Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Solving the problems of church in a post-program era

"Surveying a congregation about the kinds of programs they want will not help congregations be effective." (John Wimberly)
If you are like me, as a church-leader you see-saw back and forth, one day convinced you have finally landed on the solution to all the woes of community organizing, then later that afternoon slightly despondent because you have discovered you actually have no idea what you're doing.

21st century church is the best of times and the worst of times. We get the chance to try out new things we've rarely attempted. And we have no idea what we're doing.

I recently posted a link to an article at the Congregational Consulting Group--"Is the Era of the 'Program Church' Over?"--in our church Facebook group. It garnered a lively discussion.

For one, it simply offered relief. One single mom said it made her cry, simply to be understood. It also resulted in a lively discussion about introversion, rest, and play, and how church relates to those aspects of life.

We ended up with some rather intriguing proposals. 

What about a church "Read-In" where everyone just brings a book and reads together? 

Or a big parallel play Lego session? 

Or hammocking?

Discussions around programs and church always revive an age-old question: What is the church for?

John Wimberly's basic thesis is simple. As people become over-committed, and have more and more opportunities to serve and attend programs in their communities, churches will need to focus on their particular niche: 
"There is still a need for programming, but it needs to be focused on deepening our members’ spiritual lives, creating small, intimate communities, and offering hands-on mission opportunities."
Spiritual life. Intimate community. Mission opportunities.

The article inspired me to tighten up my own elevator speech answering the question: What is church for?

I want us as a congregation to a) do life together, b) identify a shared mission and equip ourselves for pursuing it, and c) reach new people with the gospel.

I think it really is that simple. For better or worse, I think church is going well if people show up to spend quality time together, share a common mission into which they throw their energy (especially transformative work focused on justice and new life), and reach out to new people to share the gospel.

My parishioners were right, then, to ask about rest. Where is rest in that formula? What does play look like? How does an introvert fit in? What if you're feeling over-whelmed and just barely managing everything the world is already throwing at you?

In the program model of church, you just offer a wide array of programs to meet the felt needs of each kind of person in your congregation. 

If we move beyond the program model, what does "engagement" look like? How do we measure effectiveness if people are doing their ministry all over the place but it isn't observable directly where the church gathers?

This leads me to offer a series of suggestions. I think these are the concrete forms church is likely to take in a post-program era. I'm praying these suggestions, which I encourage for the wider church, might also take root in my own faith community.

  • Worship without walls: The next worship service your church starts won't be initiated by church staff or the pastor or the worship committee. Instead, a family in your church will simply start a house-church worship service, and invite their neighbors. They'll do three things in this smaller missional community: worship, do life together, and identify a common mission on which to focus. And they won't need the pastor to be there, because it's not rocket science to put together some bread and wine and speak some words of blessing over the communion meal.
  • From members to mission partners: You'll find another word other than "member" for those who share mission with you in your congregation. People will stop saying, "I go to Good Shepherd" and will instead say "I serve at Good Shepherd." They'll feel empowered to start things without asking permission. They won't get frustrated if the church isn't doing something they want it to do, because they know they can just do it themselves. And they will.
  • Embedded church: Instead of going to church events and inviting their friends, increasingly they'll simply engage in their volunteer work while articulating to those with whom they serve, "I'm here because Jesus was raised from the dead."
  • From programs to protest: Taking a stand, having a voice, community organizing, influencing decision-making at the local, state, and national level will be increasing part of what the church does. 
  • One-on-ones: All community organizers know that although programs and rallies are great, it's the one-on-one that changes the world. Last week our preschool class at church was a model of how the church can be.  A mom was on the floor reading, another was holding one of our special needs kids, another mom was at the table working on something and another child with his mom and aide were on the floor listening. Spiritual formation happens in these intimate moments, and friendships are forged.
  • Take risks: On average faith communities are far too risk averse. In the post-program era, churches will reduce the number of comfortable events they host in their own place, and instead they will take the risk of going to be with people far different from them, those who speak another language, live a different lifestyle, practice another faith. To do this well, they will also have to study. They will need to acquire the languages and skills necessary to successfully navigate the risks of such cross-cultural engagement. 
  • Read and pray: I know we're in a media saturated environment these days, and most people get their bible from the sermon and worship, if they get any bible at all. But if the Reformation taught us anything, it was that faith is energized by study conducted in the vernacular. So the church will take advantage of its incredible opportunity to meet Christ in the Scripture, and together in prayer. It's just they'll do it on their smart phones, and share the prayers on Instagram.

Monday, May 02, 2016

What is May Day?

Dear Clint,
If you’re like me and most Americans, you grew up celebrating Labor Day weekend as a weekend to barbecue with family and friends. For most of us, it’s a date synonymous with going back to school, sales on consumer goods, and the unofficial start of Autumn. 

Labor Day was enshrined by the late 1800s as a day to commemorate American labor. 
But the truth is, May Day is the time that most of the rest of the world honors workers and the labor movement. And it all started where I write this, here in Chicago.

On May 4, 1886, a confrontation between workers and organizers fighting for the eight-hour workday and police turned violent, with a number of deaths on both sides. In the aftermath of the Haymarket incident, the international labor movement chose May 1 as a day to remember the dead and to honor those workers fighting and organizing to improve working conditions for all. 

So, as the rest of the world continues to celebrate May Day, why doesn’t the United States? 
As the labor movement continued to gain momentum in the years following Haymarket, calls for a national holiday honoring labor grew, as well. After the deaths of Pullman strikers in 1894, the United States Congress voted unanimously to create a national holiday honoring labor.

But there was a catch. President Grover Cleveland was afraid that if the nation celebrated labor on May 1, as did much of the rest of the world, the day might be a little too inspirational to workers who would use the Haymarket incident as a rallying point. Instead, early September was chosen. 

It’s remarkable to compare the United States’ creation of Labor Day (and quiet dismissal of May Day) to the dynamics at work in the labor movement today. 

Just as President Cleveland and Congress were all but forced to honor labor through the tireless organizing and the blood, sweat, and tears of so many workers, today we see our leaders hesitate and equivocate as long as they possibly can before acceding even in part to the demands of labor. 

Whether it’s stopping deportations, ending wage theft, winning a living wage, improving safety on the job, or even protecting the right of working people to organize a union, today labor faces the same challenges in organizing and agitating our elected leaders to do the right thing and treat workers with dignity and respect. 

At Interfaith Worker Justice, our commitment is to remind those leaders that improving the lives and livelihood of working people is a moral act and to inspire workers to continue their fight in knowing that their faith will always quench their thirst for justice and provide a light in the darkest hour. Thank you for sharing in that commitment with us. 

Today, consider giving $18.86 to honor the workers who died for the eight-hour workday at Haymarket and to ensure that this vital work continues. 

Whatever you give, know that every penny will go to the ongoing mission of supporting worker justice and the values that drive us forward each day.

In solidarity,
Rev. Doug Mork
Interim Executive Director
Interfaith Worker Justice

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Ableism as Trinitarian Heresy | How Assuming Jesus was a Healthy White Guy Breaks Theology

A decade back I was at Le Chateau Montebello near Montreal for a theological conference, listening to Hans Reinders, professor of Ethics at Vrije Universities (Amsterdam) talk about faith and disability (http://www.faithability.org).

Hans woke me up. He had raised his profoundly disabled child to adulthood. Living long-term with his child while teaching ethics, he had come to ask a very important question, "Does what we are capable of doing define our humanity?"

One of the greatest sins of Christians is to simply not question our presuppositions enough. There's a lot of closed-minded bigotry disguising itself as faith. So I was thankful for this challenge to my own assumptions. I started in some limited ways to listen more to those in communities of the differently abled to learn from them how they thought about their own gifts and situation.

Around that same time, I became more aware of our own denomination's Differently-Abled Youth Leader Event. Together we learn to accept the abilities and gifts people bring to community rather than assuming that different abilities count as "dis"-abilities.

Later, I remember reading Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree (http://andrewsolomon.com/books/far-from-the-tree/) a few years back, and learned that many in the deaf community do not believe that deafness is something that needs "fixing." In a sense they are "defiantly deaf," lifting up the gifts and abilities that come with being deaf rather than hearing.

One might radically propose: is being able to hear actually a disability?

Theologically, what gets wrapped up in all of this are notions and assumptions of "what God wills." What parts of creation are fallen? Which parts are good? Who gets to decide?

I think at the root of so much of this are assumptions about what counts as the "perfect" human being. On average, I think Western culture has assumed that the healthy white male is the epitome of what God wants. So we depict The Human One, the Son of Man, in this way, Jesus as the virile, healthy white male.

If this is the definition of humanity, then everything else that diverges from that model is a threat. All kinds of systems kick into play: disgust, fear, othering.

Any depiction of Jesus that brings him into proximity with human divergence from the norm is a threat, because Jesus is supposed to be our salvation, and salvation is becoming "perfected humanity."

Somehow in this way of constructing things, we overlook so much of who Jesus actually was, not to mention so much of Christian Scripture, which celebrates and lifts up weakness (2 Cor. 13:4), injury (Galatians 6:7), Paul's thorn in his side (2 Cor. 12:7), the marks in Christ's resurrected palms (John 20:27), and celebrates not just one way of being abled, but the many, storied abilities that the Spirit brings (Romans 12:6).

This is why ableism and white supremacy and patriarchy are theological issues, because in the end they are a denial of Christ and his benefits as well as the Spirit and her gifts. Our increasing awareness of the problems of defining abilities incorrectly is not just some contemporary spirit of the age: it is a discovery in the present moment of the implications of Trinitarian theology.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A theology of bad blood

In January, I spent an uncomfortable couple of days reading A Church Undone: Documents from the German Christian Faith Movement, 1932-1940. I was surprised, over and over, by how many Lutheran theologians in Germany tied Christian faith to racial purity. Specifically, blood purity. Most of them believed mixing blood lines was tantamount to heresy. Failure to maintain blood purity placed the salvation of true Christians/Christianity at risk.

I'm always taken off-guard by the regular mention of blood in our hymns and in Scripture. Blood carries much meaning.  Blood finds its way onto the screen in Kill Bill and zombie films and I wipe it off skinned knees and it has a menstrual flow and I give it through a needle to a bank, and Jesus bled it as he died.

I shouldn't be so surprised, then, by it's use in scripture and hymn. 

But when I shared a post yesterday about intersexuality, the rapid and dramatic responses I got to the post made me realize--all lot of the people bothered by the conversation and inquiry, they believe in blood purity!

For example, one person argued that God sent the flood in order to purify the Nephilim blood line from its mixing with humanity. This particular Missouri synod Lutheran actually believes that God was trying to purify humanities bloodline corruption through the flood, and then finally purified the human blood line in Jesus.

Really, he thinks this. Never mind that the Nephilim reappear in Numbers. Never mind that Jesus didn't pass on his blood line through descendants. Somehow the purity of blood matters.
So apparently the issue with intersexuality, the reason it causes such great anxiety among these racial purists, is because intersexuality represents to them a weakening somehow of the blood line. Blood carries DNA. 

If Jesus is intersex, another person argues, then Jesus is "imperfect." Never mind that I was not arguing directly that Jesus was a specific kind of intersex, or not. I was in that other post simply offering a meditation on how we can hear Scripture better if we pay attention to Jesus' transgressive relationship to all forms of cultural norming.

But listen to what is happening here. Somehow it is heretical to speculate that Jesus is intersex, because that indicates he was imperfect. Bringing Jesus into proximity to something that is considered "unclean" somehow sullies Jesus--either is character, or his nature, I'm not sure which.

But that isn't how this whole thing works. Jesus didn't redeem a fallen humanity by becoming a genetically perfect human being (whatever that might be).

Jesus doesn't redeem humanity by restoring a pure bloodline. He redeems humanity by taking on humanity. Jesus takes our place, that we might occupy his. Whatever genome Jesus took on, it was his taking on of a genome, being found in human form, the humbling himself, that offers redemption.

In other words, Jesus being born of a virgin means he brings into himself all the blood, every blood. 

Welcome to Jesus, y'all, a mixed blood God and man.

We can't know if Jesus was intersex. We only have the witness of the saints, which confesses the miracle of the virgin birth and the full humanity of the man, Jesus. But it certainly is salvific, healing, to confess clearly that there isn't just one "ideal" human form.  It's a relief to many, actually.

Your salvation isn't at risk because you have "bad" blood. Jesus has experienced everything that humans have (without sin). So Jesus knows what it is like to have an empty womb. Jesus knows what it is like to be infertile. Whatever is considered impure in the world, Jesus goes and gets dirty with it. Not to strain out all the impurity and retain all the truly pure ones. No, Jesus goes and trades places with such blood, that all the blood might be all the blood.

What I think many readers of my last post totally missed was how conventionally traditional and biblical my argument was (although I should add, many other readers did see this, acknowledged it, found it helpful). I adhered closely to Scripture, to the tradition, and then offered a reflection on it that provides comfort and gospel for those who sorely need it. That's not heresy, my friends. That's the good news of Jesus Christ, who is so fully human that all of humanity, not just certain pure blood lines, are now "new blood!"