"Merry Christmas"

Apparently the biggest threat to the life of faith today is the replacement of "Christmas" with "holidays" in schools and store advertising. According to Jerry Falwell, when it comes to Christmas, you're either fer us or agin' us. And they're gonna sue if you're not on board. Amazing. As if having "Christmas" in a Target ad shows people the way of Jesus.

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.

Restless Spirits: Emerging in the Lehigh Valley

The Morning Call in Allentown (PA) has a good piece in yesterday's paper about three emerging communities in the Lehigh Valley. Writer Jessica Berthold does a good job quickly capturing the spirit of these three churches, and has a nice summary (though greatly simplified) of what makes emerging churches controversial:

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.


Walking the Line

My wife and I just got in from seeing "Walk the Line," the new film about the love affair between Johnny Cash and June Carter. It's well done, with a lot of early Cash tunes I wasn't familiar with. And some good insights.

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.


Loyal radicals

It’s possible for emerging communities to be “loyal rebels” within denominational structures, being “Martin Luther radical” in terms of embedding in the church’s local context while holding fast to the tradition of one’s tribe, according to Karen Ward. Karen, pastor of Church of the Apostles (cota) in Seattle, made the last of four major presentations on “Lessons from the Emerging Church” at the just-completed PA Pastor’s Conference.

“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.”



The questions that have been asked of presenters here in Camp Hill have been as interesting as the presentations themselves. Some observations.

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.

Contextualization over technology

Holly Rankin Zaher challenged the PA Pastors' Conference to "do the hard work of contextualization" in crafting worship and community. Contextualization is really understanding what is happening in your community and why, and setting the church up to speak to the local dynamic, she said. It's hard work, and the modern paradigm of church busyness doesn't leave much time for reflecting and asking good questions, she said. "But if we don't do it, will we have congregations to care for in 50 years?"

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
"Is emergent a veneer we try on, or is it something else? I would argue that it is deeper," she said. The shift to postmodern culture is huge, she said, much larger than any generation, so it impacts people in many generations. She also noted that her Episcopal tradition thought the emphasis on liturgy and candles was good news, "but that is not what it is about." She also argued that it goes beyond coolness; "most of us sitting here do ministry regularly in emerging culture, whether we recognize it or not." Indeed, the worship she led us in after the presentation was more experiential than high-tech, and she blew out several candles when someone complained about scents, yet it worked for a group that averaged out, um, over 35. My experience confirms that people over 35 are just as, if not more appreciative of the ability to experience what is being taught.

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:
  1. the context of the text -- our shared story
  2. the context of our times -- the emerging culture and world situation
  3. the context of our place -- local and particular
"I want the text to challenge me, to challenge my assumptions," she said. She gave an example based on 1 Corinthians 14, which is set in a larger context of the Roman empire, and Christians' struggle to let go of former gods. In the community Paul is writing to, there is in-fighting, class conflict, confusion about context, and battles about whose gifts really are better.

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?
Good questions, all, with a lot of challenge in there for us. Truly missional worship wouldn't grow out of the experiences of a pastor or worship team but from deep understanding of the dynamics of both the gathered community and the community it is embedded in. In fact I love the word "embedded." Like the journalists who are "embedded" with combat troops, an embedded church would cast its fate in with the community and actually depend on the community rather than expecting the community to depend on it, and would actually live into the incarnational reality God has modeled for us.

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.

Vital mainline congregations

This morning at the PA Pastor's Conference we heard from Diana Butler Bass, a sociologist heading up a Lilly Foundation research project on "congregations of intentional practice," who offered the study's findings on vital mainline congregations. She told of complaining to a friend about her frustration with some meetings in her denominational structure; "I'm sick of trying to turn around the Titanic," she said. As she tells it, the friend -- Brian McLaren -- said, "Better to turn around the Titanic than 15,000 people in lifeboats." The church that is emerging and "re-emerging" mainline churches are both responding to the same cultural trends, she said, "bit it's going to look a little different."

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.

Emergent 101

I've been OD'ing on continuing ed this week. Thru Wednesday I'm at the Pennsylvania State Pastor's Convention themed "We've Never Done it Like This Before: Lessons from the Emerging Church." Presenters include Karen Ward, Holly Rankin Zaher and Diana Butler Bass.

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.”


Preaching to postmoderns

Also at the SEPA Synod convocation, Dr. David Lose of Luther Seminary tackled preaching in a postmodern age. Here are some notes from those sessions.

“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.”


Reclaiming the "C" word

Here at the Bishop's Convocation in the Southeastern PA Synod, ELCA, we've been treated to some great presentations, including two from Kelly Fryer or Luther Seminary. Kelly is the author of "Reclaiming the L Word" about getting to the core of our Lutheran heritage. Here she spoke about "Reclaiming the "C" Word: Daring to Be Church Again."

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. "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.
  4. "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.
  5. 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.
The church of Acts was out in the world, and when the met it was to prepare them to go "out there." Kelly noted that "The question isn't are we going to be the church in the world? The question is what kind of church are we going to be?

To "get out there" she offered five strategic behaviors of the church in Acts:
  1. Pray always. Help people listen to God's voice in scripture rather than telling them what the bible says.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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."
  5. Be hopeful. "Our God brings light out of darkness and life out of death. If we fail, what is the worst that would happen."
Lutherans have a reputation in some places for being nay-sayers. She challenged us to become congregations of why-not sayers. Why can't we start this new ministry? Why can't we welcome the stranger?



I've ripped off this great photo by Adam from last night's "alternative eucharist" at Princeton Theological Seminary. (He's got more.) Jonny Baker of Grace, London and Karen Ward of COTA were the leaders.

Treats for the ears

A number of interesting events have shown up as audio files available on the web for your listening pleasure.

Several from the Generous Orthodoxy Conference in Bethesda Oct. 7-8 are available here. There are a couple of pieces of interest:

Brian McLaren on "Generous Orthodoxy." Brian explores how the conservative, evangelical civil religion in the US grew out of the mainline protestant civil religion of much of the 20th century, and how a generous orthodoxy goes beyond civil religion's blessing of state and economy and engages a missional faith. Highly recommended.

The Gay Forum: This is the conversation the ELCA could have had, but didn't. I admit to having some trepidation having a discussion of homosexuality in a room full of evangelicals, but this forum was more civil and, well, generous than many discussions on the floor of our synod assembly. "We're going to try to enter someone else's world without judgement and to try to feel what others have felt," McLaren said in his introduction -- and his point system for deciding who can speak on the subject of homosexuality is very funny. Four people shared their stories: two lesbians, one an Episcopal priest; a gay man; and a Baptist youth leader who helped his group befriend a gay college student who was receiving death threats for scheduling a controversial play for his graduation project. At the end, Brian paused before closing in prayer and said, "I'm guessing that there are a number of us who would just like to say I'm sorry." More than a hundred attendees went up to embrace, thank, and apologize to the speakers. It was a powerful evening.

Personal God or Private God with Jim Wallis: The Sojourners editor and provocateur offers his take on the growing sense -- on the left and the right -- that faith is being co-opted by politics and that there needs to be a better way.

And more listening pleasures...

Adam Cleaveland, a Princeton Seminary Student, posted audio of Brian McLaren's lecture at PTS Wednesday on the emerging church and theological education.

October's Philly Cohort session covered "The Ruins of the Church," seismic shifts and the unity of the church, among other stuff. The audio is online, thanks to Wes. Link to mp3


Another take on worship wars

Chris and one of his readers have an intriguing dialogue about the welcoming effects of "contemporary worship" vs. "the rich deposit of the past" going on his blog. Without getting into this battle, which has been waged for far too long, I think there are more helpful ways to look at the question.

First, is the style of worship authentic to the community? (And by that I mean not just the gathered congregation, but the community God has placed it in.) In coming among us humans, Christ took on our form, our limitations, a specific culture and langauge, and a trade far beneath him in order to communicate God's message to those God sent him to. In Christendom the church saw itself drawing people out of their culture into "church culture." But our experience is that that isn't what is happening today; Reggie McNeal, in "Present Future," writes that church culture is pretty much tapped out in our world. But if we think like a missionary God, and try to embed incarnationally into a community, we will want to use the language and idioms of the people in that community.

Does this mean that a church needs as many services as there are radio formats on the dial? No, because that assumes that music is the only way of connecting -- and, truth be told, many newcomers would perceive most services...contemporary or traditional...as a talk station, anyway. But it does mean that in a world where many people are not ignorant of Christianity's message but skeptical of it or even hostile to it, our way of singing, our way of speaking, who gets to speak, etc. -- the ethos of our gatherings -- can either reinforce their disconnect with the church or earn us the right to say more because we honor where they are. If the Creator found it necessary to do this, who are we to think it is not necessary for us?

In a lecture delivered at Valparaiso University this spring, Gordon Lathrop (a preeminent Lutheran figure in the liturgical movement) explored what it would look like if we viewed Christianity as a "meal-fellowship."
Let it be the gospel that is set out as food, in the food, and in the relief to the poor.
He goes on to say that we all -- priests, pew-sitters and passersby -- are "beggars," the poor for whom the feast of the gospel is spread, by God. And that serving at that table is our faith's "unique idea of leadership."

If we invite our neighborhood in for a meal, do we serve our favorite dish? Or theirs? What music would we put on? How would we relate to them? For people to receive the costly and challenging feast of the gospel that we want to give them, they must be comfortable, welcome and safe first. Jesus knew this, which is why he invested his presence with people. Come to think of it, maybe the worship question misses the point entirely ... if we want to be "welcoming," how do we be with the community in a way that makes the gospel lifestyle a possible answer to their questions about purpose and direction?

That leads into the second way of getting at the question, which is does worship do what it is supposed to do? The prophets are pretty clear (Amos 5, Micah 6, Isaiah 1) that in God's view, neither historic texts and otherworldly music nor free prayer and electronica are enough in themselves. "Does God want a flawless high-church service or high-entertainment value show?" one can hear Micah asking. "No, he wants you to live the gospel and seek justice for my people." When the community is not living into this calling, it's clear that no worship is acceptable:
Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. (Isaiah 1:13)
Worship brings people together in humility to be fed the gospel, Lathrop says, and it also sends them out to spread the feast for all whom they encounter. If partaking of God's feast changes people so that they live in the way of Jesus, then the worship of those people will likely resonate with not-yet-Christians as authentic, whether it's high-church, a dance party or mostly silent. But if it is a Sunday entertainment -- whether a classical museum piece, slick pop or a grunge concert -- that asks nothing and confirms the safe spot people are in, then it will have nothing to say to those who are outside and hurting.

So while we spend a lot of words and energy on "style" and "shape," "substance" is more important. Chris' correspondent, Dwight, is right when he says "The serious questions reside in the details -- e.g., what word do they hear and speak?" But it's tragic when we decide we have the "right" word and deliver it in a way that requires years of inculturation and, in the case of emerging generations, a shift in the way they understand, in order to "get it." Can we use the prayers of the early Fathers and Mothers? Enlarge the symbols of our tradition? Use chant, rap and electronica? Silence and prayer postures? Yes, as long as they are accessible and we keep expanding the circle as people bring new gifts and experiences to the community. But if we're assuming what works for us works for others, and that LBW setting 2 is all w need...think again.

There are certainly questions for discussion about how to engage people where they are, but that we do it should be without question. Dwight questions the assumption that there can be "easy transitions" to new technologies and styles. That's always been the case: Organs were once seen as evil innovations, as was using saloon tunes and speaking and reading scripture in one's own native language. We have also survived the introduction of sound systems that gave priviledged voices the prominent place in the assembly (exactly the charge that is often leveled against screens in worship.) It has also been true that the message of the gospel has been able to incorporate and use these and many other changes because it is a living, breathing message aimed at real live people.

We don't have to protect the gospel from screens and bands, or from organs and archaic language, from free-wheeling discussion or even from talking head sermons. Following God's model is to pour it, and ourselves, out, every drop, for the blessing of the world.