Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Important reminders

Today has been a day of somewhat strange encounters, and the day's not over yet. I began my morning with a much needed run (which I must confess ended in a walk). While cooling down, a woman walking her dog approached me and began a conversation. She was very curious about me, our family, how we went about renting our home and she asked me a bazillion questions. Because I began my day with a reading from The Attentive Life, I recognized the importance of paying attention, and instead of giving a quick hello, I engaged in conversation. When I told her I was a minister, she looked somewhat amazed and said in a very naive tone, "huh, you don't hear of many women ministers, do you?" I loved her curiosity, her expressiveness and her friendliness.

Another encounter was with a man suffering from dementia. During our conversation, he reminisced about his career and life as a minister and he kept referring to people by their race (i.e. "the blacks" and "the whites"). A black man now in his 80s, he recalled with pride his ability to cross racial boundaries to minister to and with white folks as well as black. He made several comments about how our churches should be more racially diverse, and he ended our visit by telling me that whatever I was setting out to do, it was going to happen (and he said it with great confidence!).

I love days like today, days when I am free to enjoy encounters with people unlike me, yet so much like me. So often I am too hurried to notice, attend to, or value each encounter in a given day. Today, instead of being preoccupied with thoughts of how/when/why of church starting, I lived in the moment. It's so easy to get carried away by allowing anxieties and concerns about the future to keep us from being present, but there is too much at risk by living this way. I would have missed out on a reminder that while the issue of women in ministry is important, it is inconsequential to the lives of most of the people walking through my neighborhood (duh...). I also would have missed an important reminder that longings for racial reconciliation are innate and powerful - so powerful, in fact, that they penetrate through the cob-webbed thoughts of an aging black man struggling with dementia. Sometimes I need a little perspective, and sometimes I also need to hear words of assurance (if even from a stranger) that, yes, with God's help, I can do this.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

It's worth the conversation

Avoidance is not the best way to deal with conflict. I have learned this lesson again and again. Unfortunately, many times this is the way we deal with conflict in our personal lives and in our churches. I'm sure that uncertainty over the outcome, concern over job loss, and fear about "rocking the boat" are some of our motivations for going about business as usual. Sometimes, though, I think we just do not want to face reality.

What might happen in a church if the community admitted that we have gotten off course? that we are not really fulfilling our mission (and in some cases doing just the opposite!)? What might happen in the larger Church if we had to answer these same questions? As painful as it may be to express our struggles, experience and experts tell us that we would reap rewards. This week, I ran across the Eighth Letter, an approach to addressing the challenge we face in being church in our day. Twenty-five authors/leaders will be presenting letters written to the North American Church with what they perceive to be the most urgent message the Church needs to hear. Here is one example written by Rachel Held Evans. The organizers of this event have expressed that their intention is to "bring together people and ideas in the hopes of being a contributing catalyst for something beautifully kingdom." Judging by my limited interactions with a few of them, I believe they are seeking to bring healing and hope and not to simply foster further anti-church sentiment.

I am not sure if this is the best way to begin healing, but I do believe that expression of pain, hurt and disappointment are a necessary step in any type of healing process. We must first admit and address the problem. In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann writes,

"The task of prophetic imagination is to cut through the numbness, to penetrate the self-deception, so that the God of endings is confessed as Lord." (Brueggemann, 45)

What might happen if we engaged our prophetic imaginations? If as citizens, friends, Jesus-followers, employees and church members, we refused to pretend that problems do not exist? What if we gave speech to the injustices, fears, doubts and conflicts we faced...and allowed it to serve as a catlayst for something beautifully kingdom? It is my hope that whether it is through a letter-sharing exercise, a much needed one-on-one conversation, or a church business meeting, that we will risk ourselves to deal with conflict in a way that brings healing and leads us to a fuller confession of God as Lord.

Friday, September 10, 2010

On llamas and leaving church

I've been amazed at how quickly our girls have adjusted to a new school and how quickly they have developed new friendships. Last night we hosted a slumber party for our oldest daughter and several of her new class mates. This tight-knit group of girls met at the beginning of this school year and seemed to form an instant bond. They began calling themselves the "llama club", and one of the gifts Alyce received at her party was a llama t-shirt. I'm not sure what prompted this rather unique group identity, but I am sure that they are each enjoying their new found sense of community.

It seems that we all have an innate desire for community. From birth on, we are looking for love and acceptance from parents, friends, and school mates. For some of us, this means desperately trying to fit in and for others it means choosing to identify with those on the fringes of society (those who say they are rejecting conformity, yet find themselves in a community of non-conformists). In either case, we are seeking a sense of community and a place of belonging.

For many Christians, the church has been that place. It was not only the place where people of faith learned and served, but where we ate, sang, and gathered together with friends. In fact, it was this strong sense of community that enticed non-church goers to give it a try. I have heard and experienced the power of the church community offering comfort, encouragement, accountability, and acceptance to people who might have never known those gifts. Yet, as I listen to many stories of those who have chosen to abandon the church, I hear of another side to the Christian community. It seems that instead of offering gifts of love and grace, experiences in some faith communities have gifted people with overwhelming shame, alienation, and a conviction that there is nothing "Christ-like" about the Christian church at all. Their response: leave church.

What type of experiences would be powerful enough to cause someone to leave a beloved community of faith and to abandon church altogether? Here's what I'm hearing:
  • After my dad died in a car accident, the church did not know how to deal with my mom as a single mother. I realized the church was not who they claimed to be.

  • My wife and I grew up hearing about what terrible people we were...all we ever felt was guilt and shame. Who needs that? We consider ourselves "spiritual" people, but have not darkened the church doors in a very long time.

  • My mom was divorced and that was looked down upon in our church. When I saw how she was treated, I decided church was not for me.

These are just a few examples. Although I realize that sometimes our expectations of community can be unrealistic, it saddens me to think that a community founded on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ has left this mark on people's lives.

The recognition of the power of community has prompted some recovering church-goers to form an online friendship that seems to be a source of healing. Communitas Collective is full of shared stories of pain and struggle, but also of hope and re-imagination. Although many people have left the institutional church, they are seeking ways to follow God AND they are still seeking community. If you've never visited this site, I encourage you to visit and listen to the conversation that's taking place. I am encouraged by the honesty, the vulnerability and the passion that I sense among this group. It makes me wonder what would happen if churches today would dare to ask their neighbors who have left the church "why?". Perhaps then we would have the opportunity to listen, to begin to heal and to imagine our future together.

Friday, September 3, 2010

"The truth of the matter is ..."

I am really excited about some conversations I have had with friends, neighbors, business-owners and ministers about this new church start. I have received many new ideas, unique perspectives and thoughtful advice. Because I love hearing stories and recognize the importance of hearing from a variety of perspectives, this has been a very exciting time. It's great to meet new people, to hear words of affirmation and to hear how this new faith community could be an asset to a community; however, I also recognize that those things can also become a distraction from the central mission of church planting.

One of my favorite people in the world used to preface what he would say with the words, "The truth of the matter is...". When he said this, you knew he was about to say something really important, kind of like "here's the bottom line, folks." I've been thinking about the truth of the matter as it relates to my calling to plant a new faith community. As much as I love fostering relationships, the compelling motivation for church planting is not forming a social network (although I believe Jesus did do this). As much as I love hearing stories of pioneering people who are revitalizing a neighborhood, the compelling motivation for church planting is not to affirm the renewal of a community (although I believe that Jesus was all about renewal). To use a line from my former pastor and friend, Dr. Jack Snell, "the truth of the matter" is my desire to participate in helping the gospel take root in people's lives through the formation of grace-filled community. It is my hope that as this faith community takes shape, it will not only help transform a neighborhood, but that it will be committed to making disciples who are passionate about loving and serving God and neighbor.