Thursday, June 30, 2011

Adopting Evangelism

Recently, I had an exchange with a longtime friend, the Rev. Cindy Beck (a pastor of the ELCA). In the course of this email exchange, she said:

"How do you become part of a family? Birth, marriage, and adoption. Adoption is when the family seeks YOU out. Nowhere does one become a part of a family by looking around at pretty houses, visiting them during dinner and asking, 'Wow, you are a great family, can I join you?' Nope, doesn't happen that way. If it did, I would be living in a beautiful house with rich people who support me unconditionally."

I've been thinking about this and trying to form a blog post around it. Then this morning, I read this article at Living Lutheran and I realized Cindy's words work all on their own, without any editorializing from me.

For now, anyway.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Ecclesiastical What Ifs

When I was in seminary, I had to do a yearlong internship. Interns get handed lots of projects that usually include a lot of recruiting.

Seventeen years later, I don't even remember what I recruiting for in this particular instance, but I do remember this story:

One particular fellow had expressed interest in whatever it was. One night, we had something going on at the church and his wife was there. She came up to me and said apologetically, "He's so sorry, but he's going to have to say no this time. He's so busy right now with Boy Scouts and the Volunteer Fire Department, he really doesn't have the time. He feels really badly about it."

In the moment, I just said okay, and started thinking about who I was going to ask next.

But this stuck with me. Here was a man, an active member of the church, also being active in his community in ways that were really significant. It's not as if he were going home after work and watching TV.

No, it finally dawned on me, he was out in the world, being salt and light, being among people other than Christians, doing good things. Why should he feel bad about that?

It seems that there must be other ways to be the church than simply being busy at the church building.

This is one of those posts where I don't have answers, but a few questions (some answers implied, some not, but all open to discussion).

What if Sunday morning were the center of our Christian life. What if it was the time of the week when we all came together to worship, lament, praise, hope, pray, sing, eat, hear, and speak?

What if rather than spending so much time trying to find ways for people to get involved at the church, we were instead asking about---and encouraging!---ways that people are involved in the world? Where are you salt and light? Where did you add savor to the world? Where did you illuminate a dark corner? Praise God! Thanks be to God! Is there a need over there for more help? Can I help leaven that loaf, make it rise? What if people saw us engaged in the world, in whatever way God calls us, and were amazed at how we moved in the world, not just holed up in the church, maintaining the organization?

It seems like a big, but maybe just a subtle shift in thinking about what a congregation is or does. There are always administrative needs to be taken care of. There are always people needed to count and deposit the offering, to prepare and wash the communion chalice. But it also seems there are always endless needs beyond our church walls. What if rather than a council with many committees that can't find members, we had a council with more support functions, that were less about recruiting people to be involved at the church (although some of that is obviously needed), but were there to help make sure that people were involved in the world?

I don't have a clear picture of what this would look like. I think in the end it would create less work for the administrative staff (including pastors). I think it would open us up more fully to the movement of the Spirit---following gifts and callings rather than proscribed slots on a committee that may not be needed anymore. I think it would turn people toward thinking about a Christian life that is lived 24/7, rather than just when we are in the building with the steeple. I think it would be evangelism in the root meaning of the world---I think it would be Good-News-bearing to the world.

This feels even more incoherent than usual. I'm so close to the current model of how we do church that even as I brainstorm about a new way, I find myself thinking "that'll never work."

But there needs to be another way of doing church, a way that encourages and rewards people like the man in in my opening paragraphs. There needs to be a way of being the church that doesn't make someone involved in ministry feel guilty for not being involved in the church.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Pentecost 2011

It's the birthday of the Christian church.

What do I say about it? Today, I think I say something vulnerable and honest and hope we all find some grace along the way.

I have a love/hate relationship with the church. This was not always so. There are people who used to joke about how much Neil loves church. And it was true and on some days it still is. But it's not like it used to be.

Sometimes you start to notice things you wish weren't true, and you wish it so much that you think denying it will keep you from noticing it. But the funny thing about noticing is that once something is noticed, it's terribly hard to un-notice it.

It's hard to un-notice all the ways that the church is often racist, sexist, homophobic, and self-preservationist. (Is the last a real term? Spell check allows it. I hope it communicates.) There are privileged people, for whom the church has never been anything but great. I think I was one of those people until about 10 or 15 years ago.

I should have an actual narrative to go along with this shift. I don't have one. The narrative thread is thin, or else it's presented in anecdotes, disjointed scenes that don't connect so much as stack up. I can say that I tried leaving the church. Gave it a go. I'm a failed ex-Christian, but I have sympathy for the successful ones.

This is not the post about the church I've been thinking about writing. I hope I get to that soon.

But on this Pentecost, I'm really thinking about this: I do love the church and all the great things it accomplishes---disaster relief, building hospitals, things like that. And I hate the church when it becomes a bloodless institution bent on preserving itself while letting bloody people suffer. I love the church and all the ways that it lifts up the lowly and offers possibilities to traditionally trampled people and I'm appalled when I see it tramples those people still.

But what are you going to do? The church can only be made up of the people available in any society. As much as we might have flashes of transcending and unwinding the sinful systems of racism, sexism, homophobia, and self-preservation at the expense of others---we'll be made up of people who are caught of in those systems, people who are, to varying degrees of consciousness and will, racist, sexist, homophobic and out for no one but themselves.

People like me. And, I suspect, like you.

So ultimately, I stay because as a gathered people, there's hope (often thwarted but never defeated) that we might sometimes step outside those sinful systems and be---however briefly---better.

We might hear the call to turn around, change our hearts and minds, and look. The Reign of God is at hand. Sometimes the church still reminds us of this. Sometimes the church is this.

As you might suspect, I'm in a period when I'm not entirely enamored of the church. The temptation is to walk away. I'm not doing that. Instead I'm praying with the ancient Hebrews and the early church, and the generations since:

Come Holy Spirit! Renew the face of the earth!