Our Church Stinks

So we’ve been consigned to the basement. It’s not as bad as it sounds. The Crossing meets in the basement of Redeemer Presbyterian (a church we were familiar with since it hosts many First Friday events as it shares space with the Harrison Center for the Arts) on Sunday nights. Each week, round tables, lit with candles, are set up around the periphery of rows of chairs. Nothing glamorous, no power points, barely a sound system, it’s small enough that it’s difficult to hide from one another. The pastor has a conversational style with plenty of interaction between him and the congregation.

I love the reaction folks have when we tell them that we’re going to The Crossing. It’s typically something along the lines of “oh, you’d fit in well there.” I can’t tell if it’s because I’m an artist or if it’s because it’s become known as the church for people with issues.

There’s almost an anti-growth program with its “we’re a screwed up place, you sure you want to be here?” vibe. I remember the Sunday evening gathering which sold me on the place. The couple next to us was high and/or drunk. If we couldn’t tell from the smell the alcohol was wafting off them, their attempt to keep beat to the music would have clued us in. Then during the meal afterward, me and a homeless gentlemen was discussing my unemployment:

“What do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“You can do that anytime.” At which point, he pulled out his cell phone and gave me numbers to call for job leads.

Oh yeah, did I mention that about a third of the congregation is homeless? For those not used to it, there’s a smell to homelessness. Unwashed bodies, unwashed clothes. One of those things that sounds good in theory. I know that Sally is being stretched as she told me early on that “I’ve always believed church should be a place where people should come as they are: high, drunk, homeless, dirty. I’m just not sure I’m ready to at that church. Or sitting next to them.”

Which is completely honest, though most folks wouldn’t admit to such sentiments. Let’s face it, we talk a pretty good game about social justice, reaching out to the poor, and dealing with homelessness, but we tend to think of that as one of those “over there” ministries. Something that’s done away from the comfort of our suburban castles. It’s also made me realize how much we’ve come to value smooth running services. There is an element of show or production to our church services that we’ve come to expect. A trains running on time veneer of professionalism done in the name of running on/respecting people’s time. And there’s nothing wrong with that, unless we’ve made an idol of that; our need for control superseding the role of the Holy Spirit in a service or the needs of the group. The meal time afterwards is always an adventure.

We tend to want to be with people who are like us, either by race or by class. People who are different will interrupt. People who are quirky aren’t as concerned about appearances. And people aren’t easy to know, assuming they let you get to know them. It’s difficult to embrace the awkwardness of relationships and encounters with people not like us, to allow them to stretch us out of our comfort zones.

We want to go in and fix, that’s our modern American way. But what does it mean to truly love others. What does it mean to be in relationship with them? We don’t give others a chance to let people in or let them in to love us. It’s risky to let people in on our struggles, our shame. We risked being misunderstood, rejected, or not liked. So it’s easier to cling to our addictions and self-protection. The work of building community is hard. It’s one thing to talk about it, another to live it out. To not only walk beside people, but be willing to go after them. To be willing to walk into another person’s pain, their hard reality, even entering into their suffering. That’s how community is forged.

Yes our church stinks. Stripped of the façade, it smells of brokenness and sweat. It’s the smell of community.

Just when we thought we were out …

aka, Looks like we found a church home(s)

The thought about diving into church at all, much less church shopping, hasn’t been something we looked forward to. There is a high amount of church burnout among me and my friends. A reluctance to invest again, be it being burned by previous experiences or just being disappointed. And this is with the full realization that there is no perfect church out there. I was reading on Scot McKnight’s blog about what he’d look for in a church home to see how well his list lined up with me and my wife’s lists. He said he’d consider at least the following items:

1. The significance of fellowship and community to the people already there.
2. Respect for the Great Tradition in the church, made manifest in how much attention to such elements in the church services.
3. Eucharist — how often? I prefer this weekly.
4. Worship.
5. Teaching ministries: what’s important to the teaching?
6. Missional presence.
7. Sermons.
8. Public reading of Scripture.
9. Growing church — via evangelism and catechesis.
10. How many 20somethings and 30somethings are present?

I’d add an interesting addition to all of our lists: how are you greeted. We’ve had the oddest experience and it’s one that’s been repeated by our other friends as they’ve been church shopping. A lot of the communities we’ve visited haven’t been especially warm in greeting us even though in most situations (showing up as an interracial couple in our racially polarized church world), it was fairly obvious we were new. In fact, of the churches we’d visited, only three welcomed us. Which did help them make the short list.

I once wrote about my church life as dating. These days it feels like getting back into the dating scene after a divorce, so we haven’t been real excited about it. Friends have been inviting us to their churches (to extend the dating metaphor, it’s been sort of like double dating) and there have been some churches that I’d always wanted to visit (essentially blind dates). We actually still owe a few places a visit (Saturday evenings are tough to swing. Unless your social calendar revolves around your church group, it’s hard to carve out that time), but our children recently informed us that we had found our church.

Sally and I had our list narrowing down to two churches. On Sunday mornings at Common Ground, we can go and be invisible (Relatively anonymous. Turns out, Sally is well known by a lot of folks she knew from “back in the day”. I get to be “Sally’s husband” there), a place to just rest and continue healing. We have friends who go there, Sally and the pastor went to youth group together (ironically, it was the youth group she went to after she left the youth group where she and I met). Though I still struggled with finding a place to serve. We were walking with some friends through the building where the church we had checked out on Sunday evenings (The Crossing) meets, when the boys announced this was their church. On the list of churches we thought they might like, this was the least intuitive fit, after all, there was no kids program or kids their age and, not to put too fine a point on it, one third of the congregation is made up of homeless people. We asked them about why they liked it. Turned out they liked playing with the son of the co-pastor, the adults treat them like people, and they get to serve. They helped put the music equipment away and cleaned tables after the community meal. We don’t want to in anyway squelch their wanting to be helpful or serving others. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the place immediately. Instead of a “you won’t find anything better”/“we’re the best thing God’s got going” vibe which we often encountered (folks get really proud of their teachers), there is more of a “we’re a screwed up place. You sure you want to be here?” vibe.

This journey has been amazing and enlightening. Community is a tricky thing. You build community to have during times of stress. You can’t build community during times of upheaval (because there are times when you just can’t think straight and feel like you’re losing your mind), but community can be forged during them. You find out who can weather storms with you.

Friends that can know you at your worst and love you to new life are priceless treasures, a taste of God’s love. We appreciate those friends who supported Sally during all of this and continue to pray for her and be a part of her life. And while we miss the friendships that were lost, we are also grateful for the new friendships made.

I’ve been blessed to walk with a band of brothers, true men of God, who held me and my faith together when I wanted to chuck it all. I’d especially like to thank Jim Falk, Larry Mitchell, and Brad Grammer who continue to push and challenge me, remind me that the church is more than one particular expression/community, and that God’s not through with me yet.

Church Planting and Mission Drift

I’ve had a front row seat watching a flurry of church plants plan, launch, and close. It may be my inner Pollyanna speaking,* a question that always struck me as curious that if several teams are going into the same area, and if we’re all about unity, why couldn’t they join in or join together?

I know, I know, the answer is manifold and cooperative church planting in the name of kingdom building is an ideal. There are fiscal realities (where they are getting their money from), those who are pastor as vocation (that’s their main income), and different visions/specific expression of the church they want to try. The cynic in me has to give a head nod to ego: THEY want to do it. Human nature wants to carve out their own empire and rare is the pastor that admits that they want to be a huge church or speak to large crowds or be on television or radio.

So we get more and more lone wolf communities.

And I get that. Planters have a particular vision, set of values, and a way of “doing/being church” which the vision person wants to try and his launch people/planters buy into. Churches start off with grand visions of who they want to be and what they want to do, called to a particular area for a reason. I think one of the big bugaboos of church planting is mission drift.

A friend once warned me that there was a “danger” when it came to getting a building to house your gathering. The danger was that once a community got a building it could become about the building. Having/owning/renting a building means utilities, rent, insurance, salaries, and repairs. It’s bad enough when administrators view their congregants as “giving units” or otherwise reduce their people to their utilitarian functions. And love is rarely cost effective.**

In a world more worried about production and attendance (“giving units”) and sermons and bottom lines, there’s little room for the eclectic, the square pegs for the round holes reserved for pew potatoes anxious to hear the latest bit of ear tickling, as we’re written off as trouble makers or drama bringers. Suddenly, pastors who didn’t care about numbers start to really care about numbers. The “great commission” becomes “a pretty good suggestion.” Crisis management becomes about how to not lose people. Grand notions of growing a church through winning new folks become reduced to sheep stealing. Because they have bills to pay, they play not to lose. Their communities retreat, become little more than social clubs who play at church.

I’m sure I’m way oversimplifying complex dynamics. And you know what? It’s not bad for a community to step back and reassess itself. After all, the mission was set out by Christ to go forth and make disciples. How each church body does it is up to them. There’s mission drift and there’s a change in focus or a re-prioritization. Not all change is bad and sometimes communities need to accept that’s what they are now and strike a new vision. Of course, I always like the idea of church plants joining together and both communities being blessed. Which is easier said than done.
*and as you know, when you think “Maurice Broaddus” you think “Pollyanna”

**Although, I’d be the first to admit that I tend to come at things as an “artist”, as in, I will blow up a budget. Which is why churches should have administrators who buy into their mission and DO care about numbers.

The Artist and the Church

So what are the sermons of the artists? As I’ve been reading great novels, I see the writers, at least, as field reporters sent to cover the human condition. The look, they observe and they have the talent to craft out words to save and share those observations. This is very important. This is why most of the Bible is made up of storytelling and poetry. It has great value and it does not have to come from the hand of a Christian to have value. As I’ve said before, we were humans first . . . then Christians. –The Christian Monist

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be an artist, an artist who’s a Christian (as opposed to a “Christian artist”). Recently I had the privilege of having a great conversation with some missional students about art and being an artist. Also, I have a friend who I have been having an on-going conversation about her life as a writer because she feels she has to hide what she does (as a horror writer) from her church community.

So what is the responsibility of artists, those communicators of ideas who transmit them to the (pop) culture at large? What does it mean to realize your gift and push into the kingdom with it? How do we express our theology in our writing or other works of art? On the flip side, how should the church shepherd its artists? Are there issues of particular struggle for artists (for example, balancing the need to do marketing and promotion against striving FOR humility and AGAINST idolatry)? For all the talk of culture wars, when all is said and done, most pundits miss one simple, though obvious, point: To impact the culture, impact the artists.

What does it mean to be an artist? It’s an artist’s job to ask questions. It’s an artist’s job to push lines. There a difference between being a writer vs. liking to write, being a dancer vs. liking to dance, or being a photographer vs. liking to take pictures. It’s not a matter of “artist vs. hack” or “professional vs. hobbyist”. I know that I have to write. I have to put pen to page to still “the voices” and the overwhelming urge to express what’s in me. It defines me. What makes us artists, what gives us our unique voice, is how we come at life and the world. It’s what makes many be seen or treated as “weirdos”. We can often be prickly, moody, and have isolationist tendencies, after all, we create in caves and tend to be introverts (just like there are lies artists often buy into about themselves, like how they “need” to be misunderstood or what they produce won’t be art).

Artists give up their lives. We cut open our emotional veins and bleed all over the page for our readers entertainment. There is a certain amount of fearlessness and abandonment as we put ourselves out there, exposing ourselves.* Revealing or at least speaking from our woundedness. We trust ourselves to the process, going where the journey takes us, no matter how scary. And sometimes it hurts. It reminds me of this recent conversation between me and a friend:

C: Why is it that it’s often folks with woundedness and rejection issues who end up with vocations –like acting and writing– where rejection is part of the process? Some weird need to relive our abandonment trauma? Just asking.

M: those vocations become their therapy…

C: True, the art part is definitely therapy. I get to put all my neurosis on paper in a form more elegant than mere rant and weepy telephone calls or emails. But, the dealing with agents, auditions, editors, critics. Aaargh. Wish there was another way to have our healing say….without going through all that.

M: on the flip side, carole, we’re paid for sharing our neuroses!

C: So true, M. And we certainly help to heal all those souls who come up to us and say how we’ve “said exactly what they always wanted to say.”

Sometimes it’s hard for an artist to find a place within the church. We are often unsure of how to “do” our craft within the church, struggling with being true to our art and to our faith. This is partly due to the church’s distrust of art. Somewhere along the line, unless it was “Christian” music or “Christian” books (which means, for example, me being a “Christian” horror writer), it was dismissed. Strictly branded in the “garbage in/garbage out” school of thought. This type of Christian ghetto mentality sprang from trying to figure out what it means to be in the world but not of it; but led to us becoming so dualistic in our thinking that certainly fine art was so insignificant and unspiritual. In practice, however, when the word “Christian” is reduced/used as an adjective (or worse, a marketing label), usually it’s the first red flag that we’re already off mission.

A way to erase this false dichotomy between sacred and secular is to, in all things, think redemptively, and let the renewing your mind be in finding God at work in the culture around us. I am reminded of how the Apostle Paul could walk around Athens, a city full of idols, and still find Jesus (Acts 17). Engage the artist, engage the audience of that artist, and let your words and deeds be salted with grace. What would our spiritual life be like without art? A shriveled up and dry experience, devoid of any sense of transcendence and beauty. I’m reminded of some words I read in The Christian Monist blog not too long ago:

When you hear the sound of voices of another heart telling the story of love (romantic) or sorrow, heartbreak and loss . . . you know that you are real too. You know that you are not alone. You sense a community of hearts who have all loved, lost and wondered if there is a better way for the world to live. You know that you are human.

We come from the same Creator, created in His image, with his creative Spirit, so it’s all right to love art for art’s sake. We can listen to beautiful music and feel God’s presence. We can become lost in a painting and let it wordlessly speak to us. We can get transported by a story and learn lessons about ourselves. That’s the role of the artist, to remind us of our humanity and to remind us of the story we find ourselves in.

*And as I was recently reminded, it’s one thing for the artist to put themselves out there, entirely another for their spouse. They still have privacy rights and will send out corrective memos when we go too far.


(This post was part of a Synchroblog I am part of. Here are the other links. Enjoy!)

    Vagabond Spirituality

    Been reading Scot McKnight’s posts on emerging adults with a bit of fascination. I was drawn to his conclusion: there’s much more continuity between a teenager’s faith and an emerging adult’s faith than you might expect. The religious commitments of the teenage years, and one might say the intensity and genuineness and depth of those commitments, are what shapes what happens in the emerging adult years. All of which reminded me of my musings about being “spiritual teenagers” and whether or not I’d truly outgrown some of those tendencies. But I don’t think that describes where I am in my spiritual walk. [read: this may be one of those windy sort of blogs that eventually gets to a point.]

    Right now we’re half-heartedly church shopping. Come to find out we’re in a group of a dozen or so folks who are just sort of up in the air about where to land in a church. Some of us are simply tired of waiting for missional communities to actually do something rather than talk about doing something. Some of us are burned out on the whole “investing in church” idea. For some, church had become an unsafe place, a place that caused more hurts than reconciliation.

    I know that we’ve contented ourselves with being back row church goers: we slip in, get our praise on, and slip out. Anonymous worship with no pressure to be someone or do something, which has helped us heal from the sense of burnout from our previous experience. Sermon exhaustion aside, it’s been a time to find contentment in just sitting for a while and being ministered to.

    But that’s only part of where we are because we don’t want to forsake the idea of communal worship. (Ultimately we’d like to find a place with a relational pastor, a decent kid’s program, one of my wife’s concerns, and that’s racially balanced, one of mine.) While we’d want a place to be missional, both in mindset and deed, we aren’t waiting for that place. Our lives can be missional.

    And we still have a community of relationships, both from our previous church community as well as our network of friends. I think that’s another reason why we haven’t dived into a new church. We don’t have time enough to be with all of the friends we have now. It’s kind of tough to then try to cultivate a new community’s worth of relationships or rather, make room in our lives for more people we won’t be able to hang out much with nor develop deep relationships with.

    You know what I feel like? One of those journeyman ball players. The ones who stay on a team for a couple years to fill a role and then gets traded. But we’re not worried, we know we’ll end up exactly where God wants us. But I’ve been asked a few times what I look for in a church. I think I’ll write about that next week. [read: lots of deadlines this week.]

    Post-Racial Church: The Myth and the Hope Part II: So what can we do?

    [click here for Part I]

    David Mills directs us to Larry Auster’s comments regarding “The only hope for the betterment of the black race (and the white race)”:

    “The solution cannot be in the ‘horizontal’ dimension, that is, in the relationship between blacks and non-blacks, because blacks will always be behind on the level of earthly functioning, leading to unjust racial resentment on the part of blacks and undeserved racial guilt on the part of whites.

    “The solution can only be found in the ‘vertical’ dimension,” he continues, “… in the relationship between each black person and God through Jesus Christ, who will put each person’s self in true order and true freedom and remove the focus on the ‘horizontal’ differences and inequalities.

    “Each black person will then live and perform and fulfill himself as a human being according to his own aspirations and abilities, without comparing himself to whites.”

    Um, yeah, so the solution is for us to pray for us to forgive white folks and leave our resentment behind. I do believe we need to keep having conversations across the racial divide, and I’m as “We Are the World” as the next brother, but this would be considered a conversation fail. Note, while there is some truth in the statement, the onus was in what black people need to do. We can get sidetracked and bogged down by so many conversations that dance around the true issues at hand, and still manage to enflame all the old passions and lingering resentments. Conversation does not mean confess your guilt to a Negro. Don’t confuse institutions of black survival (the black family, black church, and black schools) with institutional or reverse racism.

    Sociologically speaking, I’ve learned that we can have the language of sorry, but we don’t have the practice of sorry. My two boys, Reese and Malcolm, have been known to on occasion fight. We, the parental figures and ruling authority in their lives, have been known to make them apologize to one another. Without fail, the initial apology is done through gritted teeth and is essentially worthless. But it is a start. If I’ve learned nothing over the last few months, I’ve at least learned that “sorry”, or rather, repentance, needs to be lived out. And racism needs to be repented of.

    Institutionally speaking, the church doesn’t need to program diversity, it needs to be diverse. One of the myths about the Great Commission is that Crossing cultures is a step beyond the general mandate. This myth is that only select missionaries are called to cross cultures in order to make disciples. The rest of us should only focus on people like us, in our culture. The problem with this myth is that the actual Great Commission commands otherwise. Incredibly, Jesus gave a commandment to his mostly Jewish audience to go to a mostly Gentile people and make disciples! Jesus commanded his Jewish followers to go to all people groups (all ethnos, the Greek word for “nations”). In other words, the Great Commission itself is a mandate to cross cultures!

    So we start with the individuals. Church folks concerned about multi-cultural church or the state of race relations, looking at your FaceBook friends list is a natural moment to examine the demographics of your life. If the diversity is my sister and I, you may need to color up your lives. I’m not saying take out ads looking for black friends, I’m saying take some steps to break out of the comfortable routine of your life.

    At the same time, diversity isn’t the goal. Diversity isn’t the mission. We’re to be missional, advance God’s kingdom here on earth. Strive to carve out a foretaste of what heaven’s supposed to be. In my experience, most times conversations about race in the context of church devolve into spiritual circle jerk. Churches may talk about wanting diversity, even making token statements about wanting to see it reflected from the top down, yet their leadership remains a white, sausage fest. We hear plenty of talk and have attended many conventions, now we need more.

    Too many people’s idea of being post-black (post-racial group of choice) means leaving their heritage behind. As we move forward, no one should have to leave their culture for the the sake of coming together. I mentioned in my previous post about how my formative years were spent in another (the dominant) culture. It is part of a journey I’ve spoken about before. As a result, I was a perpetual other: never a part of the dominant culture and often looked at askance by my own. In order to navigate my circumstance, and keep some measure of cultural sanity, I developed a third culture mentality.

    Church should be a third culture experience. Countercultural. Church needs to serve everyone: hungry is hungry, widowed is widowed, orphaned is orphaned, the least of these are the least of these. Pain knows no color. Diversity can be a measurement of how well we’re doing our job. Not something expressly sought after, but a by-product of how well you are serving your community. Your whole community.

    Are we really living out our core values, the things we say we’re about or do we once again have to learn to be patient and give the church another chance to get things right (and forgive it its slowness)?

    Church is a bigger place than one building or one community. I’ve come to realize that one particular body might not meet all of our needs and may fail us on occasion. And we’re quick to measure our experience with the church by a particular body. But it is all of the Christians who make up the church. Our mission is to be about loving, learning, worshiping, and serving together and one another. But we can’t be that until we’re willing to enter the discomfort. In any culture, despite pain and discomfort that may come. We have to risk our safety and taking on pain. We need truth tellers, bridge builders, and risk takers. We need to be the church.

    Post-Racial Church: The Myth and the Hope Part I: Coming to You

    It would be cool for someone to do a documentary called “Being Black In Evangelicalism” the sub-title would be “The Only Black Person In The Room” (or vice-versa). Evangelicals, as members of the dominant culture, have no idea what it’s like for a black person (esp. a black female) to be the only black dude in a room full of whites. It’s hard to describe unless you’ve been in that position but it’s always a bit uncomfortable no matter how nice and welcoming people are. I’ve been at evangelical stuff where the room had a few hundred whites and I’m the only black guy. And no one ever really seems to notice.

    In light of the Jim Crow still being alive poolside incident, I’ve been thinking about race and wondering if things are any better in the church. With some of the talk about the new post-racial era that we’re entering, the question has come up about whether the church can become post-racial. That’s the hope, but I’ve been coming to terms with church being as fallen as the people who make it up.

    Too many about race inside and outside of the church begin (and end) with “I don’t see race” as if that’s a triumph of societal acceptance. While I understand what the sentiment attempts to get at, what my ears often hear and how my heart reacts is “No, you see people (culturally) like you.” The bulk of our interchange of life, most of our interactions, is largely within the same race of people. So of course there’s no need to talk about race. You don’t see race if you’re fully emerged in one story. And we’ve lived with our comfortable situations for so long we’ve become inured to it and don’t want to change things. We’re content with life as it is and don’t want to do or say anything which may make waves in our lives.

    Color blindness is not a virtue, it’s a disservice. Color effects how I experience the world. Color effects how I’m perceived by the world. So your “color blindness” negates my identity. I look back on my history whenever I have attended a majority white church. Most times, me and my family were the entire black experience for a lot of folks. And we made it easy for “them” to get to know us because we go to “them”. Here’s what I mean: we grew up in mostly the white/dominant culture. It’s where we went to school, it’s where we went to church, it’s where we go to work. Minorities in the dominant culture have swum in those waters all of our lives, so it’s easy for us to be “safe” because we’re used to adapting to that culture.

    I can always tell when friendships with me reach a new level of depth. Those friends come to me. They go where we go, do what we do, be it Black Expo, step shows, or Kwanzaa festivals. They take an interest in us and our culture, wanting to get to know us and understand us better. Without wanting to co-opt it. Without condescension of “wanting to relate” or “have a black experience.” Without the denigration of calling it “weird”. (I’m reminded of when a group of “friends” asked me to take them to a rough area of the city. They were thrill seeking and wanted a ghetto tour guide. I took them to Carmel, a suburb north of me. I told them that me driving through there at night was all the thrill I needed.)

    So no, white church, you don’t know me. You haven’t taken the time to get to know me. You’ve invited me in with your “Negroes Wanted” signs and hoped that I wasn’t too different from you so that I wouldn’t make you uncomfortable. So that you wouldn’t have to come face-to-face with the everyday consequences of a history of humiliation suffered by a black male, the powerlessness–without even the power to keep our own names, being exploited, the dreams shattered, the justice denied, and of being dehumanized.

    So the anger builds. I’ve absorbed the humiliations as part of the cost of the “privilege” of being with whites. And the hatred builds. The hatred of myself. The hate I’ve been taught, the hate I’ve learned, the hate I’ve internalized. We all have walls and race and culture is simply another wall we have to navigate. So I guess we’re wondering what can we do?

    [continued tomorrow …]

    Missional Expectations

    The Dwelling Place has always defined itself as a missional faith community. Granted, we’ve been labeled an emergent church which I don’t care about because people love their categories and will use them to embrace and vilify you. Defending the emergent church or being missional is not part of my mission. In fact, arguing over the emergent church, its theology, etc. sounds like arguments that few but the inside care about (I get that arguments like these and things like the “ontological Christ” are important in some circles—and I know it’s hard to get our missiology correct if our theology is suspect—but in the final analysis, the bulk of my conversations are not with inside folks).

    Generally, I’ve seen three models of what folks call emergent church. So most of the time we’re trapped between the traditional crowd believing us to be “different” to the point of being suspect and emerging/emergent folks playing “more emergent than thou.” Basically, the thing I’ve taken away most from the ongoing emergent conversation is the idea of rethinking what it means to be the church. As a faith community, is our chief responsibility to focus on how to teach and transmit faith? Are we to be a social service provider, a religious service provider, and follow a business model? Are we to build grand testaments to our empire and hope to attract people to our weekly production?

    Basically I’ve been stung by two recent articles. The first by Alan Hirsch called Definining Missional. He recovers the roots of what it means to be missional this way:

    Missional is not synonymous with emerging. The emerging church is primarily a renewal movement attempting to contextualize Christianity for a postmodern generation. Missional is also not the same as evangelistic or seeker-sensitive. These terms generally apply to the attractional model of church that has dominated our understanding for many years. Missional is not a new way to talk about church growth. Although God clearly desires the church to grow numerically, it is only one part of the larger missional agenda. Finally, missional is more than social justice. Engaging the poor and correcting inequalities is part of being God’s agent in the world, but we should not confuse this with the whole.

    A proper understanding of missional begins with recovering a missionary understanding of God. By his very nature God is a “sent one” who takes the initiative to redeem his creation. This doctrine, known as missio Dei—the sending of God—is causing many to redefine their understanding of the church. Because we are the “sent” people of God, the church is the instrument of God’s mission in the world. As things stand, many people see it the other way around. They believe mission is an instrument of the church; a means by which the church is grown. Although we frequently say “the church has a mission,” according to missional theology a more correct statement would be “the mission has a church.”

    On the flip side, I was equally chastened by Dan Kimball’s Missional Misgivings. Most on point was this criticism:

    We all agree with the theory of being a community of God that defines and organizes itself around the purpose of being an agent of God’s mission in the world. But the missional conversation often goes a step further by dismissing the “attractional” model of church as ineffective. Some say that creating better programs, preaching, and worship services so people “come to us” isn’t going to cut it anymore. But here’s my dilemma—I see no evidence to verify this claim.

    … some from our staff recently visited a self-described missional church. It was 35 people. That alone is not a problem. But the church had been missional for ten years, and it hadn’t grown, multiplied, or planted any other churches in a city of several million people. That was a problem.

    Church ought to be put together in a way that makes sense. The missional model is more focused on deploying people, not attracting people. Drawing people out, finding their gifts, figuring out their callings, then sending them out to be a blessing in the world. In other words, we need to be about the doing.

    The model of church that makes the most sense for me is family. Sundays are the family meeting, including the family dinner (Communion as our soul food). But we aren’t family just on Sundays, but have to be family during the week also. Families are hard and are re-defined with each addition. We don’t assimilate new members (to make them “one of us”) as much as add their gifts to our own. There is no privileged place and we learn and are taught in midst of life. We build communities of hope, full of hopeful possibility and people living from a place of hope.

    And families grow. The goal of parents is to raise their children to be able to start their own families. It is anticipated, planned, and celebrated. You start your own family, you don’t take your brothers and sisters and begin a family.

    Before I strain that analogy any further, I’d say missional churches operate from an organic paradigm , without a predetermined ministry method but rather letting their context determine their ministries. The environment should draw out people’s affinities and nurture people’s giftings. And the leadership should cultivate that environment. If you have the environment right, fruit happens naturally.

    Believing in deep ecclesiology means that I’ve come to terms with the idea that there needs to be room for all kinds of church expressions, from the attractional model/mega-church to the niche church/coffee shop model. I know I’ve been quick to criticize mega-churches and touting how we’re “not about numbers”. At the same time, if we don’t grow, but rather remain static, we’re a collection of friends hanging out discussing spiritual issues, which isn’t bad, but not all we’re called to be.

    I’m still waiting this wondrous conversation between the races promised by the emergent church, but I find that true across the board when it comes to the church. In the mean time, we’re to be communities of faith, hope, and love. We can have all the faith we want, but without love, it’s worthless. It’s sad that I have to remind myself that this includes loving my fellow Jesus people.


    Not Dancing to the Tune of the Pied Dobson

    Up until a few months ago, I was still getting political forwards in my e-mail inbox. In light of a few posts, I quit getting them, however, my wife had no such luck and received the letter from 2012 from James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. Ok, I’ll admit, James Dobson’s antics this political season have been getting on my nerves for a while (and this isn’t including the time he went after SpongeBob SquarePants). This fictional letter is written by a Christian from 2012 informing readers of the horrors that may happen if Barack Obama is elected president. I’m officially dubbing this letter Project Fail (and I’ll lump into it this project all of the tactics of fear-mongering and race baiting).

    We get it in our heads that one political party speaks for Christendom. I have no problem with our spirituality informing our politics, but have huge problems with our politics informing our spirituality. When politics becomes our religion, with only two agenda points that all “right thinking Christians”/“True Believers” need to base their vote on: abortion and gay marriage. We position leaders to whom we look to for salvation. Their stump speeches become sermons. Their rallies serve as revival meetings.

    It cuts both ways. There are black churches that condemn Republicans as evil (and black Republicans as sell outs) and white churches that proclaim that the Republican agenda God’s agenda, and anyone against it amoral, irreligious, or anti-God. I’ve been to Republican and Democratic meetings and found them both attended by people who love this country and seek its best interests (and both opened their meetings in prayer, but this is Indiana).

    As a church-cum-political action committee, we’ve been out to amass and wield power. This is the epitome of being of the world and conforming to its ways. I chalk up Project Fail as the last gasp of the Christian right as we’ve known it, though I fully expect 2012 to bring us a new brand of conservative. I’ve been doing some thinking about the idea of the Christian right and how they’ve framed a lot of the discussion about Christianity and politics, and I’ve come to a few conclusions:

    1) Have you ever wondered that whenever folks talk about the Christian right, what “the church” should be doing, and Evangelicals in general, that maybe they should just say “white, conservative Evangelicals”? With the size of the black church in America, do you really think “all right thinking Christians” jumped on the Reagan/Bush/Gingrich bandwagon?

    2) Religion informing politics is not a bad idea … on paper. In practice is where things become muddled. Actually, they only become muddled when the idea becomes prescriptive rather than descriptive. Here’s what I mean. I have spiritual beliefs that have defined my political views on things. I’m pro-life. I believe we need to be stewards of the environment. I believe we ought to be about “the least of these” (the poor, widows, children, etc). Now HOW we’re to accomplish those things are up for debate. I can’t just say “all right thinking Christians need to define pro-life ‘this way’ and we can only accomplish the end goal of our position with ‘this method.'”

    3) There’s the rise of Christian left. I’m talking about the Brian McLarens, the Shane Clairbornes, the Jim Wallis’ of the world. I don’t think this is either good or bad (as jumping into bed with Democrats is no better a solution than jumping in bed with Republicans). What this does accomplish is re-frame the discussion so that there’s not just “one Christian way” to do things. there can be other ideas and actions that can be just as much Christian.

    In the fervor of the election season, I can’t help but be reminded of the Old Testament Israelites who clamored for a king. They had some good kings and some bad kings, often getting the leader they deserved. I don’t look to politics to solve many of our problems, no matter who is in office. The church is not a political action committee. The church has a mission, a missio dei, God’s mission. The church needs to be about manifesting God’s love in sacrificial service to the world. We’ll soon know who the new leader of our country is and whoever it is, I will remember two things: 1) to pray for him and 2) that God is sovereign.

    Church Eats Its Own Part II: No Room for Sinners Here

    People fall.

    I don’t even think of it as falling any more. We screw up, it’s what we do. The measure of our faithfulness isn’t in how many times we fall down (or how creatively, because believe me, some days it feels like I have an entire Research & Development wing devoted to finding new ways for me to screw up), but in our ability to get up, dust ourselves off, and keep going.

    Yet too often, the Church eats its own. It’s like we make a sport of trampling over the fallen as if that’s part of their punishment and our holy duty to do so. We assume the authority to judge whether another is doing ministry the way God wants, living lifestyles in line with how “Christians should act” (because there’s only one mold apparently), and being spiritual the way we should (again, back to that one mold).

    No wonder so many niche ministries have such a defensive posture when talking to their brethren. They recognize that it’s easier to think ill of our neighbor, that they don’t do ministry right, rather than credit them with not only wanting to do ministry, but appreciating their ability to do things you can’t and reach people you couldn’t. There’s lots of room to be the body of Christ, yet too many folks want everyone to be a toe. Listen to how different church people treat each other when they disagree. We can’t have a generous orthodoxy, where one party doesn’t have the sole key to how things are interpreted, but rather we not only slander but dehumanize our brothers and sisters.

    Heaven help you if you actually sin. Again, love and forgiveness should be our calling cards, but we can be a murderously intolerant lot. I’d daresay there is a hatred in how we treat folks sometimes, especially those we’ve deemed fallen/sinners. The thing about fallen folks is that now their façade is gone. There’s no longer that need for pretense, you are what you are, it’s been revealed to all (and in truth, it now makes you … no different than the rest of us). Our treatment of “the fallen” should be where we shine most, being a hospital for the sick, demonstrating the grace, the redemption, the inclusion, and the power to transform and heal as a community comes along side them.

    Basically people, I know I’m going to “fall” (we’ll just my regular lifestyle hiccups as mere stumbles). I know I’m going to let people down. I know that I will struggle. And when I do, I want a community to come alongside me, allow me to be broken, and then help restore me in love and grace. That’s what I’d like to see out of a spiritual community.

    If you want to make sure that I see your comment or just want to stop by and say “hi”, feel free to stop by my message board. We always welcome new voices to the conversation.