PA Pastor's Conference: Lessons from the 'Emergent Church'

The annual Pastor's conference sponsored by the PA Council of Churches looks at "We've Never Done it Like This Before: Lessons from the 'Emergent Church.'" It's Nov. 14-16 in Camp Hill, near Harrisburg. Diana Butler Bass, Doug Pagitt and Karen Ward are among the presenters. Click the link above for more info.

A story about meta-stories

I spend part of my life in the IT (information technology) world. In this world there are a couple of competing metanarratives. Let's call them Windows, Mac and open-source.

The Windows story is that Microsoft has left everybody in the dust and everything integrates and works the same, so you have less to learn and are more productive. The proprietary nature of the system makes it trustworthy. "It just works," they say. Most people I know are pragmatic about this, or grudgingly accepting of this, rather than passionate about it.

The Mac story is that this the platform about creativity and individuality and doesn't suffer from the crashes and bugs and viruses and spyware of Windows. "It just works," they say. The Mac evangelists I know are passionate about the story, first and foremost, and then pretty pragmatic about getting their work done.

The open-source story is that many independent authors are better than one company's programmers, and that open review of software makes software stronger rather than exposing its weaknesses. And cheap software is worth the learning curve needed to get and keep it running. "It just works," they say. These folks are passionate about the process more than any specific product.

As a post-modern computer user, I see a "man behind the curtain" in each story.

The Windows story discounts the impact of bloated and expensive software, if you stay with the "standards," and the fact that the pervasiveness of the platform amplifies the need to stay secure (which is hard work) and the prevalence of viruses and spyware that take hours to prevent or eliminate and cut into productivity. It assumes an IT staff to take care of these issues so people can use the tools (at least some of my skills are in demand).

The Mac story ignores the fact that not everyone can pay premium prices for computers nor has the inclination to learn another way of doing things. It also discounts that fact that Windows is catching up in some core areas -- graphics, video and audio -- and that Mac apps still crash and have security vulnerabilities.

The open-source story assumes "geekness" and ignores the fact that most people don't want to need to know how a program works in order to use it and don't want to do complex things like recompile code. It also ignores the cost of retraining people to use "free" software.

So where does that leave me? I administer Windows networks at work and at home. I switched my primary laptop to a PowerBook. I enjoy and struggle with both platforms, and see strengths and weaknesses with each. I admire the open-source idea, but I just don't have the time to learn it, though I depend on its close cousin, free web services (like gmail and blogger). And I think that the open source concept has a lot of validity in other areas of life -- like communicating in and resourcing the church.

And I have authority problems. I read one blogger about Windows networking for small business who has some great insights into work flow and security and common sense computing. But every once in a while I read a just-too-positive comment about a new Microsoft 1.0 release and I think, "Can I trust this? Or is it just blind adherence to the Windows story?"

In the end, I trust my work, my time and my data in part to all of these competing stories. I listen to the stories and see what resonates with my experience. Amid many choices, I examine evidence to a point and then have faith that the choice I make works for what I am doing. All because I believe the story behind all of these stories -- that working, collaborating and playing with these tools is more efficient than doing it all by hand or face to face.

A simpler comparison

Sivin Kit, pastor of a Lutheran Church in Malaysia, posted a couple of slides outlining some basic differences in approach between modern life and postmodern. I'm linking to it here with his disclaimer:
I find such comparisons helpful, if a little far from exactly 'reality-depicting' i.e. it's only generally true and all thinkers of whatever stripes would have surely some bones to pick with at least some of the pairs. ... This is not to deny the value and extent of "modernity's" contribution, only to suggest that maybe in this 'new world' we're in, it may be wise to go beyond them.

Postmodernism primer

If you're into philosophy, there is an interesting primer on postmodern thought here. It's part of a new book-blog project called "A New Kind of Conversation" which purports to "discuss what a postmodern evangelical faith looks like."

It includes a discussion of Jean-François Lyotard's definition of postmodern as having "incredulity toward metanarratives." Metanarratives are the stories we construct to make sense of our individual stories; "world view" seems like a better term to me. There was a metanarrative behind colonialism; there's one behind jihad; there's a competing one behind "the American dream." Our constructions of how we do church are stories of this type, I think -- bigger pictures in which we find ourselves and our experiences at home. Even though all of those constructions reside in the ultimate Christian metanarrative -- God created the cosmos, and each of us; the Word took on flesh and pitched tent with us to redeem us; God continues to make all things new even today -- we often want to elevate them to primary status.

Incredulity doesn't mean that all such stories are rejected; it means that none of them can demand belief because of their own carefully crafted means of self-legitimization. That's bad news because it means that there are fewer and fewer people who will automatically subscribe to our Lutheran or Christian worldview and just come join us. But it opens spaces that long to be filled by something authentic, like Christ. And while it leaves it open for people to not believe anything, that's really almost impossible for humans. We need such stories, which is why we invent and tell them. But Christian belief then becomes not a verdict that we can't help but come to because of the evidence, but faith that we can't help but come to because of our experience -- of our own brokenness, of the world's unreliability, and of God's love and mercy. Anybody breathing today doesn't have to go far to find experience of the first two. Our task as Church is to bring this experience into the midst of the broken places.


alt or emergent?

Karen posted an interesting comment outlining the differences in ethos and approach between the alt.worship community spreading out of the UK and the US emergent conversation, in response to a question from Chris. Worth a read.

The news from East Biloxi

My friend Tom Kadel of Christ Lutheran Church in Kulpsville, PA, has spent the last week with Lutheran Disaster Relief workers in and around Jackson, MS. He wrote a powerful letter about his two trips to East Biloxi yesterday (posted on the synod disaster blog) -- one to see the damage and another to take food to victims. On that second trip he got to pray with a number of survivors, in encounters like this:
At his porch, he turned to me. He had lost his wariness and it was replaced with a tear in his eye. He held out his hand to me. As I took it, I asked, "Would you like a prayer?" "Oh, yes!" he answered. We prayed for him, his family -- some of whom he had still not heard from, and his neighbors. After my "Amen," he added, "Thank you, Jesus."
This is the Church joining God in love for the world, the part that the emerging or alt. church can't forget as it forges new ways of expressing the faith. Tom finishes with a reminder that while the media, politicians and publicity will move on, Jesus doesn't -- and neither can we:
For those of us who have been loved so deeply by God, it is imperative that our loving response not be guided by the front page stories. The people in East Biloxi never made it to the front page and never will. The need here is desperate. The response here shows in an army of volunteers and a flood of needed goods. But it is still not enough. There are no words. What the Gulf needs is not words, but love in workboots. And this will go on.

Making room

The CofE has an interesting little book called "Mission-shaped church" that captures the result of long conversations about how to plant fresh expressions of the church. I've only cracked the first couple of pages, and found food for thought from the Archbishop of Canterbury's foreward:
If ‘church’ is what happens when people encounter the Risen Jesus and commit themselves to sustaining and deepening that encounter in their encounter with each other, there is plenty of theological room for diversity of rhythm and style, so long as we have ways of identifying the same living Christ at the heart of every expression of Christian life in common.

The book is available by PDF

What is the task?

I've been looking through some of the Church of England's efforts to plant and support "mission-shaped" churches. One planning document from this year shares this refreshingly candid bit of self-examination:
The Church of England has by and large not brought forth a confident laity in matters of faith and faith sharing. Rather, the laity have often felt disempowered, in the same way that many clergy who enter ministry from other walks of life sense they have been disempowered, by a system that trains its leadership for a pastoral rather than a missionary task. (5)
In my experience, this resonates with our situation in the ELCA. Changing this perception of the type of task we are about -- in the minds of clergy and laity -- is a daunting prospect for us. Many faithful churches and leaders want seriously to take up mission, but struggle with putting maintenance in order to do so.

What will it take for us to really see our communities as areas for missionary activity?

Tag, you're it!

Dwight Friesen, a theologian at Mars Hill Graduate School and a house-church planter, used a wonderful metaphor for the relationship between the church and its emerging edge during the COTA learning party. He's expanded upon it on his blog.

Dwight and I had some interesting conversation about Lutheran identity as a "two-edged sword." He offered that he's impressed that so many Lutherans he meets have really internalized that identity; we're obviously doing something right. But we have to be careful, we agreed, not to be so locked into a time or place or version of identity that we're not opening to what God is doing now.


Apostles' worship

Several people have asked me to tell them about Church of the Apostles, Seattle, which I visted last weekend. I'll start with worship, the regular gathering of the COTA community, which concluded the day-long "learning party" last Saturday.

COTA embraces its Anglican-Lutheran "tribe" (their word), and the mass had a familiar order and flow -- but it was emphatically NOT the LBW or the Book of Common Prayer. Overall, there was a layering of music and a reconsideration of traditional elements to make them fit in their context that added a lot of meaning for me. On the practical side, the attention to flowing elements one into another is very engaging. When we moved for Communion, I caught a glimpse of the clock and realized that we had been going for an hour and I hadn't even noticed. That has not happened to me for a long time.

A labyrinth was laid out in the center of the floor, with the altar at the center. Early arrivers had a chance to enter the labyrinth; by service time a number of people were sprawled on pillows across it.

The team puts a lot of work into making liturgy engaging and participatory. For this service, 3 scripture lessons were used, but they were not just "read." Here's the flow:

OT lesson -- essentially a reader's theatre, with one visible character (a band member), a narrator at a mic out of site, and other members of the band reading other parts. And with music playing the entire time.

Psalmody -- Psalm 145 was broken into 4 sections, which were posted on large sheets of paper along the walls, with a pen hanging there. Community members were invited to move around, read one or more of them, and add their personal paraphrase of the text if they were so moved. This took place in about 7-8 minutes with music playing throughout. As people came together, Karen gathered the papers, placed them on the floor in front of the altar, and then read one paraphrase of each section -- a psalm composed by the community in worship. A true work of the people. There was a saxaphone solo during the meditation and reading.

There was a video meditation on U2's song, "Grace."

Gospel -- Ryan, the worship leader, came to the center and simply told the story of the workers in the vineyard.

For a response to the Word, there was what COTA calls "reverb," a chance for worshippers to turn to each other in small groups of 3 or 4 and respond to a few specific questions about the day's theme: Mercy: The Unfairness of God. The questions in this midrash asked if God is fair, and explored our reactions to the story.

I had the privilege of sitting next to a young couple, not churched, but visiting friends at COTA. It was cool to have a chance to listen to their perspectives -- that God is, of course, fair, and that work should be, too -- and to witness to my experience of how great it is that God is so much more than fair. It was a gift to be able to be allowed into the story of these folks, whom I'll likely not run into again, and to share my story. It modelled talking to each other about Scripture and life issues, which is foundational to a life of community discipleship.

That was the sermon. There was no "message" -- other than Scripture -- to set up the discussion and no reporting out about what we'd shared -- just a chance to do a little theology in community. According to Karen, more recognizable sermons are done every few weeks, and many times by people other than the pastor.

When the offering was taken, it was made clear that giving is a joyful choice, not an obligation, and it was acknowledged that giving to other causes in the world is as valid as giving to COTA. "Give as God calls you to give," the leader said, and while another basket did not go around, baskets for receiving "alms" were in the entrance way -- on a table in front of a huge globe with clear indication that these were gifts for hurricane relief.

Communion was preceded by a participatory ritual. Apparently some worshippers were given one or more grapes on their way in (I was not one of them). We were directed to a table in the back with several bowls of purple grapes and a french press, in which many grapes had already been mashed into juice. If we wanted, we could go to the table, take a grape, and press it into the juice as a way of symbolizing offering our life and work to God's purposes. There was also time here to meditate at the icons on the windowsills, or to light a candle at the cross icon, or pray at one of the large icons across the front of the space.

The assistants brought bread, wine and the french press of grape juice forward to the altar. The eucharistic prayer emphasized that while some had received many grapes and some just one, there was plenty for all in God's economy. The juice from the press was mixed with the wine and the grape juice in the chalices. People had the choice of intincting or taking the common cup. The prayer featured original band music underneath, building to allow the community to participate in the traditional responses in a way that fit with the ethos of the service and community.

Within the familiar structure of the rite, it was impressive how the participatory rituals and the intention to connect them with the eucharist made it easy to connect. There are a couple of things weaving through the service that I took away as emergent worship principles.

  • God was honored by helping people to participate in the story, not just telling them how to think about it.
  • There was ancient liturgy, but each piece appeared to be picked and re-appropriated to fit both the community and the theme of the day.
  • Though the band is up front and the worship is scripted to a point, the way Karen, Ryan, Lacey and the others lead made it feel like a community worshipping together, rather than a leader-run show.
  • There were times for people to have choices to move and meditate, and almost no time with the community being lectured to or hanging on one person.

Some elements of what COTA is doing -- original music, a dj playing after the service, the labyrinth and icons -- are authentic to who they are and who they serve, and might not translate to other settings. I think these learnings can be put to use anywhere we want to do good liturgy that can speak to young people and people outside the "churched" culture.


Signs of the times 2...

Bob Hyatt of Evergreen in Portland offers some thoughts in a lighter vein about the messages our church signs send. Link

A sign of the shifting times

I have had a number of conversations lately that hinge on "the postmodern thing" (whatever that is). Some people, passionately concerned that the Church (and the ELCA in particular) isn't grapsing "how the world has changed," are skeptical of the talk about "postmodernism" and especially dubious of the assertion that there is a separate "postmodern culture."

This morning my wife was talking about her job at a nursery school, and she described several parents of 3- and 4-year-olds who said they involved their young children in key decisions -- such as whether to come to school -- or in some cases, left the decision up to the children.

Now I'm an old guy, but when I was 4 it was pretty clear that those decisions were made by my parents. We could always ask for things, which might have been granted, or not, but we didn't decide. As we got older this changed, of course. And there were not as many activities on young people's plates back then, but one didn't hear then about families completely run by children's schedules, which is common today.

I'm not lamenting this. What's interesting is how partipation in the decisionmaking process has been pushed down to include the children affected by the decision. This is far from the "children are seen and not heard" attitude that was talked about, even if not always enforced, when I was growing up. It also values the child's experience of the result of the decision as well as "what's good for them." It is fascinating to see how these parents are naturally gravitating to a new model, whether as a "deconstruction" of more rigid methods or as an outgrowth of the parenting they experienced.

Of course there are abuses. Stories of parents leaving children to fend for themselves are frequently on the evening news; this would have been a shocking abnormality when I was young. And we've all seen examples -- maybe in a store or a playground -- where a parent seemed to have abdicated authority and we wish they would just take charge.

But this shift is an example of how shifts in the culture at large -- "flattening" organizations in the business world, increased self-repsonsibility for learning in schools, increased choices in almost every area of life -- are assimilated into the core of our lives. And children are growing up, not to learn to be included in decisions as young adults, but experiencing and expecting that inclusion, just as they are immersed in the technologies that we adults have to learn and explore and think about as we use.

Many of us who are parents learned or experienced such shifts in small doses: experiencing the collapse of seemingly unshakable corporate cultures into "flat" organizations (that often weren't as flat as advertised); seeing the unraveling of paternalistic corporate structures and learning that we, not the company, were responsible for our careers and livelihoods; making career changes our parents couldn't have contemplated; learning that leaders lie to us. I grew up hearing the letter to Santa Claus in which little Virginia writes, "My dad says if I see it in the Sun, it's so." Today we reflexively bash the (your choice of adjective here) media and decide that Rush or Jon Stewart or Dr. Phil has "the truth." We used to go to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica and get a neat, peer-reviewed "answer" and now we Google(R) or read blogs and get hundreds of facts and opinions (some of which may actually be useful) and synthesize our "solution."

Take all these little shifts, stir them into the air and water that nurture new generations, and there is culture change. I don't know if there is "postmodern" culture -- I know there isn't "a" postmodern culture -- but we are in a different world. It's hard enough to be in a culture and speak to it of an alternate reality like the Kingdom of God (which is emphatically countercultural today). I can't imagine how we think we can speak at this culture from another world about yet another world and expect to be heard.


What is the emerging church? Pt. II

I listened to the second installment of Brian McLaren's sermon series on "What is the emerging church?" on the way into the office today. This installment focused on some pretty comfortable Lutheran ground:

  • Scripture is meant to be read as an integrated story of God's action in history to create, redeem and sanctify his people. While some Christian traditions -- and the cultural Christianity all Lutherans are exposed to -- highlight particular threads such as sin, justice, poverty, etc., the Bible is a narrative that integrates different themes, threads and experiences to tell the story of what God is up to in the world, and to invite us to participate.
  • God is bringing the kingdom into being throughout history; we're called to either ignore God's work, oppose it, or accept Jesus' invitation to join with God in loving and healing the world. (Seeking that God's will be done in us so that we can care for our neighbors, as Luther said.)
  • The emerging movement is "evangelical," not in the political sense but in that it seeks to engage people outside the movement into participating in God's kingdom, in "Making Christ Known...Now!"

It's pretty clear that Lutheran listeners are eavesdropping on a conversation within the evangelical/fundamentalist church, which McLaren critiques because he is part of it. Most Lutherans should hear this and say, "Well, of course!" -- although we do have our people who read Scripture the way lawyers scour the annotated code, looking for precedent to prove their case, and others who focus on "eternal fire insurance" rather than mission. And we might be guilty of other sins, like seeking the preservation of centuries old congregations or locking ritual in a comfortable, unimpassioned sameness, that are less common in those traditions. It would be easy to just stop at "See! We have that!" without looking for the analogs to the missteps that McLaren talks about in our own house.

Certainly these underpinnings of the emerging church movement resonate with Lutheran tradition. Yet this theological resonance hasn't -- yet -- translated into great increases in the kingdom of God; in fact, we're in decline, especially among emerging generations.

What is the disconnect? In part we're slapped with the brush of the cultural "Christianity" that infects our politics and is presented in the media -- the only way many unchurched and de-churched people hear about religion -- as the only alternative to a secular view of the world. Many people may just not know enough about Lutherans to know there's an alternative. And there's a sense in which we may, disaster relief aside, be guilty of not applying our rich theological insights to the issues facing real people close to the bone of real life (and communicating that to them) and being shy about bringing about the kingdom and inviting people to join us and God in that work.

What if we could, while stumbling forward as the saints and sinners that we are, help people to see God's kingdom breaking into their "walking-around life" (Eugene Peterson's phrase) and live radical grace amid the 21st century rat race? That would be Lutheran ... and emergent.

McLaren on Lutherans

I had a great conversation with Brian McLaren yesterday in preparation for an article for our website and newsletter. I continue to be impressed with Brian's passion for seeing the church move beyond political and doctrinal disputes and institutional maintenance to free its energy to help God bless the world, and with his humility and gentleness in spreading that message.

He spoke of the gifts our Lutheran tradition offers to the church in emerging culture, from Luther's insight about the importance of catechesis, helping people know what they believe in the context of their culture, to our rich, examined theological tradition that both allows us to grapple with tough issues and to resist lining up with the Religious Right.

McLaren noted our significant dropout rate among confirmands post high school, and said we're not alone: Southern Baptists have similar rates and his church is affected, as well. He pointed out the opportunity we have to re-engage with youth and young adults by recognizing their post-modern culture rather than trying to shoehorn them into the modern church. If we can help them develop an active, missional faith, we will build a strong platform from which to share our Lutheran gifts with the church.

I'll have a lot more to share as I process and digest the interview.

Server, mainframe, or router?

Karen describes COTA as "post-denominational" yet rooted in its Lutheran and Episcopal liturgical traditions. She used a great metaphor for the changes that she thinks have to be made in the churchwide structure (for which she used to work in ecumenical affairs and worship) -- it's set up as a server, and it needs to function as a router. (For non-geek readers, the structure is set up as a central supplier of and gatekeeper to ideas, resources and funds, when it needs to make connections between congregations, leaders, publishers, experts, etc.)

I'd expand that to say that the central hierarchy functions more like an old mainframe -- it has a limited set of programs that run on its operating system, not compatible with programs that run on other systems (denominations), and it is careful about and controls how people access its data. It has firewalls in place to filter the information that comes in from (and goes out to) other nodes in the wide-area network that is the church, rather than permitting unfettered access.

Our congregations -- some are small workstations or terminals, others run servers to service their operations and sometimes a small network of congregations. The hierarchy needs to help direct information across the network and facilitate connections between the outlying nodes.

I think that some synods, including our SEPA synod, are starting to take on the router role. We have worked to try to build in connections between not only pastors and other rostered leaders but between lay leaders as well, sometimes responding to grassroots networks leaders have put together themselves. And we're facilitating access to information about the church, independent resources, and our own local mission stories through the web, email and video (check out our online resource catalog).

But we still have filters and gateways in place to protect the security of our network and our Lutheran identity. These are artificial filters and illusory security because our people have their own networks that continually cross denominational, theological, doctrinal and geographic boundaries. By focusing on routing connections, we can help people make better connections and get better information and experiences to expand God's Kingdom.


Visit with the apostles

Thanks to Karen and the apostles for their hospitality during their "Learning Party" this past weekend.

Church of the Apostles (COTA) is a small and vibrant community that reflects the young, artistic, progressive Fremont district of Seattle that it serves. It's a joint Lutheran-Episcopal church plant, smack in the middle of what pastor Karen Ward calls "ground zero of the 'none' zone" -- Seattle is one of the most unchurched cities in the US, and 95% of people in Fremont are not affiliated with a faith community. The congregation -- with a core group of de-churched young people, many former evangelicals -- reached into the community running a tea-shop/internet cafe before buying a former church/shelter that it is raising money to renovate into an arts center/abbey (they have two "brothers" living in now) and plan to put a restaurant in the basement (to be called the Refectory) to tap into Seattle's Sunday brunch culture, which is way bigger than church culture.

COTA offers an eclectic yet "traditional" worship life. The space this week focused around a prayer labyrinth on the floor, surrounded by stacking chairs and some very comfy couches. Icons adorn every windowsill, with large icons aross the front painted by their 20-something in-house iconographer. The Mass shows orthodox and catholic influences. The band's original music (sometimes accompanied by pipe organ), a reworking of Amazing Grace, electronica and recorded U2 music layered around and underneath readings and prayers in the Western rite, yielding a flow and integrity that any congregation would do well to emulate. COTA's cycle includes monthly Taize services, an elaborate Easter vigil -- complete with interactive stations and baptisms -- held at a local club or theater, and a forthcoming electronica evening prayer.

It's a laid-back and spiritual community that opens itself to the community -- they're working on equipment to allow members of the local DJ community to spin their records after the service -- and leaves space for people to flow in and out of the cycle of small group gathering, theology pubs, social events and worship. Pretty appropriate for a community whose centerpiece is a huge statue of Lenin, and lights it at Christmastime.

The learning party was an intersting mix, with several of the Northwest's key church planters sharing their takes on emergent practice and theology, and sharing of a range of models, from COTA's monastic bent to small house churches (planted by evangelical denominations). My head was full by the end of the day, and I'll be processing this download for a while. I'll be posting on these in the near future.

What is the emerging church?

Brian McLaren is doing a sermon series on "What is the emerging church?" at his church. I listened to the first installment on the flight out to COTA. He admits to not liking the term "the" emerging church; it sounds divisive, he says. But groups like our little SEPA cohort are springing up, giving a much broader flavor to the emerging conversation:

"There is an emerging edge in many if not all sectors of the Church," he says, made up of people who "can't just stay stuck in the past" but want to "engage today's and tomorrow's world." As a result, there is "unprecedented dialog and fellowship across denominational lines."

McLaren doesn't focus on the presentation and style of "emerging church," but emphasizes Jesus' call to participate in the Kingdom of God. "Being a Christian at the end of the day isn't about doing church, it's about joining God in mission and in God's love for the world."

In Matt. 16, Peter went from naming Jesus as the Messiah to being told by Jesus, "Get behind me, Satan." Similarly the Church can slip into "playing on the wrong side" focsuing on itself -- its issues, its doctrines, its theologies -- rather than its role in the Kingdom, McLaren says.

"The Church always has to be open to renewal and correction," he says -- hmmm, sounds familiar. "We've got to keep open to being surprised by Jesus Christ."

Listen or get the podcast at http://crcctalks.blogspot.com.

Gotta start somewhere...

So why not here? A file cabinet for notes jotted and ideas collected along the emergent journey viewed from an ELCA Lutheran perspective.