Suzanne and I treated ourselves to a day at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We spent the entire afternoon in the galleries, and hung around for Art After 5 and a jazz set by Orrin Evans to avoid the Friday afternoon traffic on the Schuylkill. It was a great day.
I almost skipped the American wing, but I'm glad I didn't. I'd forgotten that one of my favorite paintings, Henry Ossawa Tanner's "Annunciation," was there among the Eakins' and PA German furnishings. PMA has several paintings of this famous scene from scripture -- there's one of a thoroughly European Mary at her books at a green-clad table when she's surprised by Gabriel, and I recall one with Mary in regal blue robe and golden halo. Tanner's "Annunciation" stands out because it's so real yet so otherworldly.
Tanner, son of an African Methodist Episcopal bishop, painted his "Annunciation" in 1898. His Mary is an ordinary peasant girl, in everyday robes, in a thoroughly modest bedchamber. The painting is remarkable for its unremarkableness, given the subject matter. Often religious artists pay homage to the venerable Mary, with radiant countenance, a sublime expression, and of course the halo's glow of near-divinity. Tanner paints her, instead, as if she were you or me: Sitting up on the edge of the bed in surprise, studying the angel with a cross between serious inspection and incredulity. One isn't sure, from his rendition, if the teen is going to say "No way!" or "Whatever."
Against this background, Tanner's handling of Mary's otherworldly visitor is surprising. Rather than the familiar hyper-realistic, vaguely militaristic winged figure, he paints Gabriel as a sliver of intense, unrelenting light. His angel seems to be materializing, as if he had a premonition of Star Trek's transporter beams. Interstingly, the bright beam plays against the shelf on the wall to create the appearance of a cross. There's no other source of light visible in the image. Imagine how dark and cold Mary's room was before Gabriel appeared.
To me, Tanner has created more than a snapshot of a moment in the Nativity narrative. His "Annunciation" is an icon of how God's kingdom breaks in amid the ordinariness and grittiness of life -- not just to Mary, not just in Bible times, but still, today. The more formal, formulaic depictions are beautiful and meaningful, and speak important realities about the story. But Tanner's vision of the Light illuminating the bleak, plain and completely recognizable place where Mary sits, alone and puzzled like us, gives hope that the divine can touch even our cold, dark recesses. A God who breaks into this reality and transforms it, who can change the world through one timid, confused teenage girl -- now there is good news for all of us!
The theme of transformation was underscored by the exhibit that contrasted New York and Paris paintings by Beauford Delaney, another African-American artist born three years after Tanner painted his "Annunciation." Delaney honed his skills in portraiture and expressionist cityscapes in New York in the 1940s.
Delaney's New York paintings captured the energy of the city in expressive and surprising ways. I loved "Greenwich Village," in which he captured an intersection on what must have been a rainy night, down to the green traffic light reflected along the edges of the outsized manhole covers in the street.
In 1953 -- at age 52 -- Delaney took a trip to Paris that was to have lasted a couple of months. He stayed there until his death in 1979. In Paris, he felt freed from the double prejudice he faced in America as a black, gay man, and his work immediately opened up. From his first days he experimented with color, abstraction and new forms.
In 1968, he painted a portrait of songstress Ella Fitzgerald that combined traditional portraiture and abstraction, with the singer's face seeming to hover in a subtly variegated field of yellow. The Paris paintings on display seemed to be the work of a man freed from the constraints of others, released to experiment with his own vision and not the conventions of the art world or society. It was for me an affirmation of possibility, that vision can be renewed and one can discover new things within oneself even well into midlife.
I looked at a number of paintings in new ways today. The other Annunciation I mentioned, with Mary a literate school girl reading at her desk, shows that through history people have worked to contextualize the gospel story so that they could see themselves in it, and thus believe it and participate in it. And I marvelled at the very realistic master renditions of familiar scenes, such as the crucifixion. In one the detailed faces of the crowd were painted in different scales, and the annotation suggested that the artist had acceded to the wishes of some patrons to be made more prominent. What an act of faith it could be if we, like these patrons, could actually see ourselves in the gospel, both worshipping Christ and participating in his execution. Maybe it could be an act of devotion to Photoshop(R) our images onto these masterpieces to locate ourselves, as well, in the midst of the story?
My daughter grabbed this shot of me controlling the Christmas morning "DJ" worship service at St. James. We gave the band the morning off (after two Christmas Eve services) and I spun an eclectic mix of tunes along with some videos and stills on screen to help people meditate on Christ-mass.
We opened with the traditional Roman Catholic Proclamation of the Birth of Christ read over George Winston's piano solo of the spiritual "Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head."
Our call to worship was David Crowder's "Oh Praise Him" (Sunsets and Sushi) with a flash animation to the Apollo 8 crew's reading of the creation story from lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, 1968 mixed in.
We did a two-voice reading of John 1:1-14 from The Message paced to fit over "Acknowledgement" from John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, with several pauses to let the text sink in.
Lynette's sermon featured the music video of Black Eyed Peas' "Where is the Love?"
We had several stations for people to reflect upon in response to the Word:
A station to light a candle for someone who is forgotten or left out (not just at Christmas), and an opportunity to jot down a prayer and then send it to heaven by burning it with incense. There was also a Christmas poem to meditate on and...
An opportunity to write down the name of someone we have trouble loving on a paper heart and place it on the altar.
There was also a series of graphics with a variety of Christmas texts from ancient hymns, early Christian fathers, and contemporary sources on the screen to reflect on. We played two versions of "Love Came Down at Christmas" -- key to our "Christ Comes Down...To Send Us Out" theme -- by Stacie Orrico and Shawn Colvin, along with Bruce Cockburn's "Strong Hand of Love" and Third Day's "Manger Throne" during the station time.
Participatory prayer and Communion finished out the service.
From the comments I received, people appreciated it as a "holy moment," and a nice complement to the more upbeat Christmas Eve services.
Here's the complete playlist:
Red Nativity, "Silent Grace"
Eucharist CD, "House of the Lord"
Blind Boys of Alabama w/ Me'Shell Ndegeocello, "O Come All Ye Faithful"
Nova Cantica, "Natus est"
Tribe, "Adore" (very cool version of the Adoramus Te)
Call to worship
George Winston, "Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head" (with Proclamation read over it)
David Crowder Band, "O Praise Him" (with Genesis 1 from Apollo 8, space images on screen)
John Coltrane, "Acknowledgement" under John 1 (images of sunrise on screen)
Windam Hill Artists, "Angels We Have Heard On High"
Jim Brickman, "Joy to the World"
Black Eyed Peas, "Where is the Love" (music video)
Stacie Orrico, "Love Came Down"
Shawn Colvin, "Love Came Down at Christmas"
Bruce Cockburn, "Strong Hand of Love"
Third Day, "Manger Throne"
Harp 46, "In Wonder"
Alex De Grassi, "The Holly and the Ivy"
Baltimore Consort, "Es ist ein' Ros' entsprugen" and "In dulci Jubilo." I used a very nice video montage from Highway Video called Symbols of Reverence here.
Derek Webb, "We Come to You" (with montage of images, and playout continuing during the distribution of Communion)
Ottmar Liebert, "Silent Nite"
Blind Boys of Alabama with Aaron Neville, "Joy to the World"
Music for coffee and cookies
Kemper Crabb, "Divinum Mysterium"
Winter Solstice, "Joy to the World"
Matthew Perryman-Jones, "O Holy Night"
Sufjan Stevens, "Once in Royal David's City"
Jars of Clay, "Bethlehem Town"
Caedmon's Call, "What Child is This?" and "Babe in the Straw"
Thanks, Leah, for the photos!
...To send us out.
Our Christmas theme @ St. James focused on Christ's mission and our role in furthering that mission. We had two services -- a jammed 6 p.m. service filled with kids and families and a much more reflective, low-key 10 p.m. service.
At 6 the kids really took part in our mini "posada." Suzanne gathered them at the back of the church near the font and one child carried the baby Jesus in the procession up to the creche. I had to keep from laughing when the first boy she asked to carry the baby shook his head and backed away. It was all good, though... He (like the other kids) tooks some brightly colored glass beads to carry up and place at the manger. Very cool.
At 10 the mood was much quieter and more contemplative, and we could leave the lights down more. All these photos are from 10... I was too busy with the sound board to pick up the camera at 6.
Our altar space had been stark all during advent... plain blue drapes behind, with a massive stump brought in as the stand for the advent wreath. The transition for Christmas was impressive. Susan designed an array of simple white "trees" laden with white lights, that truly blazed in the night. The advent wreath was replaced by a small live tree, and the wreath was hung on the plain wooden cross. An evergreen branch was placed in the font at the rear of the church.
More photos in the next post....
For our worship team devotions today, Lynette set up a tableau with small figures of the holy family -- Mary, Joseph and Jesus -- surrounded by a rough crown of thorns. As we gathered our thoughts, lighting candles and contemplating the figures, I was struck by how we often focus on the full-ness of Christmas, the full-fillment of ancient prophecies. This time, my thoughts went to emptyness... how Mary had the faith and sense of adventure to empty herself even of control over her own body to be part of the new thing God was doing... how Joseph had the patience and trust to empty himself of his expectations of his wife-to-be and child and of the customs of his society to not get in the way of God's work... how the Son of God emptied himself of everything in order to take on our weak and limiting flesh. As Luther put it in the reading Lynette shared as part of the devotion, Christ became empty enough to step confidently into the form of an infant, and allow us to come near to him.
Emptyness. We're trained to think of it as a lower state, a problem to be fixed. Yet at this crucial point in the salvation story, it was the emptying of an ordinary young woman and her ordinary husband that allowed the fullness of God to dwell among us.
So, too, for me, emptying myself of pride, knowledge and answers is almost always necessary to discern and receive what God prepares for me. And how difficult that is! In a culture of self-sufficiency and rugged individualism, I am trained to be full of myself, confident in my abilities, sure of my direction (even when I am not!). Thanks be to God that Mary and Joseph stand as examples of the amazing blessings that can occur when we empty ourselves so God can fill us.
Our synod’s evangelism committee is reading Jim Kitchens’ “The Postmodern Parish” in preparation for hosting him at our Mission Fair in March. I just finished it over the break – it’s a quick and easy read. Here’s my take on the book:
It may take decades for the shape of the church that is emerging to become clear, but that’s no reason to delay following our best intuitions about ministry in postmodern culture. In “The Postmodern Parish,” Jim Kitchens advises church leaders to stop looking at what’s right in front of them and learn to trust their peripheral vision of the trends starting to emerge around the church.
This Alban Institute publication is a solid introduction to the emerging church for mainline pastors and church leaders who are becoming aware that the world they serve in is changing, but aren’t sure why the ground is shifting. Kitchens, a Presbyterian, is honest about the ways in which the mainline church is beholden to the dying assumptions of Christendom, and offers a solid analysis of the implications of postmodernism for the mainline. He also offers some examples from his experience with a California congregation struggling to respond to postmoderns’ shifting expectations of the church. “The Postmodern Parish” is accessible and relevant to mainline Christians interested in the renewal of existing congregations. (Kitchens will keynote the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod’s 2006 Mission Fair on March 18.)
Kitchens opens the book with a clear description of this new postmodern, post-Christian and postdenominational ministry context. (You can read the opening chapter in PDF format here). Distrust of modern ideas about progress and certainty mark the postmodern era, along with a focus on felt experiences over knowing and a dissatisfaction with 20th Century individualism. Society has dispensed with special privileges afforded the church, as most church leaders know but many deny, Kitchens writes, while a consumer mentality has undermined the denominational “brand loyalty” once so important to Christians. These three waves washing over the church simultaneously have radically altered the world of ministry, and church leaders can’t afford to ignore the changes, he says.
Even though now perceiving the altered landscape, Kitchens predicts that it may take 50 years or more for a new paradigm of ministry to fully emerge. But the church can ill afford to wait until the new pattern is clear to start adapting its tactics, because by then the opportunity of postmodern culture, a new openness to mystery and theology, will have passed:
“When we know what worked in the past no longer works, but we don’t yet see what should replace our former practices, we need to step out intuitively and cautiously into the future until we can see more clearly.” (31)He likens the liminal glimpses we have of new forms of church to movements noted in our peripheral vision, which often disappear as soon as we look directly at them. Though he urges prayer and discernment in responding to these shadowy visions, he acknowledges that church leaders will have to trust their hunches and take action, realizing that it may not be possible to determine if these movements are of God except in hindsight. This is an important insight for mainline denominations including Lutherans, who like to nail down theological ramifications before taking action. The costs of not doing anything, he suggests, outweigh the risks of making the wrong move, especially if we act trusting the Spirit and testing our ideas with trusted colleagues on the same journey.
While home and school used to assist in the cultivation of Christian identity in the Christendom era, the Church is on its own in the post-Christendom era. As a result, Christian worship has to focus less on imparting information about the faith and more on faith formation, Kitchens says. Immersion in biblical stories and Christian concepts is called for, but more than talk is required.
“Mainline churches tend to have a bad case of verbal diarrhea: We fill the hour of worship with words heaped upon words. We tell God everything about us, but we rarely incorporate space in our worship to listen for a word from God…” (50)Instead, he counsels worship that goes beyond talking head lectures to allow postmoderns to hear many voices, and that uses the arts and silence to create space for the scriptural witness to sink in and to discern the Spirit’s leading.
In a world where most people who come to churches are likely to describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” formation of Christian identity has to be the primary goal of other church programs as well, from new member classes to Sunday School and council meetings, Kitchens says. He also briefly treats the welcome shift away from “the church’s mission” to accepting God’s invitation to join God’s mission to love and restore the world. Readers interested in this rediscovery of the mission field outside our front doors will find a much deeper treatment in Frost and Hirsch’s “The Shaping of Things to Come” (read my reviews here and here).
Leadership also takes on different dimensions in “generations ripe for a radical recovery of the Protestant principle of ‘the Priesthood of all believers,’” Kitchens writes. Flattening the artificial hierarchies that value clergy more than other Christians is a minimum here, he says. Taking postmodern ideas about leadership seriously will require questioning the administrative and corporate focus of church policies and the “adversarial nature” of our parliamentary procedures, he says. This will open the door to more holistic leadership structures and development of models for discernment that value all voices rather than giving great advantage to aggressive extroverts. And rethinking the professionalization of clergy, rather than devaluing learning, will allow pastors to reclaim their roles as shepherds and guides rather than CEOs, he says.
Kitchens’ experience at Davis Community Church in California, a downtown, university church with comfortable resources, won’t translate to every congregation, and his cautious approach is well suited to existing churches that want to incorporate innovations of cutting edge emerging churches into their traditions. Overall, “The Postmodern Parish” is a good introductory read for mainline Christians who are skeptical of the evangelical assumptions and experiences of many emerging church readers.
Click the image above to purchase the book at Amazon.com
Drop a comment and I'll email you a registration form. Registration forms will be posted on the Synod website soon.
But Bennison believes other houses of worship should decide what works best for their flocks.
"Jesus himself said, 'The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath,' " Bennison said. "Our observance should enhance our lives."
Of course, Christians cutting themselves slack on Christmas is a news story, since some of the same Christians spend a lot of time telling others how to live their lives.That the media ignores the many churches that are just doing their regular thing and have no controversy reveals a rather limited view of the religious world. Actions that might be hypocritical (and might not, in my view) and opponents who want to toss anathemas at the drop of a service are tailor made for media that eat up simple, black-white stories. And the mainline church has dropped off of their radar screens, now occupied by evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Maybe its because we're quietistic, maybe because we aren't as controversial...or maybe because simply being institutional isn't any more interesting to reporters than it is to the religiously unaffiliated.
We need to pay attention to this. The media's filter determines what a lot of unaffiliated and marginally affiliated people know about the church and Christianity.
P.S. -- St. James is open, doing something different...
Christ climbed downRead more:
from his bare Tree
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars...
The film portrays some of the political and economic forces that intertwine in setting foreign policy and determine interventions in other societies. This fictionalized story looks at forces at work off center stage in the US -- in the oil biz and intelligence community -- and touches on how people outside, leaders and terrorists, might look at US. It's certainly not political science or reportage, but does what art does best -- gives you a glimpse inside worlds we don't normally have access to.
I walked out of the theater with a vague sense of dread, and of being unclean. If nothing else, Syriana evokes the numbing sensation I often get from the news, that world events are too big and complex to do much about, but because it can tie many ends together in a story with characters that are human, if not sympathetic, there's another hit -- that I am complicit in them.
I like to think we can tackle the big, collective sins, but this film reminds me that neither I nor anyone else can completely define them. As we live together in communities, nations and the world, we all have interests, and what's "right" doesn't always win. And even if I "know" what is "right," I often don't have the power to do much about it, even if I vote, write my congressman or shop at Ten Thousand Villages. (I realize as I write this how easy it is to pick out actions I do take and ignore the ones I don't, and still try to look good.) It's easy to see why managing the personal sins I have "control" over and accomodating to the ones that are too big is an attractive option.
A gospel of the Kingdom of God doesn't let us get away with not being implicated in the big picture. If the Kingdom truly is at hand, then we're free to try to change the unchangeable and right unfathomable wrongs (why do I suddenly hear "Man of La Mancha" in my head?) If the focus isn't "did I win?" but "did I live out of Kingdom values?" I can do something, even if it doesn't change the course of the world even a degree.
What's truly scary about Syriana is that the main characters were trying to do what was, in their view, the right thing. Whether seeking wealth or power, pursuing social reform, terrorism or a quixotic sense of making things right, they were driven. The key question is, what (or who) is driving? If I give in to this sense that I can't effect anything, and go along for the ride, I'm not going to like who is driving. Because it will probably be me, not Christ.
Our complicity in the big picture and issues isn't new, of course. But we are more aware of what we are complicit in these days, thanks to media and global communications. And so we have to retool how we speak the gospel into a world that knows, even if only on a subconscious level, about our mutual implication in the world's brokenness. What is hope once we lose that illusion of innocence? This knowledge can drive me into a holy bunker, or it can drive me to join God's mission to the world. What it can't do is let me think I've done enough, because I find, like Luther, that I can never finish that to-do list.
If you’re looking for something to treat the agita of lack of vitality or even malaise in your congregation, George Barna has a word for you. But be warned, if your looking for insight into how to maintain the institution of your congregation or denomination, “Revolution” is going to go down more like syrup of ipecac than Pepto Bismol.
Based on his latest research, Barna has good news for the Church. He finds a small but growing cohort of passionate Christ-followers whose goal is to live in the way of Jesus. Driven by a transformational encounter with Christ, these “Revolutionaries” focus on the imitation of Jesus. But there’s bad news for congregations. Thanks to the relational focus of postmodernity, technology that links people across the globe and puts a stunning of resources at their fingertips, impatience with irrelevance and bricks and mortar, many of these Revolutionaries are following their quest outside the bounds of the traditional church.
Barna’s Revolutionaries would include many emerging types, but the phenomenon he observes is broader, including people in and dropping out of mainline and evangelical churches. He seems pretty skeptical of “postmodernism” in general, and lines up more with the segments of the church that are against culture or want to conform it to Christianity than with the sense of embedding within culture that is common to the church that is emerging. But his sense of the revolution as a reaction to civil religion and tepid Christianity, will resonate with many.
“Millions of devout followers of Jesus Christ are repudiating tepid systems and practices of the Christian faith and introducing a wholesale shift in how faith is understood, integrated, and influencing the world. …this revolution of faith is the most significant transition you or I will experience in our lifetime.” (11)Barna’s demographic analysis sounds an alarm for the Church-as-we-know-it. In 2001, his research showed that 70% of adult Christians considered the local congregation their only or primary faith community. A tiny percentage had primary attachment to some other kind of community. But by 2025, Barna writes, just one third will have their primary attachment in a traditional congregation, and a like number will be connected with alternative forms of church. He notes that these forms are still emerging, but already include house churches, informal worship gatherings, small/accountability groups, and service ministries and parachurch organizations.
This shift has been bubbling under the surface for a while. A few years ago I saw this play out in a congregation I was working with. A younger couple, veterans of the corporate transfer life, arrived and began working hard to expand and enhance a budding contemporary worship service. But despite their work the congregation couldn’t move as fast as they were used to, and they faded away. Their zeal to worship and learn more fully couldn’t take a back seat to “the way we do things here.” And in moving away from congregations focused on caring just for themselves, I’ve been part of the shift myself, although I wouldn’t personally identify will all of Barna’s characterizations.
If reality approaches Barna’s numbers, the implications for congregations are staggering. The wholesale rejection of faith as product, perfected by the church-growth megachurches, means their influence will wane. And in the mainline, where many congregations are small and near the brink, the sheer decline in numbers means that many will succumb when a few key families make the break for the Revolution. The majority of ELCA members are lifelong Lutherans, and locally 20% of congregations are growing and 1/3 of congregations are considered “at-risk,” so a shift away from congregations could be devastating – if your goal is survival of the institution as we know it.
From the Revolutionary point of view there is opportunity here for the Church, as a growing number of people who identify with this revolution decide to live and work for the Kingdom of God rather than Sunday morning activities.
“…If we place all our hope in the local church, it is a misplaced hope. … The local church is one mechanism that can be instrumental in bringing us closer to Him and helping us to be more like Him. But, as the research data clearly show, churches are not doing the job. If the local church is the hope of the world, then the world has no hope.” (36)Because the dominant, familiar forms of church today are products of history, not mandated by Scripture, Revolutionaries will feel free to change or dismantle them if they are not helping them pursue a serious, personal relationship with God. “They have no use for churches that play religious games, whether those games are worship services that drone on without the presence of God or ministry programs that bear no spiritual fruit.” (13)
Revolutionaries experience this fruitlessness all around them. In Barna’s research, 8 in 10 Christians say they don’t experience God’s presence in worship, and half say they have not entered into God’s presence in the last year. On average Christians give 3 percent of their income away (and think that’s generous) and just one in four serve others in a given week – usually in church, not out in the community.
In contrast, “The Revolutionary mind-set is simple: Do whatever it takes to get closer to God and to help others do the same. … (T)he Revolution is about recognizing that we are not called to go to church. We are called to be the Church.” (39)
Barna paints a picture of Revolutionaries who are, in emergent-speak, more interested in living into the Kingdom than sin-management. “What makes Revolutionaries so startling is that they are confidently returning to a first-century lifestyle based on faith, goodness, love, generosity, kindness, simplicity, and other values deemed ‘quaint’ by today’s frenetic and morally untethered standards.” (12)
Revolutionaries may be in a church or may not: “What matters is not whom you associate with (i.e., a local church), but who you are.” (29). Formed by the baby boomer’s famous impatience with irrelevance, questing for meaning, and desire for hands-on participation and making a difference, Revolutionaries will be part of a church if it’s producing fruit, and will leave if it’s not. Note that this is not typical consumerism; the focus, Barna says, is not on meeting needs but on zeal for a transforming relationship with God.
Technology allows them unprecedented access to resources for that relationship – sermons, curricula, theology, etc. – so they are not dependent on congregations and pastors to provide them. Individuals will take ownership of their journey from the church, and select resources from a wide base, not just that offered by a congregation or denomination. New leaders and structures will grow up, not to replace institutions but in “providing guidance in the construction of new hearts and minds that produce a thriving Church community.” (106)
“The Revolution of faith that is swelling within the soul of America…will affect you and everyone you know. Every social institution will be affected. This is not simply a movement; it is a full-scale reengineering of the role of faith in personal lives, the religious community, and society at large.” (102) As a result, while some congregations will fight the Revolution, and others will switch to follow its lead, all congregations will feel (are feeling?) pressure to react to this large-scale shift.
So what’s a church to do? Learn from the revolutionaries … and don’t be threatened. Seek ways to add value to the Revolution… bless revolutionaries, don’t judge them. Open your doors, accept what they offer as well as what they take. “Figure out how to create more Revolutionaries among those who are not aligned with the Christian faith community.” (139)
If history is instructive, as in some of the reaction to the emerging church, many church leaders will decide that they have to defeat the Revolution in order to protect the territory they’ve been given. Barna says God wants investment in expanding the Kingdom, not protection.
“The Revolution is not your enemy. Your enemies are spiritual complacency that renders people vulnerable to negative influences and the brittle wineskins that can no longer contain this extraordinary move of God in the hearts of His people.” (139-40)Barna issues a call for congregations and leaders to examine both the torpor in the Church and the values of this Revolution and, like Martin Luther, declare where they stand. It’s certainly not required that all congregations join the Revolution; there will continue to be people for whom this passionate, intense approach is not their chalice of communion wine. However, its clear that some congregations must adapt or die. And if systems of congregations, such as the ELCA, are going to survive, new congregations – or house churches, informal communities, and servant groups – must be born to engage the passions of this fast-growing cohort of Revolutionaries.
Update: Purchase at Amazon.com
You're here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. -- Matthew 5:14, The Message.When people look at us, will they see Christ?
Isaiah speaks to me:
40:27Why would you ever complain, O Jacob,
or, whine, Israel, saying,
"GOD has lost track of me.
He doesn't care what happens to me"?
28Don't you know anything? Haven't you been listening?
GOD doesn't come and go. God lasts.
He's Creator of all you can see or imagine.
He doesn't get tired out, doesn't pause to catch his breath.
And he knows everything, inside and out.
29He energizes those who get tired,
gives fresh strength to dropouts.Strength comes to those who wait. But I fight it with every breath, trying to get it myself.
It was pure gift to me when I saw Jonny Baker's reference to a wonderful video liturgy from the late vaux community. (I highly recommend going into a quiet place and watching it all.) Based around Walt Whitman's poem, 'finally comes the poet,' it reminds me that I am not alone in the waiting.
Christ waits to be emptied out ... emptied so entirely as to fit an infant's frame. Empty enough to need filling at a mother's breast.So we, too, are called to empty ourselves as we wait, because full of ourselves we cannot be empty enough to receive God's gift. And that's the challenge. It's so easy to fall into the trap of calling on God to bless my fullness, to baptize my dreams, that I often miss the gifts that wait just outside my grasp.
Waiting is hard work, but it can bring unexpected blessings. One of my favorite expressions of those blessings is the last verse of the song "Mary Was an Only Child" (found on Art Garfunkel's "Angel Clare" album):
If you watch the stars at night,In a Wal-Mart world, with the glow of parking lots masking the stars, with so much of our lives lived in tunnels, only waiting can help us see.
And you find them shining equally bright,
You might have seen Jesus and not have known what you saw.
Who would notice a gem in a five-and-dime store?
It's horrifying how an upstanding citizen, sworn to uphold the law and nominally religious, can accept such customs. And while this is the flaw writ large, we're all succeptible to it on some level, accepting some injustices to get along in the world. But the chilling clarity with which this man explains that decision holds up a mirror that its frightening to look into.
In the next 60 seconds, five people will die of AIDS...
I wonder how Kenedy is today... if he is still alive.
That's him, second from left. He's the same age as the boy at the right of the picture, but you'd never know it. He was sick that day, and spent most of the time our group visited in his grandmother Martha's home staring out the door into the hot Tanzanian morning, chewing on a blade of grass.
It was an amazing moment of connection when Martha asked us "Why? Why does one of my grandsons have AIDS and the other doesn't?" Despite the differences between this struggling Tanzanian family and our group of visiting Lutheran communicators, we were one that moment -- one in helplessness before that question, one in anger at the forces that permit the epidemic to continue, and one in prayer to the God who holds all things -- even these confusing, painful things -- in his hands.
We're connected, too, by dedicated servants of Christ who work with countless families like Martha's -- thank God for them! But why is it so hard to maintain the connection? It seems like yesterday...and a lifetime ago... Maybe, for Kenedy, it was.
Here's what I wrote then:
A troubling question
9 FEB 2004
"Why does one of my grandsons have AIDS, and the other does not?"
The weariness that had been evident in Martha Symphorian's face and posture now crept into her voice, as she asked us to pray for her struggling family – three teenaged cousins being raised by a 74-year-old grandmother.
There was silence as our group of ELCA communicators learning about the hunger and AIDS crises in Africa pondered the depth of her question. In our several days visiting the hungry and orphans in Uganda and Tanzania, we had seen a lot of suffering, and a lot of faith and pride in its face. But Martha's anguish and frustration hit us on a deep, theological level.
"We don't know," our leader, Pastor Eric Shafer, said after a long pause. "That's a question we're all going to want to ask Jesus when we see him in heaven."
Martha's grandson Kenedy is slouched just inside the door to the modest brick home in the Eastern District of Tanzania's Northwestern Diocese, near Bukoba. He chews aimlessly on a piece of grass, staring sometimes at us and at other times off to the horizon, but never said a word. At 15 he is much smaller than his cousin Dennis and even than his 11-year-old cousin Rose. That's what AIDS does to young bodies.
Kenedy's father – Martha's son – died several years ago of AIDS. Kenedy was about a year old when his father died. As often happens, because of the stigma that attaches to AIDS, Kenedy's mother simply took off. She moved to another area to try life without everyone knowing her situation – perhaps to marry again – leaving Martha to raise her young grandson. Soon Kenedy began showing some symptoms of AIDS, an unfortunate accident of his birth. He excelled in school when he was well enough to go, but these days the disease is more on than off.
Dennis' and Rose's mother – Martha's daughter – also died of AIDS. It is the African tradition for the extended family to take care of such young orphans, and Martha followed tradition and took on a new family. Though aging, she works hard to cultivate the banana trees and avocados on their small plot of land, and sees that the children get to school and are cared for. But how hard it must be for her to follow the process to get Dennis admitted to a vocational secondary school – a rare and expensive privilege in this poor community – while watching her equally bright Kenedy wither and wait to die.
Martha and her family are not alone. The Northwestern Diocese is organized with a team of social workers and lay ministers who seek out and care for families in need in their territory. Sister Renathe is the social worker who tends to the Symphorians along with a lay evangelist from the local Lutheran parish. She helps Martha get assistance to pay school tuition – about $200 per year for each child – and takes Martha and Kenedy to a diocesan dispensary where he can get medication when his symptoms are active. Funding from the ELCA World Hunger Appeal helps the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania offer comprehensive social and medical as well as religious programs.
"Sometimes," she says, shaking her head, "you think he (Kenedy) is ready to die, and then he comes back…" Her voice trails off as she contemplates Kenedy's fate if medications were not available to him, even occasionally.
So we pray, quietly but fervently, for Martha, Kenedy, Dennis and Rose. Martha's request for prayer isn't surprising. The dominant decoration in her sparse living room is a collection of pictures, torn from calendars, of various aspects of Jesus' ministry – Jesus in the Temple, healing, Jesus on the cross. While there are many things she lacks, faith is not among them.
We pray for strength for this fragile family. We ask for food and schooling and access to medical care. Above all, we ask that whatever happens to them, that Martha, Kenedy, Dennis and Rose know the deep, deep love that Jesus has for them.
It doesn't matter that our translator doesn't repeat our petitions in Martha's language. She flashes a weary smile, and breathes peacefully, a clear sign that she has understood.
For the record, I made a purchase at the Apple Store today (shhhh....don't tell my daughter), and the very helpful guy on the phone wished me a "Merry Christmas" as he signed off. Guess they got the memo from legal.
Critics of emerging churches say they are too culturally captive and simplify the character of the gospel into oblivion. Champions say they reclaim the very core of Christianity by seeking to be like Christ at all times.
She also quotes Ryan Bolger of Fuller Seminary at length. He notes some characteristics that go outside our traditional mainline model -- ''Eighty to 90 percent of the focus goes to the community operating outside the Sunday church service" and "It's less about ''Are you coming to us?'' than ''How are we going to serve you?''' -- that I think are fertile grounds for imagining what missional Lutheran congregations here can look like.
As a worship planner, I also found this thought-provoking:
Flashier megachurch services promote the sacred/secular split, because the leaders put all their energy into a performance that happens once a week. Emerging churches, on the contrary, see the use of modern music, art and expression as a way of integrating the earthly and divine, Bolger adds.I don't know any Lutherans around here who are trying to mimic evangelical megachurches. But it's interesting to think about whether the outcome of our focus on Sunday services, of whatever flavor, is to integrage spirituality into everyday life. Getting beyond the word performance (because as a Lutheran the idea of making worship a performance bugs me), I can see the point that the energy, time and salaries devoted to worship sends a signal that that is more important, if not more "holy," that what happens in daily life.
I think the better point is that worship needs to form people in a way that avoids the sacred/secular split. This means that, since that split is a norm in our cultural perception of Christianity, we have to actually speak agaist the dualism and, if worship is the prime contact of people with the church, offer them tools in the corporate gathering to integrate the sacred in their everyday, walking around life.
I've spent some time this week on putting together some images to reflect on the central text for Sunday's service -- Matthew 25:31-46, the "least of these" passage. The film offers an even better illustration, backing into the key insight. There's a scene where Cash, all in black, of course, tries to pitch Columbia Records execs on the live "At Folsom Prison" album. They're dubious, to say the least. One says, "John, your fans are Christians... They don't want to see you singing to murderers and rapists just to make them feel better." To which Cash replies, "Well, then, they aren't Christians."
The Folsom album went on to outsell the Beatles, and we're all fortunate that Cash went beyond singing gospel and set his empathy to hard-luck guys to music.
“Emergent leaders in the ELCA talk about relating to our denomination as the mothership,” she said. “We emergent leaders are a dinghy brigade. We’re totally in relationship to the mothership, but we’ve jumped into the water,” not jumping ship but “going overboard to explore the missional culture.”
“We’re loyal rebels. We like splashing around in the water but we also go on deck and report to the captain. We don’t want the ship to run aground. We see ourselves as scouts. And the mothership is beginning to take the reports from the field seriously.”
Karen said that cota is not a postmodern worshipping community but a church moving towards an emerging ecclesiology. “We’re trying to be a community of faith that radically reimagines church for a postmodern age,” she said. “This is not about a kit or cloning, it’s more about being a loyal rebel to your tradition, and being radically indigenous and contextual to your place of ministry. Martin Luther radical.”
As a result, emerging starts in the ELCA don’t all look alike; they’re more like local microbreweries than Budweiser, not “McChurch” but a lot like the meal in the film “Babette’s Feast.”
cota is a joint church plant of the ELCA and the Episcopal Church. Karen likes to say that it is the most traditional church in either tribe because of its deep ecclesiology, which starts with the tradition and adds contemporary and ancient elements that make sense in its context. The key is in the approach: “Our orientation to tradition is additive, and our orientation to the past is exploratory,” she says. “It’s not this or that, it’s this and that. We carry on tradition in a way that is native to us.”
In 98103, one of the most un-churched zipcodes in the US, with 95 percent of people reporting no religious affiliation, native looks different. Homemade icons are prominent, and a prelude might feature organ and DJ. One Easter Vigil was held in a nightclub, with baptisms in a pool bought at Home Depot. cota is “dumpster diving” tradition, she said; uncovering the ecclesiological equivalent of grandma’s pearls and grandpa’s skinny ties and wearing them in their own way. “Grandma is in heaven smiling because her granddaugher is wearing her pearls,” she says, even if its not the way she would have worn them.
Radical contextualization comes into play with Karen’s commitment to a church for the neighborhood, not an age group. “I walk a beat like a cop,” she says, noting that she spends much of her time out in the community and local organizations. There are some key features to the way they are living into this radical contextualization:
Attractional > incarnational
In Christendom the church was viewed as having a lock on spirituality, but the culture no longer views us this way. “People already see themselves as spiritual. They want to know how the church can help them with their spirituality.” So rather than hiding in a building hoping people would come in, cota is trying to live in the way of Jesus in the midst of the community. As a result, they focus on the community, not the building. The facility, dubbed the Fremon Abbey, is opened to the community; cota worships there, but views itself as being where its people are in their daily lives. “The church has left the building,” she said.
Assimilation > formation
“We don’t measure by the number of people” assimilated into the church through programs, she says. “Formation views effectiveness by changes in lives and communities.” Even with just 125 “on the list,” cota wants to shape people to make a difference for the reign of God locally and globally. “It’s not about size, its about deployment and capacity for ministry.”
Dualistic > holistic
“Any place we gather is hallowed by God,” she says. “Our first bible study was in a local pub. We don’t give the devil any territory.” As a result, cota focuses on helping people see all of life as sacred, not just church stuff.
Adopting the postmodern context has meant some visible changes in what church means at cota. Leadership is communitarian. Karen (or a visiting priest) presides at the Eucharist, but most other times of the service “it’s hard to tell who is in charge.” Karen stresses the ordination of baptism and cota doesn’t distinguish much between lay and ordained. “We’re a radical priesthood of believers. We lead from the midst, not the front.”
The dumpster diving approach has led cota to deeply engage other parts of the Christian tradition. They celebrated St. Francis day not just with a blessing of animals but by inviting three sisters from a third-order Franciscan community to lead a dialogue on Franciscan spirituality. They drew on one member’s Orthodox background to form a Lent/Easter cycle with an Eastern Orthodox ethos, and in preparation learned about it from Orthodox priests. (Their recasting of the Liturgy of St. Chrysostom went over well; “people loved the cosmology of it,” Karen said.)
However, Karen is careful to point out that cota does not do “seeker” worship. “We are living our life (of common prayer)… not changing what we do but inviting others into what we do. We make it open and welcoming, and listen to all different things. We have a balanced diet of word and prayer and sacrament and healing. People are welcome to eat with us but we’re not going to change the menu because they like it better.”
Both Doug Pagitt and Holly Rankin Zaher were asked about how church discipline was dispensed in the emerging church. Doug handled the part of the question that related to avoiding heresy and agendas hijacking the church. "When you become a part of the community your hopes, dreams and aspirations become ours. People who want a high agenda...don't tend to live well in community and live reconciled lives with the people in them, so they don't stay anyway... In an open system, where many voices are listened to, heresy is less likely to come up.... Heresy is more of a problem when you limit control to certain voices." He made another interesting point. In today's world, "we don't discipline people. They use their leaving (the community) to discipline us." As a Lutheran with a tradition of "good order" I get why this question is asked, but it's interesting that we know that having systems doesn't guarantee that things won't get out of hand, as the recent experiences of the Roman Catholic Church has shown us.
There's also concern about the emerging church's adoption of spiritual practices from varying periods and brands of Christianity (and perhaps from other traditions). The concern seems to both be about syncretism and about cheapening another's practice by taking it out of context. Doug quipped that he was worried that leaders might start wearing suits or robes like leaders in the culture, or start patterning buildings after secular architecture. Then he drew a distinction between creating a smorgasbord to create a cool show and drawing from the faith backgrounds and exploratory practices of people in the community, which he sees as authentic.
Doug's quip, though "snarky" by his own description, points to a reality in these types of cross-cultural conversations (and emergent-mainline dialogue is definitely cross-cultural). All of us tend to see threats/concerns in something new and unfamiliar, while dismissing the same exact issues in what we already know. Several comments and questions worried that newer forms of church (perhaps more 'contemporary' than 'emergent') were performance and presentational; nicely ignoring the fact that traditional worship is often more presentational and can tend to performance if one isn't careful. And some who have adopted cell phones, VCRs and email worried that IMs and powerpoint in worship were "disconnecting" and not conducive to relationships with God and each other.
Listening in on such conversations is a reminder that I need to stop and see what assumptions I'm not thinking about when thinking/writing/speaking about the gulfs we're now crossing, and remember that the logs I see in others' eyes are probably in mine, too.
Holly started by debunking several "myths" commonly held about worship in the emerging context:
- It's all about the toys (technology)
- It's for the under 35 crowd
- It has to use fire and wax
- It must be kewl, hip and trendy
Worship in the emerging context, she said, "is about contextualizing the good news in the midst of a community intent on following Jesus." There are 3 parts to contextualization, in her view:
- the context of the text -- our shared story
- the context of our times -- the emerging culture and world situation
- the context of our place -- local and particular
The text itself says nothing about leaders in the worship in Corinth; no music leaders, no sermon. "Paul doesn't say, 'Make sure you quote the Torah.'" Yet we have to wrestle with this in a context that professionalizes clergy and worship leadership. This doesn't mean we have to do it like the 1st Century, she says, but it does mean we can question why we do it the way we do.
The times we live in affect what we do because of information technology, consumerism, entertainment culture and globalization. "New media changes the way we give, receive and process information," she said, explaining that before the introduction of the printing press churches did not have pews. The press introduced a linear mode of thinking that organized the physical gathering of the community. "What can the internet, TiVo, and cell phones bring to the church?" And these major technology shifts, which most in the room had embraced at some level, mostly came about in the last 10-20 years. "Are your sermons like the ones given 20 years ago? Are they in a place where you can engage people on different levels" and via multiple senses? she asked.
Adult education theory now knows that "we really are all learners, and we all bring something to the table." If that is true, how does that change how leaders/preachers interact with the community?
On the local level, the main thing is to "learn to ask good questions." We need to be constantly asking "What's going on? Why?" about our communities. We also need to let congregations grapple with questions and resist the "temptation to tell them what to believe." It is better, she said, to step back and ask more questions, to let the person think on their own. We also need to look for the leadership structures that are organic to a given community -- is it government, church, or less defined social networks. "I have a hunch that the reason many of our churches were created with the structures they have is that at the time they worked." But are they the connections that work today?
So what does this mean for worship?
First, we need to seriously look at these issues of contextualization. She described one community she worked with spent a year looking at "people movements" in Luke/Acts, understanding how people came to know Jesus, and using that information to deconstruct their corporate worship.
Second, if the dominant images of our times are of empire and consumerism, we need to ask what are the alternative images that God might want us to offer people. "People want and need something to believe in. People know (our times') dominant story isn't going to pull them through. How do we offer them an alternative imagination from which to live?"
What if, she asked, worship in an emerging context...
- was more about being missional than about style... more outward focused?
- engaged the whole person, allowed space for us to worship with all of who we are, mind, body and spirit?
- rediscovered the corporate idea of sin and salvation?
- challenged current leadership structures... it was hard to tell who was in charge?
- challenged the dominant image of consumerism and exposed the gods of power and greed in today's "throw-away" culture?
- engaged the creative?
Challenging consumerism and greed is a tough one; Holly says we have capitulated to the consumer model for church by packaging programs and actually encouraging people to "shop" for churches. We've allowed aspects of the American dream to coexist, however uncomfortably, with faith, and undoing that will make some (many?) uneasy, if not angry. And our professionalized ministry context makes challenging leadership structures difficult.
Her Hollyness then facilitated an experiential evening prayer, combining shared prayer, lectio divina, meditation on scripture and creed and experiential ritual, mostly in a self-selected, non-linear ordo. This is comfortable to me; we've been introducing many of these elements in the congregation I participate in. It appeared that many of the people in the room were also comfortable with this style, if not familiar with it. This might be a sign that we are more ready for the emerging culture than is commonly assumed.
Bass set out several years ago on a journey across the mainline church, looking for signs of life. The journey did not take her where she expected. She discovered that others -- progressive evangelicals, emergent churches, segments of Judaism, for example -- are also on the road. These churches are isolated, feeling lonely, but they're there. "My journey is ending at a surprising place... a beginning. A new kind of biblical faith is being born."
She calls this "Christianity for the rest of us," a vital force beyond fundamentalism and liberalism that is drawing people on a spiritual journey. "I discovered mainline churches that were deepening spiritually and sometimes growing numerically." The churches exhibited "a deep sense of authenticity" and offered people a way to engage important questions and form a meaningful way of life. They bridged the gap between social justice and spirituality. "They were their own best selves... innovative and traditional, risk-taking and confident, humble and bold."
She quoted one Lutheran pastor summing up her findings: "Mainline renewal is not rocket science," it's about preaching the gospel, offering hospitality, paying attention to worship and caring for people's spiritual lives -- in short, "taking Christianity seriously as a way of life."
The churches embraced the mysteries of the faith and people in them saw themselves as on a journey to "find home" and an "authentic faith." They were trying to do this in community, not through isolated, individualistic spiritual experiences. "The 90s were about individual spiritual quests, now we are seeing people gathering and renewing institutions on the basis of prayer and spiritual practices."
In every congregation, whether mainline, evangelical, or emerging, the details are specific to local communities. In the mainline, the girders are a three-point (of course) Architecture of Vitality. Congregations that are vital display three characteristics: they care about tradition, empahsize faithfulness, and crave wisdom. Because many in the mainline lack language for talking about spirituality, those terms need careful explanation, she said. Respondents to the survey drew the following comparisons:
Tradition vs. Traditionalism. There is some worry about reviving tradition, since there are traditions -- of slavery, racism, discrimination against women -- that they don't want to turn back to. But there is a sense that these congregations want to reclaim the value of the ancient without setting it in stone, recovering the practices of the early church in a way that produces meaning today.
Faithfulness but not fundamentalism. There was "steady criticism" of fundamentalism and the "Religious right." And, she said, "equal criticism of liberalism." People in these vital congregations want to distance themselves from "more narrow forms of religion." They seek to be theological without being dogmatic. One respondent noted that Fundamentalism has been co-opted by success and political power. They are where we were 50 years ago, this person said.
Wisdom, not certainty. "Religion is about going somewhere, not ad hoc spiritual experiences. Religion is structured as a pilgrimage." She noted that the words "personal salvation" turned up exactly 0 times in hundreds of interviews. The quest people are on is not for eternal life or clear answers, but for "wisdom," she says. Questions are more important than answers.
It is interesting to me how similar these mainline practices are to what I have heard in emerging conversations. Mainline congregations that take seriously the cultural shift we are in -- whatever they call it -- are coming to some of the same conclusions: that faith has to be real, lived into, and more about the journey than the destination.
The challenge for the mainline is chronological. Emergent churches tend to be clusters of younger people; nearly 70% of the people in the congregations Bass studied were aged 45-65. She didn't mention this, but in the ELCA and other mainline denominations, a majority of the youth in the church are gone by the time they finish college, which highlights the graying of these congregations. While revitalizing within the existing paradigm works for the people who are there, it may take incorporating more of the emergent paradigm shift to engage the younger people who will be needed for these vital mainline churches to make it another generation.
Doug Pagitt addressed the opening session Monday offering “Emergent 101,” an introduction to the conversation.
Doug said that the “emerging” language isn’t really helpful; “if you get confused by these words, join the club.” The term is drawn from forestry, where the “emergent growth” that takes place at the forest floor determines the future of the forest. “Emergent growth is really dark, really cold and very lonely” and a “movement” arose to connect people down on the ground of these new stirrings in the church.
“The church that is emerging” is a good way to look at the creativity and innovation in the church because the next question is “From what? Then the context really matters.” Rather than setting up a false competition with the rest of the church, it matters what it looks like to emerge from the place where one is…in a denomination or tradition, for example.
The bigger question is, “What if it’s not about church at all. What if this emerging thing is about the hopes and dreams and aspirations of God?” Doug said. “God has an agenda in the world, and those who want to be a part of it are emerging.”
“The last 150 years have seen a lot of change and creativity in the church.” He thinks its instructive to look to the 1860s rather than the 1960s for the seeds of the church that is emerging. “We need to look at how an agrarian expression of Christianity morphs into an industrial world and now an information world.”
Tradition is not a bad thing, he said. But “tradition means doing what the people who went before us did, not just saying what they said.”
Doug offered a descriptive, not prescriptive, list of 10 Characteristics of the Emerging Church. Emerging communities are:
1. Not preserving something. They see Christianity as neither a revival nor an insurgency protecting faith from the big bad culture… “it is forward leaning into what God might have in store for us and the whole world.”
2. Missional. “God is on mission in the world and we want to be people who are about that mission.” Its not about outcomes…how is God active and how do we join in? Doug noted that many people are more interested in the somewhat mysterious “kingdom of God” than concrete beliefs and dogmas.
3. Humane. “People matter. It makes a difference who is there and who is not.” Communities don’t assimilate people but change when new people come in.
4. Young. “revolution is work for young people.” For many in the room, their role may not be to be on the ground but to be caring for those doing new things. “It’s also young in thinking.”
5. Open. “Wide open, often with no rules familiar to those on the outside as to who’s in and who’s out.” People often ask, what do you believe? “Most statements of faith aren’t all inclusive, they separate you from other people. For most of us the question is not how are we different, it’s how are we similar?”
6. Integrated. “We live in a world that is interconnected in so many ways” – globally, locally, to past and future. Communities move beyond bounded-set (a line between in and out) and center-set (people at varying distances from the same center) styles to function as a connected set, like the Internet or a family. “Who are you affiliated with? Seemingly everyone.”
7. Experimental. “We’re trying things. If they work, fine… One of our questions each year is, Does this still make sense?”
8. Familial. “If we’re going to be community, we have to be family like: You still fight, but you’re connected in spite of that.”
9. Holistic. “Everything counts” – the environment, personal morality, how we consume, etc. “There is no place at which you draw the boundary that this is a secular experience and that’s a Christian experience.”
10. About living in the way of Jesus, rather than believing the right thing. “If I put off living in the way of Jesus until I believe right, I may not get there. These are communities of practice rather than belief.”
“Postmodern,” in his view, describes that shift from the modern age of reason to the emerging “age of skepticism.” Like the shift in the mid 1600s from an age of faith to the scientific/rational worldview, this shift is asking questions that shake the foundations of life.
At the end of the premodern age, the world and the church were stable. Then Luther defied the pope (and lived), political forces aligned and the church fractured. These political/religious forces fought the Thirty Years War, and Europe was devastated. At the peace of Westphalia in 1648, leaders looked back and vowed “never again.” Various traditions claimed to be Christian, but tried to destroy each other over doctrine, dogma and superstition. The leaders of the time were profoundly Christian, but their confidence shifted. In the following generations, the answer that emerged was to turn to reason – “If we think hard enough, there is no problem we can’t solve.” After this shift, the world was divided into areas that faith explained and areas that God explained. As science explained more, the space for God became smaller.
By 1945, we’d reached the height of our technological prowess, and we unleashed the atomic bomb – “a means by which we can kill more people more quickly than ever before.” In the following decades we learned that technology led us to the brink of ecological disaster; that the crowning achievement of medicine, antibiotics, led to the evolution of superbugs; that one-quarter of the world still goes to bed hungry; that leaders lie. This period has “led to a lack of confidence in the modernist enterprise.”
“Postmodern is not a movement, but a stance or attitude of profound skepticism that will not receive tradition uncritically.” Our daily experience of diversity and our access to many points of view have convinced us that “there is no God’s eye view of the world, where one of us gets to look down and say what is real.”
The postmodern age is marked by a sense that rather than one story of reality there are many, none of which can be proven absolutely true. Language, rather than just describing reality, creates it – you can’t experience something until you can name it. Truth is seen as those things that the dominant culture agrees on – cannot be proved but often is disproved. Postmoderns have a deep suspicion of power, which doesn’t arise from knowledge but decides what knowledge is. Authority is lodged in experience and relationship, not in titles and hierarchies.
“This is the situation we preach into. The values of a generation ago are challenged. People have access to so much information. You can’t just do a monologue about what is right.”
The shift has also created a window of spiritual openness. “Premoderns had a real sense of being dependent on God’s grace. Moderns said if we think hard enough we can save ourselves…but by the end of the 20th century we had been disabused of this illusion. We see this in GenX and millennials…they saw the wealth grabbing of their parents and saw that it didn’t get them salvation… There is more room for mystery and openness (now) than there has been in more than 3 centuries.”
In this world “truth is confessed and professed, but never possessed.” In the modern world truth was validated by conquering another point of view. But “in confession, the validity of your assertion rests not with its reception but with the integrity of the confessor… When we make claims about God’s action in our lives and our world, we can give people space to wonder or doubt” because our relationship with them doesn’t depend on their accepting our arguments. This “leaves room for the holy spirit to work” and allows us to follow God’s model shown on the cross. “God does not take the power route in the cross, but becomes very vulnerable.”
Moderns view the Bible as “the Encyclopedia Brittanica of the faith (and) open it looking it for answers. What if we imagine it as a collection of confessions of people so gripped by God’s story that they had no choice (but to tell it)?” Scripture is “a living word waiting to be set loose in you and in the community.”
“The Bible is the very beginning to the very end. We all live somewhere between the Acts and the Revelation. Our task is to take the biblical stories and stretch them, and drag our people into the stories..”
Preachers are not offering answers but “a world view, a framework to understand their lives.” There are many competing metanarratives in our world, one of which is the story of consumption. “Behind every ad and billboard is an assertion about the human condition – you do not have enough, you are not enough. But if you buy … maybe you’ll be OK. That narrative is of the devil. But if we do not offer a compelling alternative we have done nothing to advance the cause of Christ.”
“Preaching, like Christianity, is intensely relational… the preacher is mediating a relationship between the hearer and God.”
Preaching needs to actualize the tradition in the situation of your community.” If it is monologue, it needs to be “provisional monologue” designed to “catalyze conversation” among the people about things that really matter. “The message of unconditional love and grace is uncommon.” People who come to church should be able to “count on hearing this alien story…and be sustained in faith.”
Kelly started by observing that Lutherans have "an anemic ecclesiology; a weak sense of what it means to be the church."
She noted that the ELCA -- like many denominations -- fashioned the 1990s as a "Decade of Evangelism." During that time in the ELCA there were hundreds of evangelism trainings, print resources, videos, grant programs. And at the end? The number of baptized members went down. There were fewer congregations. Members reported that they were less willing to share their faith than before. And, the congregations that did try new things grew -- and then declined faster than those that hadn't tried.
The ELCA took a look at the exercise and found that vital congregations have two key factors in common: a clear sense of purpose and vision, and an openness to innovation and change. Other factors -- facilities, contemporary worship, dynamic preaching, growing community -- all mattered only secondarily.
"A church will grow only if the people in it have such a clear sense of who they are and who they are meant to be that they will do whatever it takes to be that," she said. "In a vital congregation, the only non-negotiable is the vision. People know that God is on a mission to love and bless and save the whole world, and they are part of it."
In fact, she said, in a vital congregation, "People are going to expect things to change." As an example, she offered the church of Acts. She shared Justo Gonzalez's insight that Acts is about the work of the Spirit, not those of the apostles. Remember, the Spirit shows up at least 60 times in the first 20 chapters of Acts, well, acting: to empower and include people. To possess and compel them. To change people and make them new. To share God's story in their own langauge and to undermine ecclesiological and political powers...
Yet in Lutheran ecclesiology we acknowlege the Spirit "up there," and act in the Spirit's name in church, but we try to keep the experience of the Holy Spirit buried, Kelly said.
Throughout Acts the Spirit leads the church out of its comfort zone and into the company of strangers. There are new faces ... Peter finds Cornelius, Philip finds an Ethiopian eunuch. There are new leaders ... the church at Phillipi is born in Lydia's living room. There are new understandings.
Although Lutherans bristle at change, she says that real "change is possible -- but it's really hard." Kelly outlined five hurdles Lutherans have to get over to follow the Spirit out of our comfort zone and into the company of strangers:
- Experience -- Many Lutherans have had bad experiences of others "sharing" the faith with them. We need to acknowledge them and tell our own stories, and listen carefully to Jesus' command to love our neighbors. She quoted colleague Pat Kiefert: One day Lutherans are going to have to answer for the way we have not loved our neighbors.
- Ethnicity/"family" -- "Being a Lutheran is a family affair." 40% of ELCA members have been in the same congregation more than 20 years, 63% more than 10 years. 3 in 4 ELCA members have been Lutheran their entire lives. It can be very difficult for strangers to fit in. If our core is not being German or Swedish or using the green book but about God always coming down, our theological core, we can be freed up to interact with strangers from a position of comfort. ELCA churches need to celebrate their history, in the sense that every one was a congregation planted by immigrants. We need to take the same risks they were willing to take to spread the Gospel in a new land.
- "Everything goes" -- We need to resist the postmodern temptation to say all ideas, experiences and faith are OK and practice bold humility in the style of Lesslie Newbigin: Boldly proclaim that in Jesus God has changed our lives and can change our world; yet humbly admit that we don't have all the answers. "As theologians of the cross, we know that God is full of surprises," she said.
- "Empty doctrine" -- We have a core central doctrine -- "God comes down" -- we are justified by faith and trust in God, not by what we do. Luther poured his life into making sure everyone else on the planet knew this. 500 years later, Kelly said, we have his words, but without the model of his life we are left with "We don't have to do anything." We need to reconnect this great gift of salvation to the call to discipleship. We need to be free to give ourselves away, to be salt and light to the world.
- Ecclesiology -- Lutherans use shorthand from Article VII of the Augsburg Confession to describe ministry of word and sacrament. Kelly argues that we need to expand that to word, sacrament and community. The article begins by defining the church as the assembly of saints, and "an assembly is intended to be a party." She offered this definition of church for the age of the mission field: "The church is people of God created by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed." And that means doing church differently.
To "get out there" she offered five strategic behaviors of the church in Acts:
- Pray always. Help people listen to God's voice in scripture rather than telling them what the bible says.
- Set people free. Jesus told the disciples to be witnesses, then left them to figure out the details. Church leaders need to learn to jet ski -- when you start getting wobbly, go faster. When congregations are in trouble and feel scared, they want to put the brakes on and make up all kinds of rules. Instead, move forward.
- Take action. "It's not called the book of thoughts." Ask what needs to stop and what is getting in the way of people taking action. If people need more than 5 sec to explain what they need to start a new ministry, there is too much bureaucracy.
- Expect surprises. God promises to give us whatever we need when he calls us. "If Martin Luther would show up and see what we have done in the name of Good Order, he would have a 96th thesis."
- Be hopeful. "Our God brings light out of darkness and life out of death. If we fail, what is the worst that would happen."