Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Loyalty and the Church today

I recently meet with a couple to discuss The United Methodist Church (UMC) and what it stood for. In the course of conversation we talked about what it meant to join the UMC. I pulled out a hymnal and showed them the words that are to be spoken at such an event. The line is something to the effect of "will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries?" Given the way that people move from church to church and denomination to denomination over the course of their life, what does it mean for someone to be loyal to any particular denomination? Certianly the UMC does not expect it members to have some absolute loyalty to everything that it does. The church takes far too many positions for someone to be loyal to all of them. So what does this loyalty mean? How is one's loyalty to the greater church separate from the individual church they are a part of? Is it simply a matter of supporting the greater efforts of the church, so praying for and providing time and money towards the grater church in its efforts to build up churches and help people around the world? What does being part of a denomination mean today? I know a couple that was moving. They had been a part of a UM Church in one town, but when they looked at moving to a new town they did not think they would go to a UM church. The reason they give was a recent vote taken that showed a degree of support for homosexuality by the UMC. They were not ready to leave their home church because of the vote, but given the choice they would not join another UMC because of the same vote. In light of such actions what does loyalty to the church really mean? How much of a disconnect is there between the actions of local churches and the actions of the Church as a whole? Other than as an organizational tool for churches, and as a support system for clergy, what does a denomination mean today? I think for myself and how I present church membership to others the question must be a personal one. Each person must decide for themselves what the UMC means to them, and feel comfortable saying that they will be loyal to it and support it ministries. A universal standard is not practical, nor really in my mind advisable.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Rebel with a Cause?

In an effort to make up for my lazy study habits in seminary I have been reading a lot of late. I just finished "Chapter 0" of "Generous Orthodoxy" by Brian McLaren. McLaren takes an interesting tone as he warns people against reading his book. Perhaps I am reading into his words, but contained in them seemed a certain skepticism of education in favor of things with a practical, concrete value. McLaren is aware of his own lack of a "proper" seminary training but also believes he has something to offer to the theological debate. I agree that formal training is not necessary for one to have a theological opinion. What I want to respond to is the tone that McLaren uses. As I think about things like the "organic church" and "emerging(ent) church" movements, contained within them is a certain almost youthful rebelliousness. Maybe I see it in these movements because I see it also in myself. I do not want to be critical of the efforts and effects these movements have and are having, but I wonder if a certain appeal for them comes from the constant desire of the younger generation to overthrow all the previous generation has valued and strike out on their own. The idea of disregarding the recent past in favor of the distant past is certainly not a new one. My question, as a pastor is what can this tell us about how we do church today. I find the ideas around the emerging church to be alluring. As a 20 something who has constantly walked the line between my faith and my skepticism with the church I understand the desire to strike out in a new direction and try and find God in a place and a way that is meaningful to me. As a pastor perhaps the challenge is really to encourage rebellion so long as it is for a cause. Not just doing things different for the sake of ignoring recent trends and traditions, but instead as a real effort to discover better ways to seek God. So ultimately it seems the challenge is to cultivate a health rebellion for people, that teaches us all to explore what we believe and why

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Worship Size

I was meeting with a parishoner today and was struck by something that he said. As we were talking about our church and our hopes for it, he mentioned that while it was tempting to want the church to grow to have hundreds of members and a huge sanctuary, there was also something appealing about simply having several smaller services and focusing offerings not on the cost of the building and expanding it, but instead on mission, "which is what being Christian is really about." (Not perhpas an exact quote but close to what was said.)
I find the idea of several smaller services to be highly appealing to me. I have a lead worships of many different sizes, never more than a 250 or so, but I know that while there can certainly be more energy at a larger service, there is also something powerful about even just a service of 10-20 people. There are challenges to creating a church that has lots of smaller services. Building connections between individuals at the services is important. There is also more work required of a the pastor to lead so many services. People also prefer larger services at times, it lets people drift into the background more.
All of these are excellent concerns, but I also like the point that having more services allows a church to better use a smaller space. Rather than needing huge sprawling campus, churches can make do with a much smaller area. Instead of pouring all its money into building campaigns, people can be spending more money on mission instead. Most churches have building funds, which often have amounts in the tens of thousands of dollars, if not more. How many churches have similar funds for missions, or even given an equivelant amount to missions?
I also like the idea of the smaller, more intimate worship experience as a way to emphasize that worship is a community experience and a participtory one. Worship is not meant to be observed, but taken part in. Smaller services help to create a stronger connection within the church. I think an emphasis on smaller size helps to increase what can be done in worship, since smaller size tends to allow for more flexibility with space.
As I reflect on all of this I realize that part of what is at stake is how worship seeks to live out the mission of the church. Different styles and such are certainly useful, but we should not be concerned with models and styles so much as whether the worship service is moving the church forward in its mission.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Harry Potter, Tolkien, and Scripture

I am preparing a class on Harry Potter for parents and kids at the moment. My hope is to show how Harry Potter retells Biblical stories and messages in a different way. I hope that by studying Harry Potter the kids, and the parents, will have a better understanding of what it means to be a Christian. I do not think I am off base on this, from what I know, Rowling, like Tolkien and Lewis deliberately wove religion into her writings.

As I was beginning to think about how we could find parts of Scripture in fiction it made me begin to wonder if we actually need to be thinking of new ways for people to experience Scripture. For hundreds of years we have read the Bible, or other have read the Bible and told it to us, and WORDS (caps used for emphasis) have been used to convey the meaning of Scripture. I think even for those people who desire to take the Bible to the letter would have to agree that what is truly important is not the literal WORDS on the page, but the IDEAS behind them. I think what is truly sacred, truly inspired by God is the meaning of the Bible, the message of God's continuing love for us that is stretches from Genesis to Revelation. Part of the idea behind "The Message" by Eugene Peterson, is the idea that people today will better grasp Scripture if it is written in a way that captures the heart of the words, and casts them in a way that has meaning for people today. I know for a number of people this is quite true. I also know that some people love and treasure the translations of scripture that they grew up with. The Christmas story is best told to me in the voice of Linus Van Pelt, from "A Charlie Brown Christmas." People learn best in different ways, what seems to be most important to me is not the words we use, but the ideas we convey. Is it possible for people to experience God better through the Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter, than it is through the Bible? Does this go against the importance of Scripture? Or, does this actually make Scripture to be something more than the mere object of the Bible, but in fact reinforce that Scripture truly is God to speaking to us, through the Bible, the words of J.K. Rowling, or Ian McKellen as Gandalf?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What Salvation do I Preach?

I have a sort of love/hate relationship with "Organic Church", by Neil Cole, which I have been reading for the last week or two. There is a lot I agree with and probably equally much that I disagree with. Some of it simply boils down to a difference in style between the two of us. In one chapter Cole starts off by talking about Schindler's List, and the idea that each of us should be creating a similar list of people we know who are in need of salvation. What really struck me was that Cole was focused on the idea that our fear of death should prompt our efforts for salvation. I do not want to preach a Gospel based on the fear of death, but rather one that rejoices in the beauty of life. I think that Cole gives an excellant example that helps us to see things in terms of all the people who need to be saved. Unfortunately I worry that the Gospel too often gets cast as a way of saving us from Hell, rather an a way that can remake us into better people in this life. Do we follow Christ because of what Christ has to offer us, or because of what we want to offer Christ. If people are introduced to Christ because they need to be saved, this becomes the basis of their faith. I think we should follow Christ out of love, not out of our need. Each of us can think of a time we have been guilty of "sucking up" or similar behavior. Whether it is to a boss, a teacher, or simply someone we respect, we have sought to better our relationship to them in hopes of some sort of gain. On the other hand, think about how we relate to the people we love. We do not think of our relationship in terms of what we get from them, but instead in terms of what we can give. I do not want people to get saved because of what will happen if they don't, I want people to know about God, because God loves them so much, and God wants them to be in a better relationship with God. The purpose of evangelism to me is not to appeal to people's fear of death, but to show them the love of God, and the beauty of life.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Oh, to be young again ...

Ok, I am very much aware that despite the title of this entry I am not in fact old. I was realizing however that simply by getting a "real" job and getting married I have somehow gotten a great deal older than people who are my own age. I also appreciate that other people only a few years older than me have been like that for a whole decade. Part of growing up seems to be constantly trying to be a grown up. When you are a kid you deliberately act like a grown up, whether it is part of a game of pretending, or to look older than your younger siblings, kids immate being a grown-up. We also set some arbitrary markers, like when you can drive, or when you turn 18, or when you finish school. I certainly think there is some truth behind these, but it has really struck me that part of growing up is just when you stop asking the question am I there yet, and start living into the reality of who you have become. There is always another marker you could reach for, getting married, getting a "real" job, having kids, but no matter what you set it at, it comes down to your mentality. I am not an adult because I got a "real" job and got married, I am more of an adult because I have reached a different stage of growth, because I am not looking to who I will become, but looking at establishing who I am. This doesn't do anything for the peope who will remark how young I am to be a pastor, or who may still treat me as less than an adult, but it does something for how I appoach things. Somehow this as more profound in my head than when typed out, but such is life ...

Sunday, January 14, 2007

"You Bleed to Know Your Alive"

A line of music that often runs through my head is from "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls. It goes "when everything feels like the movies, yeah you bleed just to know your alive." I think part of this is just because I know some of the times I feel most alive is when I my body is in pain. Not when I am hurting emotional, but simply physical pain. The other day I went running with my brothers. The result of this exercise is a great deal of soreness thoughout my legs. While in some sense it slows me down, it also adds a certain spring to my step. For me there is a certain satisfaction that comes with the pain. With the pain comes the knowledge of what I have done. When I was in college I could remember hobbling to class on Mondays after spending the weekend at fencing tournaments. Certainly my body was in pain but I also knew what I had done over the weekend. There was also a great deal of satisfaction in knowing that with that pain was hopefully a sense of accomplishment, and if it had been a good weekend, a few more medals for my collection.

I offer this example because I think it echoes a lot of what is being said in the church today. There is a sense of satisfacion that comes with pain, loss, or effort. In an attempt to fill the pews it is tempting to try and make church easy for people. While this may have a short term result, in the end I think church, and more specifically faith needs to be something that takes effort. In the Epistle of James there is the statement that "faith without works is dead." If we are not prepared to work for, to stretch ourselves for our faith, what does it mean? I think leaders of the church, myself certainly included, need to remember that we are doing everyone a disservice if we try and make faith something that is easy. No one would go to a gym and expect their workout instructor to just have them lounge around. When we go to the gym we expect a work out. Why should the church be anything different? Obviously I don't expect a worship service to be a cardivascular workout, but shouldn't a sermon require a bit of mental strectching? Shouldn't the message of scripture cause us to break a sweat as we seek to live out our faith? If we are to make faith meaningful today I think we need to try a create that same sense of deep accomplishment that comes from knowing you have gone out and done something, made a difference somehow.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Declining Churches or Refining Faith?

Over the last four years I have read too many books, blogs, and articles which rail against the mainline churches, their decline, and how this is proof of their failures and a terrible thing. As I start my ministry it creates a great deal of pressure for me. I was born and raised in a mainline church and I believe my home church and my denomination are not failures but still do good ministry. Unfortunately the way to measure success is often placed in terms of membership numbers. For this reason I feel intense pressure as a new pastor to have new members joining my churches. If only United Methodist churches were growing then we would know that we are doing something right. Now, I certainly agree that churches doing something right can be seen as growing, but I also do not see the loss of membership in mainline churches as necessarily negative. In the 1950's and 60's the church was the social gathering spot. Church membership was not necessarily about devotion to God, but also about climbing the social ladder. For this reason I do not think it is necessarily bad if membership is down. I would hope that it can be a way for mainline churches to work on refining their members faithes. Church membership can easily become a measure of trendiness, rather than faithfulness of members. For this reason I think that every church of every type should be looking not just at how many people are sitting in the pews, but how the church is helping to grow their faith. Looking at myself, and relaixing how I am shaped by the culture around me, I wish the pressure was more on developing the faith of people instead of just getting more people. The conversation about the decline of churches does not focus on the staunch faith of a 80 year old, life long Methodist, it just focuses on the lack of Methodists. I think we need to change the conversation from what to do about declining membership to what we need to do about refining people's faith.

"In God There Is Enough"

I was attending a conference this week and in the process heard the quote "in God there is enough." The quote really resonnated with me and my experiences recently. Anyone who has ever been involved in church, or for that matter any non-profit, finances knows how precarious things really can be. Despite all the planning that is done, a church is ultimately dependent on the often irregular giving of its members, it truly becomes a test of faith. The churches I work at currently are both looking at "projected" deficts for the end of the year, which means if everyone gives what they pledged and everything costs what we expect then we will have a shortfall at the end of the year. This can obviously be a source of great stress, but I think it is better to see it as a source of strength. I know for me personally as a pastor I love to not have to worry about money. In my own life I like the comfort of know that my upcoming bills will be covered by my upcoming paychecks, or better yet, by the money already in my account. I certainly have the same desire for my churches. I think the problem is that too often we want to be in control of everything. A church that has all its problems already covered has no need of God. The quote I heard is a good reminder that churches would be better to trust a little in God's grace and blessings rather than simply in financial calculations. I am not saying that churhes should not track their finances, but that rather than stressing about having a perfectly balanced budget, remember that God provides. How different would our churches, organizations, and stress levels be if we remembered that "in God there is enough."

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

The Winnowing Fork in His Hand

I know I am a week behind in the lectionary process, but I am preparing to preach on the baptism of Jesus this Sunday rather than last Sunday as the Revised Common Lectionary would recommend. There are several really good reasons for that, one being my church celebrated Epiphany last Sunday, but also we have a baptism scheduled for this Sunday, so it all works out great. I was doing the reading from Luke and was struck by several things, one how brief the lectionary selection from Luke is, but secondly, how prominant the image of the winnowing fork is in this passage. I was at first very disturb about it. The baptism of a child seemed a very awkward time to talk about the unquenchable flames of Hell. I understand that for some it would seem most appropriate, but I prefer that people baptize out of love and not out of fear. As I thought about this more I came to something of a realization. I had assumed that the separation that the winnowing fork was doing on the wheat was breaking apart the sinners from the saints. If you were a good person you were the kernels that feel to the ground and were kept, if your were bad you were the stalk that blew away in the wind. I had a new, at least for me, insight into this whole analogy. Rather than seeing it as a sorting of individuals, it would seem better to see it as a sorting of our lives. Baptism is about separating what is good in us from what is bad, the bad is washed away by the water, blown away by the wind, and the good is left to be used for God's work. I really prefer this as a more personal reflection on what salvation is about, it is not about sorting out people as a whole, but instead sorting out the good in us from the bad in us, so that we can be in a position to enjoy our relationship with God. I do not know how this holds up over all, but it seemed an interesting thought I wanted to share. I was also intrigued by the idea that my natural assumption was that it was about some people going one way and others another. Is this simply a product of teachings, or is there also some part of my nature, of human nature that wants even salvation to be a competition, where there are winners and losers?