Thursday, February 11, 2016

Coming Out as Church

Mid-January, as part of our congregational visioning process, I invited our Sunday school youth into my office, and we turned the space into a recording studio. We used two yard stickers as clackers to start and end takes, and interviewed anyone who wanted to speak about their vision for our church. You can listen to the interview here:

The next week, the congregation had a chance to vote on their top visions. The item that rose to the top, in large part due to the organizing prowess of the youth, was simple, yet profound:

Have church be outside (even all year)

Here's the thing about this vision. Not everybody gets it, or even likes it. Some people read it and assume the youth mean worship outside, although that isn't exactly what they said. Other people read it, and have an adverse response, because they can't imagine being outside that much. Or something.

I have a lot of spiritually wise people in my congregation, so the majority of adults I know sat with this idea of the youth for a bit, and started asking more interesting questions like:

1. How can we start doing this in small ways?
2. What do we think the kids meant by this?
3. What counts as outside? What counts as church?

If I were to summarize what I heard the youth saying in the interview, I'd say they had great experiences outside in 2015, and hope to replicate some of those and expand on them.

Some of their favorite events of last year included our 4th of July picnic, kickball at the local park against a neighboring church, a fall bonfire where they ran around in the dark and the columbarium and played while the parents sat around the campfire.

A high moment of the summer was a spontaneous showing at the Fayetteville Pride parade. Our congregation organized to walk in it. What we didn't anticipate, but was totally awesome, was the huge youth showing.

I often take the children's message out the doors of the sanctuary into the neighboring courtyard or columbarium. The congregation can still see us, because our sanctuary is all windows. We literally look outside all the time when we are in worship.

They probably remember our Churches Outside Together concert series, our camping trip to Petit Jean mountain in central Arkansas, and many other times we just get outside to play or dig in the dirt. When I started listing all the times we were outside in 2015, it was a long list.

So they like that, and they want more of it.

But then I started realizing how much getting outside is becoming part of our congregational identity, and not just outside in the literal sense of that term. For example, our race and faith adult forum realized we should probably commit to going and being with other Christian groups, joining them in what they are doing. If we want diversity, we can't accomplish it only or even primarily by getting people to come to us. We have to go out and be with others.

Examples of this include recent marching with workers and Interfaith Worker Justice, a prayer vigil for victims of terrorism organized by Latino leaders in Springdale, presence at St. James Missionary Baptist for their prayer vigil after Charleston, and so on.

We all get out if by out you mean in media contexts. I write a column for the newspaper. Many of our members are interviewed for local radio. We're on television. We have a social media strategy. We're in the commons, if you will. We're also in our parish, in the neighborhood, friendly with the school and real physical neighbors.

On the way out of church last night, one youth said she hoped we'd organize a worship service at the local botanical gardens. Other youth just want their Sunday school classes to meet outside.

And I think that outside is an analogy for something even bigger.

It is a ministry, and people know it is a ministry, to be out in the LGBTQ sense of that word. We do not try to hide who we are. We live it proud, and it shows, and it helps many people, especially those alienated from religious community, feel like this might be a place for them.

It is a ministry to be outside the church walls just being church in the world. Of course we are always out of the church in our daily vocations, but there's something powerful in the public witness of people of faith all showing up together at a Black History Month event, or a Pride parade, or a community vigil.

It is a ministry to be out in the outside sense of the word. For too long Christian faith communities have been detached from real care of mother earth. We can learn from our orthodox brothers and sisters, and more eco-sensitive traditions, that we join all of creation in praise of God.

And it is a ministry to not do so much ministry in the church that you have no time to join the ministry of others. Over and over, I realize how blessed other churches are if we show up for what they are doing. For example, this past week we hosted a Shrove Tuesday supper, and it was a blessing to receive guests from area groups and churches, not because they were going to join our church, but because the cross-pollination of their presence with us makes us stronger, and richer.

It is always an art to maintain a center while going out into the world. It takes a rather grounded community to orbit further and further afield. On the other hand, it is a sign of the strength and internal resilience of a community how easily and readily they can fly the nest and soar among others. Communities nurturing strong in events that form faith will find that their people can travel ever greater distances both up towards God and out towards their neighbor, all the while maintaining a grounded and beautiful sense of who they are in relation to God and neighbor.

And when they do, they are practicing church outside (even all year).

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