Missing the boat?

Searching the Inquirer's website for "Lutheran" I came across an interesting AP story about the ELCA's efforts to diversify. Our church, which celebrates the 20th anniversary of its formation this year, set an initial goal of having 10% of its membership be persons of color or language other than English by its 10th anniversary...and fell about 8 percent short. In 2005 just 1 percent of the ELCA's 4.85 million members were African Americans, a "dismal" percentage, the article says, "considering that blacks constitute more than 12 percent of the population." The piece notes that the denomination has strategies in place to reach out to five groups: African, Asian, Latino, American Indian and Mideast/Arab.

Diversity is a gift of God, and the church ought to reflect the community it serves. But the experience of Rev. Lucille Mills and Rejoice Lutheran Church in Chesapeake, Va., highlighted in the AP piece, indicates that there is more at work than demographics.
Mills says most blacks tell her they are puzzled by the Lutheran tradition, and often mistake it for Roman Catholicism. Others imagine stuffy services where freewheeling praise is discouraged.

Often, she said, "they think it's inauthentic. They think it's for white people."

With "ethnic staples like hand clapping and rhythmic preaching" the church has seen black visitors, but:

"They came. They said they enjoyed it," she said. "But none of them stayed."

For minorities, the church's heritage - reflected in everything from Sunday services to church dinners - can seem alien.

"We would serve the German sausages," Gunsten said. "Food, like faith understanding, like liturgical practice ... it can be perceived as a barrier."

This underscores that fact that inclusion is far more difficult than being hospitable. Hospitality takes some steps to welcome a new person into community; inclusion requires making the church the new person's church and allowing their history, experiences and dreams to shape the church. However, the article points out that in practice that is very difficult, since if the fit isn't right many people won't stay around to try and change it. (Visit a church where the style of preaching, music and theological tenor are foreign to you, or just hidden behind unfamiliar jargon, and see if you return.) And since many churches have tried so hard to hold on to heritage rather than to change with the community, the gaps in some cases are almost too large to bridge.

There's another issue not tapped by the article. It states that from 2004 to 2005 the ELCA lost 79,000 members -- 80% of the baptized membership of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, in just one year. That loss is not because people of other ethnicities are not coming to the church. It is because the traditional white, northern European base is dying off without replacing itself. I've read that nearly 90% of the youth who grow up in the ELCA through high school have left the church by their early 20s. And this is another fundamental disconnect.

While we have not paid attention to racial and ethnic diversity, we have also ignored the changes in the culture at large. The average age of the population in the Philadelphia area is 37 -- the average age of Lutherans here is at least 20 years older. Many of the majority of 20-somethings (who were not raised in the church) who would happen upon a "Lutheran" service would likely be as puzzled as the visitors Mills describes. I've talked to a number of 20-50 year old Lutherans who have visited evangelical churches recently, and they report that the worship is more engaging and there are lots of the young people missing in their churches. While some have commented that they like the intimacy of their church and don't like the scale of megachurches, none have said anything about the theology they experienced.

We are in the midst of a cultural shift with profound ramifications, which many thinkers call "post-modern" because it comes after the recognized "modern" era. Frost and Hirsch note that some of its features are a preference for rawness over refinement, action over theory, a concern for human wholeness over ideology. ("The Shaping of Things to Come," 134) And yet the ELCA's research person, paid to keep an eye on culture for the church, says in a March brienfing for church leaders: "I will spare you my views on post-modernity, other than to say I dismiss it as little more than a hyper form of modernity." (See the pdf posted here.) The paper goes on to contrast with modern evangelicalism, but the postmodern, emerging activity across the evangelical world (and occasionally in the mainline) isn't on the radar screen.

There are some moves, for example the ones noted in this article (ht: Chris), to adapt to cultural practices. The article contains some hand-wringing about the loss of tradition, and has insight from retired clergy, that congregations either hold too tightly to their Lutheran heritage and become irrelevant to many, or break out of that mold and throw away their Lutheran core. Rather than an either-or, there is a more balanced way to look at this: If the liturgy, doctrine and ethos we define as "Lutheran" doesn't do its job, which is to point people into relationship with Christ, then maybe we need to find ways to earn their attention, demonstrate for them God's love and grace, and once we are in relationship with them form them to live as grace-filled followers of Jesus, forming and re-forming ourselves in the process. That seems close to the spirit of Luther, even though he did things differently in his historical context than we will do in ours.

It seems we're facing a challenge similar to the one posed to the apostles in the controversy over circumcision in Acts 15. Can we find a way for people to join us while still being true to themselves as they were created, or must they become like "us" to join the faith and "our" church? More importantly, how can we follow God's incarnational impulse to become like "them" to welcome and include -- for our sake as well as theirs?


You're hired!

The Feast of the Ascension
When they were together for the last time they asked, "Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?"

He told them, "You don't get to know the time. Timing is the Father's business. What you'll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world."

These were his last words. As they watched, he was taken up and disappeared in a cloud. They stood there, staring into the empty sky. Suddenly two men appeared—in white robes! They said, "You Galileans!—why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly—and mysteriously—as he left." -- Acts 1:6-11, The Message

The Ascension is an often-overlooked festival. Because it always falls on a Thursday, it doesn't make it onto many church worship cycles. And it is a puzzling story:

  • Jesus' followers, to the end, are clueless -- now that you've been brought back to life, are you going to establish Israel's glory and make yourself king?
  • Instead, Jesus rebukes them (that's not for you to know) and charges them with a task that is as confusing as it is overwhelming. Go to the ends of the earth? Why, we Jews can't visit Samaritans without becoming unclean, much less other heathen people!
  • Then, instead of explaining, he simply disappears, shrouded in mystery. No wonder the disciples just stand there, jaws dropped, staring at the sky! But two angels appear and chide the followers about not getting it, again.

Indeed, why would Jesus, having conquered death and proved who he is, not establish his kingdom there and then? What's the point of leaving the disciples -- again?

This action takes place at the critical juncture between the two parts of Luke's witness, his gospel and the book of Acts. It's a transition between Luke, which delves deeply into Jesus' invitation to living a changed life in God's kingdom, and Acts, which shows the Holy Spirit guiding the fledgling Church out of its comfort zones (again and again) and empowering its people to do the improbable and sometimes impossible to bring God's kingdom about. (Theologian Justo Gonzalez goes so far as to say that we've got it wrong calling it The Acts of the Apostles; it should be The Acts of the Spirit, he says.)

Jesus' ascension isn't an end. It marks a new phase in God's plan, through which his people, the Church, with the Spirit's guiding and empowering, continue Jesus' work to bring about God's kingdom, which itself is a chapter of God's still-unfolding work of creation.

In other words, in this text Jesus is saying to his followers, then and now: God has established a kingdom that is very different -- and so much better -- than the social, economic and political orders of this world. I've poured out my life showing you how to live in God's kingdom; I've taught you, mentored you, coached you. I've set you free. Now, apprentices, its time for you to go out on your own! You're hired! You can continue my work, modeling the kingdom of God for all who will listen -- and you must. But you can only do it following me, through the Spirit.

You and I have are as frail and unseeing as this original band of followers. We are in many ways handicapped, not having known Jesus in the flesh and hearing his story encrusted with centuries of tradition and interpretation, not all of which is helpful to us today. Yet Jesus calls us to take up his work, to tell the world that the kingdom of God is at hand, and to live that kingdom. He calls us to be apprentices and to help others to learn from him. Are we willing to join him?

In what ways is God's Spirit stirring in you to help you live in the kingdom and share it with others? In what ways would you like the Spirit's power, direction and support to join Jesus' work? Ask Jesus for the help that you need.


Where are the artists?

"After the Storm 1," Copyright 2007 Robert Fisher.

Over at the Emerging Leaders Network, Brian Spahr is asking about the role that arts and artists play in church. He riffs on a catalog he received featuring "All the art you will ever need" -- a collection of lame "Christian" clip-art. He laments:
I mean, I have read about it in art history class and have seen some of the great art that was produced back in the day, but I have never been a part of a church community where “art” was really valued. Everywhere I have ever been it feels like the accepted norm was that “All the Art You Will Ever Need” has already been created.
I've been thinking a lot about this lately, and here's what I wrote as a comment to his post:

I hear you, Brian. As I've visited churches I've noticed that what pass for screens are almost uniformly awful -- too much bargain clip-art (especially the ones that spin and flash), no sense of design, WAAAAAAAAAAAAY too much text, images just plunked down. I've run across a few that seem to get the power of clean, simple design, mostly in emerging circles. (I asked a seminary colleague what course drummed the aesthetic sense out of future pastors, and he assured me it was an artifact of their undergrad work. :) )

Isn't this "already invented" mindset broader than art and technology? Wouldn't you say that the way we bank on "a new hymnal" (little of which is really new, and with which one can happily go on doing exactly what one has been doing) to comprise liturgical creativity sends the message that all you'll ever need for worship is already created and packaged? Don't we sometimes transmit the feeling that all the revelation and all the theology you need are already done?

Now that you've got me thinking about this, I have to say that I have met far fewer artists than, say, accountants in the church. Writers of the intellecutal processing variety (like me), plenty. Poets and novelists, not really. Musicians, sure. But we encourage the ones who play piano or organ and like choral singing... what about the teen learning to drum or the midlife guy picking up the guitar again? Songwriters? See poets. Some painters, though most seem to have a troubled relationship to the church. I've known some fiber artists, but there wasn't a place for them out of the quilting circle...

At our late congregation, we tried mightily to inspire people's God-given creative gifts. We made space for people to write prayers, mash up images for screens, make videos or slideshows to work with a theme we were covering. Artists and crafters made stations from time to time. We opened up the space up front for a team to design "environments" for the church seasons, from an evergreen and a stump lost amid a forest of white, electric-lit tress for Advent/Christmas, to planting seeds that grew into tomato plants during the "green" summer. Anybody who could pay or sing could be part of the band. And many people responded.

We have to start taking art seriously. As technology allows people to easily take and share photos, mash up images in Photoshop, make iMovies and slideshows, create and arrange in Garageband, etc., the "already invented" idea won't cut it... it already doesn't for many people. As these tools allow young people to feel affirmed in their natural desire to literally write and paint and film and snap their hearts out through virtual self-publishing, they will demand that from the church... or just go their own way. But what an opportunity we will lose if we don't allow them to express their faith through their art.

Now, it's your turn. What do you think? How can we re-energize the ancient and historic connection between the church and Christians and the arts? How can we better involve artists in worship and church work and play?

Shedding expectations

David Fitch, a pastor, church planter and professor, has posted a great Top 10 list of expectations one must shed (in his opinion) in a "21st Century Missional Church Plant." It's not as funny as one of Letterman's, but it includes some great wisdom from a veteran church planter that any "church person" looking at getting involved in such a community ought to think about.

Fitch's list isn't all that surprising, but it does show how deeply the assumptions we have about church run. As a long-time churched person starting to explore a less traditional faith community, I see a lot of myself on both sides of Fitch's list. Maybe you will, too...
1.) Should not expect to regularly come to church for just one hour, get what you need for your own personal growth and development, and your kid's needs, and then leave til next Sunday. Expect mission to change your life. Expect however a richer life than you could have ever imagined.
To be fair, one shouldn't expect this in any church community. But the consumer focus of our culture often spills over into the religious realm. In every congregation I've been in there were people who suffered from empty mug syndrome, just waiting for the pastor/leadership or a program to "fill them" so they could go back to their lives. Fitch's key point -- "Expect mission to change your life" -- echoes Dallas Willard's critique of the church and spiritual formation. Too many people want to fit the Gospel into their lives, rather than have their lives changed by the Gospel. And in some cases, unfortunately, the church accomodates rather than challenges.
5.) Should not expect a raucous "light out" youth program that entertains the teenagers, puts on a show that gets the kids "pumped up," all without parental involvement. Instead as the years go by, with our children as part of our life, worship and mission (and when the light shows dim and the cool youth pastor with the spiked hair burns out) expect our youth to have an authentic relationship with God thru Christ that carries them through a lifetime of journey with God.
He's onto something here. In many cases we've outsourced our kids' spiritual formation to the church instead of taking responsibility for them. I regret buying into that when my kids were young, expecting Sunday School to teach what the church should have been helping me to teach. St. James was a rarity among Lutheran churches in having Sunday School during worship. I think it was a weakness in our program -- and I really supported the parents who wanted their children to be in worship instead of in class. I believe that seeing their parents and other adults practicing their faith and taking worship seriously is an important lesson for children with lasting implications for their spiritual development. But it's a real challenge to shape worship experiences that can include children, at least some of the time, and also equip parents to help in their kids' formation.
10.) Should not expect arguments over style of music, color of carpet, or even doctrinal issues... Expect mission to drive the conversation.
I about fell off my chair laughing when I read this one. One worship committee I was apart on had lengthy discussions -- anually! -- about the color of the foil wrappers to be ordered for the Easter lillies and pointsettias at Christmas. I never got to make decisions about carpeting a sanctuary, but I have been around more worship wars and doctrinal debates that I care to. At our recent synod assembly there was little mention of the poverty and violence that plagues our region, but people lined up at the microphones to debate resolutions dealing with ordaining people in same sex relationships. Too many people look in at debates such as these in our denominations and judicatories, and at the insider/outsider divides and "we've never done it that way" arguments in our congregations, and just shake their heads and walk away, when the mission of God might just engage and inspire them!

Fitch doesn't number his last point, which neatly summarizes the shift in expectations he is talking about:
Should not expect that community comes to you! I am sorry but true community in Christ will take some "effort"and a reshuffling of priorities for both you and your kids. ... (A)ssuming you are a follower of Christ (this message is not for strangers to the gospel) you must learn that the answer to all those things is to enter into the practices of "being the Body" in Christ, including sitting, eating, sharing and praying together.
Amen. Reshuffling our priorities is an important spiritual discipline for our time, one our churches need to learn so that they can instill deeper practices into God's people. And that's not a matter of parlimentary procedure, or a full schedule of programs, but living together in relationship and sharing meals, worship, service and prayer.

An African story of grace

Tim Frakes has completed a new documentary for the ELCA on the twenty years' war in Northern Uganda, called "Ready to Forgive: An African Story of Grace." It's a powerful story.

Tim writes:

This is an African story of God’s amazing grace. Northern Uganda has been at war for twenty years. Those most affected, a tribal people known as the Acholi, or Luo people, endure rape, torture, and child abduction. Thousands have died. Others are missing. Two million people are displaced.

Most live in squalid camps for internally displaced persons, protected by government soldiers they often fear more than the rebels. Despite all this, the Acholi are united in the belief that the only real solution to the problem is reconciliation and forgiveness. The Acholi are ready to forgive.


Formerly known as...

There's a flurry of activity going around the missional/emerging blogsphere, incited by an interesting post by Bill Kinnon called "The People Formerly Known as the Congregation." A number of people have jumped on the bandwagon, including Emerging Grace, whose "The Underlying Issues" takes a less polemical approach. Jamie Arpin-Ricci links this impulse with the stumbling attempts in the so-called missional church movement.

Bill's and Grace's posts react to the disillusionment, pain and hurt that some people have experienced at the hands of the personality/program/empire church. Bill acknowledges that his screed is intentionally strong in order to raise questions and stimulate dialogue, and it certainly has.

Underlying both is what I think is a growing sense among some people in the church that the institution has moved perhaps a little too far from God's mission to other agendas, and that spiritual life exists outside of and in some cases in spite of the Church.

The pain the Bill and Grace (and others in the conversation) write about is real. I know a number of people who have been used and abused by churches and leaders. Some find other spiritual communities, others hang around the periphery afraid to commit again, yet others simply stay home. I've experienced some measure of that pain and try hard to move past it, but it's there sometimes. But what is going on is more than a reaction by the wounded and disgruntled.

I also know people who are simply losing interest. Some have stopped doing jobs in the church -- teaching, singing, cleaning, etc. -- and finding nothing else. Others are moving into the empty nest and aren't finding rituals, spirituality and grounding for their phase of life. Others are disappointed that church is more about busyness than any sense of living the kingdom of God. Still others are young people who find the church they grew up in doesn't speak to them anymore.

Add in the people for whom the Church has no credibility because of prosperity gospels, clergy abuse, political agendas and the like, and the across the board declines in church participation make sense.

Bill complains about the churches that treat people only as numbers, not as people. This resonates with some of what the media reports about churches focused on numbers and rapid growth. But people get ignored as well in small congregations, where its hard to be known or have your voice heard if you're not part of the founding family. And in congregations of all sizes where the church jobs you do are more important than who you are. In my tribe I have seen churches where new members are assimilated into a prevailing set of values -- not just the Gospel but norms about dress, behavior, worship styles, etc. -- instead of having their dreams and gifts valued. Once upon a time, people would bide their time and wait (maybe generations) to help shape an institution, but today many will just get angry and move on, as Bill suggests.

He also grumbles about the "supposed leadership" in churches. Anti-clerical to be sure, but not an uncommon reaction these days. Leadership has been changing in our culture for decades, and while "leaders" still head most organizations, many are flatter, more participatory, and open to adaptation than they used to be. Over the same time, the role of pastor has changed less, and our hierarchies are less able to adapt to the changes in "the people being led."

There's a small but growing number of people who are looking for something different from the church than it has been used to providing.

Despite what seems to be an increasing desire for black-and-white answers in our culture, this emerging group wants guidance, not dictates. This does not mean anything goes, but it does mean that, in the postmodern world, many insights on a question yields a richer answer (not confusion, as many traditional answers would suggest). Business has known this for a long time...

TPFKATC are looking for spiritual guides, not expert professionals to be Christians for them. Pastors who help them ask and process questions, not just provide answers and judgments. Guides who are walking on the journey with them, not "religious" who are better than them. This is NOT to diminish the value of clergy and religious orders that are set apart to pray for and serve the world. But the current system often sets up a dualism that causes "lay" people to think they can't possibly have answers that have value set next to the educated experts, and that diminished the whole Church.

In a world of increasing poverty and divide between the rich and the poor, TPFKATC are beginning to wonder why we can't feed the poor instead of bureaucrats, and clothe the naked instead of adorn edifices. It is not that most think that buildings and bureaucracies should be eliminated, but the current system often requires congregations and individuals to spend most of the time, talent and treasure on themselves.

This emerging group is also asking why all this time, energy and money doesn't result in more spiritual maturity and evidence of the kingdom. Too often congregational conflict reveals people born, raised up and active in the church who are only concerned about being born, raised up and active in the church. (I was once told in a former congregation that I was less important because my grandparents hadn't gone to the congregation.) And too often when people ask to grow they get jobs to teach and lead instead of time and effort to disciple them. As the Christendom system declines, it is taking more and more resources to sustain itself.

Grace notes two other very important aspects of what is going on. TPFKATC are tired of being passive, dropping in to get their cards punched while they pay professionals to be Christians for them. They're tired of using only the gifts hierarchies identify and permit, rather than the ones God gave them. They're tired of having lots of tasks but wanting more meaningful roles. An example: Lutheran liturgy has a lot of opportunities for congregational response. But a worship leader pointed out once that most of the responses consist of "Amen" and an occasional "Lord have mercy!" and an occasional offertory prayer. "Why do the people up front get all the good words?" he asked.

She also notes that TPFKATC see the that involvements in church programs and activities are not the only measures of spirituality, and in fact can get in the way of being in relationship with people yet to come to faith. Christian community is a great thing, and many of TPFKATC desire it, but the current system often makes it insular and apart rather than incarnationally involved in the greater community.

If one is satisifed in the church as it is, it could be easy to dismiss TPFKATC as a small number of disgruntled, dissatisfied people. That's a typical modern response... they must be wrong, becuase otherwise I'd be wrong. Instead, imagine the possibilities if out of this pain and disillusionment we could find ways for the Church to be more inclusive, more engaged, more missional.

TPFKATC are not trying to tear the Church down. They are calling the Church to be what it was created to be -- a community giving flesh to the kingdom of God, a community making disciples not members, a community committed to mission and not maintenance.

Jamie has it right when he turns the focus on The People Formerly Known As... to "The Community Coming to be Known as Missional." Listen:
We are the Community Coming To Be Known As Missional, but we are not there yet. We acknowledge our weakness and foolishness, as it is the weakness and foolishness of God. We are flawed, broken, proud and afraid. While we are committed to becoming this community without apology, we acknowledge that our becoming is dependant on the whole Body of Christ. While we believe we have something to offer the whole Church- something critical and prophetic- we also acknowledge that we need them equally as much. Above all, we need God- Father, Son and Spirit- to complete in us what we are created to be.