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 Shopping Part II

So I confessed to Sally, aka “teh wife”, the other day that if it wasn’t for her, I’d be over the whole going to church thing. Part of it is the love hate relationship that I have with the church. Part of it is because I’ve been patching together what I need spiritually from a variety of sources. My wife, in turn, confessed that the only reason she was still in it was so that the boys have church as a regular part of the rhythm of their lives. For good or ill, we want them to have the church experience. Thus we’ve been in continual dialogue about what we want in a new church home.

Now, there’s a certain amount of church shopping that I really enjoy. It’s been a great excuse to visit the churches of some friends. I like seeing other expressions of the body of Christ. Too often we get locked into a “we’re the right club” mentality or so wrapped up in empire/ego building that folks are reluctant to even acknowledge other churches except to complain about what “they” do wrong.

This has also given us an opportunity to figure out what’s important to us. Before I get e-mails, for the sake of this discussion, we can assume that a Bible believing and teaching church is a given. But we’re not locked into dogmas and expect room to be able to disagree about non-essentials. One of the first checks is how we’re received. Whether the congregation bothers to talk to us (I’m stunned by how many places seem … cold). Another few things that are important to me:

-a commitment to racial reconciliation (we have bi-racial children and have been very intentional about keeping them in multi-cultural environments)
-receptivity to artists and “weirdos” (people who don’t fit into many folks’ boxes)
-commitment to being missional, especially to the marginalized (we have a heart burden for the homeless)

I knew that a children’s ministry was of critical importance to teh wife. Even though we both believe most spiritual instruction happens at home, we aren’t interested in “holy babysitting.” I also know that my wife has a series of questions that she likes to ask pastors (from how they handle crises to how they handle social media) when we’re seriously looking at parking ourselves at their church for a while.

We don’t want to be consumer Christians, per se, as the main thrust of what we are looking for is what/how can we give and participate. We aren’t hung up on what kind of music or service spectacle/show times, as long as folks are genuine and there is a spirit of community. I have a friend who boiled his definition of church down to this: “a safe and sacred place for people to belong and be wrong.” Yeah, that about sums up what we’re looking for.

Church Shopping Part I

In response to my vagabond spirituality blog, I was asked what I was looking for as my family “church shops”. I thought I’d let my wife respond (her FIRST guest blog!). I’ll probably have a few comments to add tomorrow:

What I Want in a Church
by Sally Broaddus

A poster at our boys’ school reads “Good Teaching is Loving and Listening, Sharing and Supporting – it is being passionately human. That is the point at which a good teacher begins.” I want my pastor to begin with this too.

I am looking for a small – medium size church, however one large enough to already have a good children’s program in place. I want the kids program to reach my boys, so my boys are excited to be going to church and the kids program. I do not want to feel like I am dragging my boys to church. Nor do I want to be forced to help the children’s ministry once a month since children’s ministry is not my gift area. I would rather be used in a better way that uses my gifts.

I am looking for a diverse church. I don’t want to look out into the crowd and see a cookie cutter people, where everyone looks alike, dresses alike, and talks alike. Ideally I want to look out into the crowd and not see one dominant race but more of a mix of races, and a diversity of economical status (not all wealthy, not all poor – but rather a healthy mix).

I am looking for a church that teaches community and really lives it out. I am looking for a church with a community to be in, one that you are real with. I hate the fakeness of many churches: “How are you?” “fine” and “how are you” “fine”. Great we are all fine, but that is not how life is. I want people there to pray for me when I am down, to call me out when I am wrong, to be happy for me when things are going great, and to cry with me when they are not.

I want the church small enough that if I disappear for several weeks, the pastor or the elders notice and they call out of concern or wanting to check in with me. As opposed to guilting me as to with an unspoken “what was more important than church?” attitude. I want people to be real with me, actually care about me as a person.

I am looking for a pastor that can reach me while he is preaching to me, so I can learn from him. Not one that talks over my head, but more one that talks about problems or issues that I deal with on a daily basis. One that teaches me how to live and how to be a better person, but also one that is not so topical that we don’t open the bible. I also want a preacher that is reachable, I don’t want an idol of a pastor. I want one that I can talk to me from time to time.

I want a church that doesn’t treat their pastor as an idol, meaning I want them to be able to have good fill-in pastors or speakers and when they fill in, it doesn’t mean half the church disappears since the pastor is not going to be there.

I want a church that is friendly but not too friendly. (friendly = I feel welcome and would be missed if I wasn’t there. Too friendly = makes it feel cult-like, sometime creepy, and mostly just plain fake).

I want the church to remind you about the offering, maybe even pass a plate, but not make a huge production about it (meaning not listing in the bulletin about the highest givers nor make us walk up front and put it in the plate so all can see).

I want the church to have some focus on mission work, not limiting it to overseas but teach about being missional right here in your neighborhood and city. I want the church to not just talk about it but actually reach out and make a difference in our neighborhood and city.

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.]

Thinking Through Children’s Ministry

I love it when my oldest son, all of four, sits with me during the “worship portion” of our church service. He doesn’t sit through it very well. He’ll color. He’ll wander off to stare out the windows. Now, this may have something to do with the fact that I’m with them through the day, and we’re all about short attention span theater. But you know what? He makes my worship. We’ll chat about what’s going on. I’ll color (even when he’s not with us, I write during church. I find that I pay attention better when I do). I’ll go with him to the window and we’ll talk about the beauty of God’s creation. My wife is not as fond of us disrupting everyone while we do what we do.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m of two minds on this issue: I love the chaos of (the idea of) kids being in the gathering with us, but I also love the peace of kids being off in their own area so that I can learn in peace. This was my mindset as we wrestled with an article written by a friend who describes himself as an amateur pastor, hack theologian, and wannabe mystic. His article summarized a book by Ivy Beckwith called Postmodern Children’s Ministry.

This is one of the most important discussions that any new church can have. It’s important that the whole community is on the same page in order to make any fundamental paradigm shift work. You see, most of us grew up in the crafts, snacks, and games model of children’s ministry and while we were entertained, we didn’t find it terribly impactful. The question has to begin with what the purpose of children’s ministry is supposed to be.

* If our purpose is to provide glorified “babysitting” for children while the adults do the “real” work of worship, then we will simply seek to keep the children occupied, whatever it takes.
* If our purpose is to entertain children because we assume that they are unable to grasp or appreciate transcendent spiritual realities, then we will seek to incorporate the snazziest programs possible in order to ensure the kids have fun.
* If our purpose is to use children’s ministry as a marketing tool for prospective parents, then our focus will be on creating the most attractive program.
* However, if our purpose is the spiritual formation of children, then we will proceed in a completely different direction. The significant question will not be, “Do we have the best program?” or “Is our program fun and exciting?” but “What does it mean for a community of faith to take seriously its responsibility to spiritually nurture its children and families?”

It takes a village to raise a child. There is wisdom in this African proverb, wisdom that shouldn’t be rejected just because Hillary Clinton once co-opted it. People are in our kids lives. As parents, ours is the dominant voice, but rarely is it the sole voice. The reason that we gather together as a church is to engage in spiritual formation, in order to be a blessing to the world. If we believe that this is something best done in the context of community, then this should apply to our children also. There needs to be a different mentality, one that begins from the nursery on up.

“The child develops more trust than mistrust when the child has trustworthy, consistent caregivers and lives in a trustworthy, consistent environment… if these things are not present in the infant’s environment, then the ability to have trusting, loving relationships with others can be severely disabled”.

Often the work that happens in the church nursery is seen as little more than baby-sitting. No wonder it’s hard to find committed volunteers! The caregivers in our church nurseries need to know that they are doing much more than helping parents. They need to understand that by loving, holding, feeding, and changing these babies, they are putting bricks in the foundation of trust these children will need in order to know and love God.

Here’s our dilemma: in order for children’s faith to become their own, they need to connect to it on their terms in their time. What we’ve seen happen entirely too often is well-intentioned coercion as we manipulate kids to make “decisions for Christ”. We ask kids, kids as young as five years old, to decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives in terms of their spiritual walk. Decisions which lead to uncertainty if not rejection by their college years. Do some kids understand this, sure; so some grow into their decision, certainly. But I also recognize that I have a three and a four year old, two boys who seek my approval. I can get them to “accept Jesus” and parrot a prayer. They’ll love the attention of everyone celebrating their choice (or want the attention if they see their friend receive it) and their baptism would be a significant event. But if their decision is not their own, then their conviction will turn to doubt or will fade with age.

“I believe the time has come for churches to reconsider the overt evangelizing of children. The approaches typically used have little to no bearing on what’s actually happening in a child’s heart and mind. For the most part these tactics are manipulative, playing on the child’s emotions and desire to be accepted and loved. A faith community should never be involved in manipulating the soul of a child”. Overall, an imbalanced focus on conversion rather than transformation has the capacity to short-circuit the entire process of spiritual formation. Evangelism is not simply about one decision; it is about inheriting and embodying a way of life.

“Family is everything to a child. Family is the first place a child forms and experiences relationships. It is a child’s first experience of community. Family is where a child learns language and motor skills and where she develops her first view and understanding of the world. Family is the first place a child experiences love, intimacy, forgiveness, and physical care. Conversely, family can also be the place where a child experiences her first emotional violence, neglect, indifference, and physical hurt”. For this reason, “family is the most important arena for a child’s spiritual development and soul care” … “Instead of building children’s ministries on more and more programming, the church needs to see families as the axis of their children’s ministries. The first priority of children’s ministry ought to be supporting parents in their role as the primary spiritual nurturers of their children”

And lastly, children need to learn to be a part of something bigger than themselves. What we are trying to figure out is how to immerse kids in the constant community of the faith, trying to figure out how to incorporate them into the worship, and how to encourage the inter-generational mixing that best informs the truest aspects of community. The discipline of sitting through a meeting is good to learn. The lesson of respecting the people upfront and the people around them and listening is good to learn.

Churches often fail to recognize that “children need to be involved in processes that communicate belonging. An affective relationship with people in the faith community other than their parents and relatives is an important piece of their spiritual nurture. Children must feel they belong in their faith community as much as the a
dults do”

The child sees adults who struggle, who trust God, who make mistakes and are forgiven, who work for mercy and justice, who model kingdom values. This modeling is powerful teaching for children – more powerful for faith development than listening to a hundred Bible stories or watching a month’s worth of VeggieTales videos. Children will remember the people of the faith community and their lives more than any Bible facts they learned at a church program.

This model is especially powerful when it is manifested by someone who actively participates in children’s ministry. “What a shame that the adults in our churches can’t see the importance of connecting with the children in the community! The friendships children form with those who lead them in religious education are among the most influential relationships they will have in the community”

Here’s the thing, everyone sounds like we’re on the same page about trying to let kids be more of a part of the Sunday morning gathering. The fact that we were already on the same page should make me happy, yet I only get suspicious; like maybe we’ve overlooked something. What that means or what it may look like, we aren’t exactly sure. Though this all sounds good in theory, the problem may come in the future. Right now, we’re a few dozen families deep. As new parents with kids and teens join, they may be expecting kids programs. What we’re talking about sounds like a fairly tall order, or at least more work on the part of parents. Breaking up the church into homogenous groups is the easier route. Too often, we don’t want to put in the effort to having our kids learn to participate in worship (that’s why we bring them to Sunday School and what we expect the Sunday School teachers to teach them). We make them sit through six hours or school and programs, but we don’t make the same effort for a 30 to 45 minute sermon. Maybe we don’t value times of worship, but valuing worship won’t happen on its own and needs to be instilled in kids (as well as some adults).

The bottom line is that everyone is involved, everyone participates, even if they don’t understand every element of what is going on. Heck, adults don’t understand every element of what’s going on half the time.

Oddly enough, everyone ignored my ideas on how to calm kids down enough to sit through a gathering by having them engage in serious spiritual formation-cum-Christian pacifier through the sacramental wine: “Alright kids, extra Jesus juice today.”