down, my head wrapped in toilet paper, bemoaning and beweeping my outcast state with the horrible soup. But it was warm, so I clutched it and stayed bent over my soup stove.
The door opened again. The wind was icy, and somebody yelled, “Close the door!” In came this woman clutching her little coat. She found a place, not far from me. The greasy apron came and asked, “What do you want?” She said, “A glass of water.” He brought her a glass of water, took out his tablet and said, “Now what’ll you have?” She said, “Just the water.” He said, “You have to order, lady.” “Well, I just want a glass of water.” “Look. I have customers that pay – what do you think this is, a church or something? Now what do you want?” She said, “Just a glass of water and some time to get warm.”
“Look, there are people that are paying here. If you’re not going to order, you’ve got to leave!” And he got real loud about it, so that everyone there could hear him.
So she got up to leave. And almost as if rehearsed, everyone in that café got up and headed to the door. If she was going to have to leave, they were as well. And the man in the greasy apron saw this happening and blurted out, “All right, all right, she can stay.” Everyone sat down, and he brought her a bowl of soup.
I said to the person sitting there by me, I said, “Who is she?” He said, “I’ve never seen her before.” The place grew quiet, but I heard the sipping of that awful soup. I said, “I’m going to try that soup again.” I put my spoon to the soup – you know, it was not bad soup. Everybody was eating this soup. I started eating the soup, and it was pretty good soup. I have no idea what kind of soup it was. I don’t know what was in it, but I do recall when I was eating it, it tasted a little bit like bread and wine. Just a little bit like bread and wine.
(from the book Craddock Stories by Fred Craddock, Chalice Press, 2001)