Monday, March 30, 2009

The heart of USA

Today a lot of news coverage is being given to the auto industry. President Obama has been emphasizing the need to continue to support this crucial industry to the US. One of his claims and one of others as well is that the auto industry is an important symbol of capitalism and of our country. On the one hand the auto industry has done a lot to transform the middle class, build up our country and to transform the way we live and travel. While I agree there will be economic ramifications if the industry fails I do not think it is as essential to what it means to be American as we are sometimes led to believe. I really question if making cars and in turn making money is really what the US is all about. Certainly part of what has made this country the great melting pot is people seeking a better life, seeking their fortune. This country was also founded by and continues to be infused with people seeking a freer life, a life where they can just be. Some of that freedom is economic freedom but it is also religious and political freedom.

Is capitialism and industry what makes this country great, or is it something more. Is capitialism simply a means to an end or has it become and end in and of itself? Now maybe more so than ever we have a chance to make a statement about what is really important to this country. Many people are concerned, and probably legitmately so about the increased government control of different industries, especially the financial sector. They worry that we are sliding slowly towards communism or socialism. Whether or not that is true I would raise this question, has our capitialistic system with its emphasis on the bottom line and making as much money as possible really faired better? I mean, financial institutions of all sorts have shown a clear desire and emphasis on how much money they can make for their shareholders, but they have done so at the expense of our communities. Homes lie empty because of poor lending practices and taxpayers are paying the price in the form of bailouts and other financial reprecutions.

I am not saying cut the auto industry lose, or let the banks fail, nor am I saying that we need the government to step in and make changes, what I am saying that we as citizens need to remember that money is not everything, that what makes this country, or any country great is something more. In the end, we are the shareholders, we, or people like us are the ones these companies are trying to make money for. If we take seriously shifting our priorities we can make a difference. We can send a message that capitialism is not the end, but simply a means to something great, something that makes this country great, freedom.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Regular worship?

Two interesting pieces of information have come to my attention in the last couple of months and I am finally at a point where I want to blog about them. Recently I learned that collective worship attendance in the US is down and yet at the same time participation is up. It seems to be one more piece of information that confirms the theory that people are looking for something more than worship in their church connection. The supporting piece of information and yet fascinating bit to me is the demographic information I found for Baxter, that 18% of the people say their faith is really important to them, that 41% identify as Conservative Evangelical Christian and 17% consider it important to attend religious services. 48% of the population considers it self to be spiritual, which is good to know but at the same two of those numbers really jump out at me, especially in comparison to the others. I would say a strong faith i a key attribute of a person who identifies as a conservative evangelical Christian, after all, the whole notion of these group of people is that they vote their faith. yet at best about 40% of the of CEC's consider their faith is really important to them, and that is assuming that no one else does, which we know is not true. Equally surprising to me is the fact that a similar percentage at best consider it important to attend religious services. Given those numbers it is no wonder that worship attendance is on the decline.

What does this mean for those of us in the business? Do we simply disregard the census data? Do we brush it off by saying that the terminology confuses people ... they may not think of worship as being the same as a religious service. If the data is accurate what does this really say about the population ... which is about on par with the rest of the country. I would believe that only 17% of the country is in worship on a given week but part of me hopes at least another 10% is feeling guilty about not being there and believes that religious services are still important to be at.

Coupled with all of this is really a central question to me ... are pastors like me right in our belief that worship is a good thing and a key aspect of growing in faith AND if that is true, what do we do to start changing that perception in the rest of the community. What have we been doing wrong that the demographic polling data has shown such a shift in public perception. What do we need to do to make worship something that people miss, something that people believe is valuable to their life. The other possibility is to take seriously the Wesleyan notion of taking God to the people. If worship is only important for 17% of the population and even 40% of Christians what are we doing to reach the other 83%, the other 60%. How do we help people answer yes to faith being important in their lives? How do we help people answer yes to being spiritual, yes to the belief that worship is important ... even if they are too busy with hockey this week to go.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ahh to Be Old ...

Now I am well aware that at the tender age of 28 I am only old to kids ... some of whom think I am 99, or at least older than their parents, but to the rest of the world I am still young. So today, basking in my youngness I will pause for a minute to look forward to a privilege that seems to come with age ... telling the younger generation what is good for them and what is not. To me perhaps the quintessential example of that right now is Internet social networking. Time and time again I hear people dismissing Facebook and Twitter as ways to waste time and things that act as substitutes for real friends and real relationships. Internet dating and sites like eHarmony and are often looked down upon as ways to meet a person. Now, I have seen the negative powers of the Internet, the ways it can waste time, the ways that it can hinder rather than enhance communication, however there are benefits to it to and it oftens seems like there is a cadre of older people who are quick to point out the faults and not the benefits. The reality seems to be that as the world and society change, generations have different ways of doing things and the hardest thing is to step into another person's shoes and see it their way. I read an article recently that talke about the need for face-to-face human interaction and that hinted that things like Facebook hindered that. On the one hand, I would agree, simply spending all your time online instead of going out and seeing people is a bad thing, however I don't think that Facebook is meant to be designed as deliberate substitute for face time, it is there because face time is impossible. Last night I posted on Facebook that I was not happy about how my previous week had gone. In the course of an hour I had recieved to affirming comments, from my wife's cousin and from a high school best friend's sister. Now, I have people who are immediately supportive in my life, such as my wife, close friends, etc, but it was nice to have two people I would probably never talk to about something be supportive, it was nice to have more connections. So what is the point of all this ... it is not simply to try and show how great social networking sites are and how right my generation is as compared to previous generations ... I mean both of those go without saying! What it reminds me of is the value of perspective and in particular multiple perspectives. Differing generational views can increase the wisdom of everyone, older people can gain some perspective by hearing from younger peole how new technology is helping relationships and increasing connections. Younger people can learn from older people about how society used to create those connections in different ways. It is easy to get stuck in the unintentional rut of thinking our way is the best way, that we have to be doing it right because that is the way we are doing. Other people can give us perspective from outside the rut and can sometimes see the pitfalls in the rut. The challenge is for everyone to realize that we do not know it all, that we are not completely right on something and to continue to value the different views of others, knowing that their critics increase our understanding of the situation, just as we can help increase theirs. That being said, I still look forward to being older when I can sit in judgement on those younger than me and the foolish ways they live their lives.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Rethink church?

The United Methodist Church is launching a campaign to rethink church. At the same time my own congregation is in a position where it needs to rethink what our church is called to be. In the process of all this thinking I talked to one of my members who was working at a Bridal Fair over the weekend. In talking with her it occurred to me that part of rethinking church is thinking about where the church is present and where it is not present and if some of that is what needs to change. One of the things that I realized is that places like wedding fairs are somewhere churches really could and arguably should be. We should be there not because weddings are a big business for churches but because a wedding is a time where people should be thinking about church and we do not help them any if we are not present.

Where do people expect the church to be?

Where do people need the church to be?

I read an interesting article which talked about the decline in worship attendance in the US but commented at the same time that church participation is up. Worship is not the end-all-be-all for the church. As we are rethinking church some of the question is not just where, but what. What does the church need to be doing today to continue to meet the spiritual needs of the society AND to continue to serve as a prophetic voice to society. How do find new places to be the church and new ways to do church. Maybe the hardest question of all is how do we do this without creating a disconnect for the people already in church, who are happy with how church already is.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Should we care?

I read an article in the Star Tribune that talked about the effect that FBI spies/informants were having on the atmosphere at mosques around the country. The article said that many Muslims who were just looking for a place to pray were avoiding mosques and that mosques in turn were being more carefully with who they asked to speak or how political they would let a message be. What struck me the most was a comment someone made. They implied that since everyone was welcome in a church that this would include FBI agents and that all a church did was preach the word of God so it had nothing to fear. The reader's comment raises the age old question, does an innocent person have anything to fear from the law?

As a pastor and therefore one of the "gatekeepers" of how welcoming a church is I struggle with government spying on people in church. There is something sacred about places of worship, whether Christian, Muslims, or whatever. To enter into such a space with deceptive purposes to me is disrespectful to that faith and the sacred atmosphere it is seeking to create. The counter to such an argument however is IF someone is using a church/mosque/synagogue for a political agenda, then they have violated the space already and so the FBI is not the one to blame. That only leads to the old "he started it" playground argument. Regardless of who is to blame, the net result of taking the "war on terror" onto sacred ground is that the sacred ground is one more place that will end up scorched. One of the most egregious and horrific acts of the Civil Rights Movement was the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL in which four girls were killed while attending Sunday school. When we make sacred places part of the battle zone then everyone loses. I believe that the government is called to take a higher road than the criminals are. We do not let our policemen shoot an unarmed person just because the criminals might do the same thing. We cannot lower ourselves to the level of others. The principals of liberty and freedom should still have value in this country.

So how would I feel about an FBI agent spying on my church. First of all I do not think that churches are as innocent or maybe should be as innocent as people make it seem. Abortion clinic bombings are almost always carried out by Christians. It seems likely that some of these bombers might have gotten inspiration/encouragement in their beliefs even if they were never told in church to do it. Should churches be so proud that we do not do anything that is against the law? Shouldn't we actually feel like the church is a safe place to say when we disagree with the law and government? If I knew the government was monitoring what I said on Sunday I would probably rethink some of my sermons, try and reword some of my messages. If we had a perfect government and a perfect justice system maybe I would not be as worried, but the abundance of innocent people in prison and the reality of the witch hunts our government has undertaken looking for communists and terrorists makes me feel we are far from perfect.

The bottom line to me is this, if the government really is about respecting the free practice of religion I believe we need to mak efforts to allow space that is without government incursion for the practice of such religion. One could point to prohibitions around drugs in religious ceremonies, governmental regulations around marriage, and all sorts of other laws as a reminder that we do not really give people unfettered religious freedom, but even if some of thoes laws are justified, spying and deception to me undermine too much this basic right of our country, that we are free to gather and worship as we choose, without fear of the government watching us and monitoring us. At least that is the way I see it right now.