I heard an evangelical leader say this a few weeks ago with respect to liberal protestants, and it further convinced me that posture, as much as belief, is what distinguishes evangelicalism from the historic mainline. I’ve heard mainline leaders say the same thing about their evangelical counterparts.
The posture of evangelical prayer is expressive, warm, personal, and rooted in the cadences of New Testament epistles. Mainline worship is senatorial, polished, and sounds out the prophetic tones of King and Oscar Romero as much as Amos and Hosea.
To evangelicals, mainline preaching is Biblically illiterate and more about culture than Christ.
To mainliners, evangelical worship is overly emotional.
Of course, posture not only expresses belief but shapes it.
Note: Monday Morning Quarterback is a recurring post that examines personal and pastoral events of Sunday.
4:00. Alarm. Fell asleep working on the sermon last night, so here’s how this gets done.
4:37. Getting lost in Google Earth so I can name in my sermon the distances in miles from Jerusalem to Nazareth, Capernaum, and Bethlehem, respectively.
6:43. Closing the laptop on a sermon with no ending.
6:45. Enjoying some of the MASSIVE fruit salad I made yesterday. This thing should last all week.
6:53. Picking a tie in the dark=a dangerous move.
7:03. Out the door.
7:15. Set up the laptop in the pulpit to begin editing (and writing a conclusion).
7:32. Checking on my stack of T-shirts for handing out in the narthex. It’s a creative and interactive and very forward-thinking Palm Sunday worship idea that couldn’t possibly go wrong. Don’t worry about it.
7:52. Putting up Sunday School signs and suddenly remember that the youth Sunday School room has been overtaken by the preschool book fair. I knew about this and made alternate plans for afternoon youth groups but not Sunday School. Doh!
8:12. Catching up with Head of Staff, who was out of town all week.
8:58. Relocating Youth Sunday School class to library. Teachers smiling at me through gritted teeth.
9:12. Sitting in with Youth Sunday School as they finish preparations to lead next Sunday’s early morning Easter service.
9:13. The perfect opening hymn for this service wou–oh look a donut!
9:24. Student objecting to the Prayer of Confession language about the “cost” of following Jesus. Scanning the book shelves directly behind him for Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship.”
9:49. Checking in with Head of Staff before the service and realizing that I’ve incorporated some out-of-the ordinary stuff in this service and not necessarily told her about it exactly so much really for the most part.
10:07. Making two of the three pulpit announcements entrusted to me. Forgetting the third.
10:08. Head of Staff calling on me to make the announcement I forgot to make earlier. It’s for an Easter vigil service, and I manage to describe it without a single use of the word “vigil.”
10:11. College student liturgist who I’ve recruited to lead a memorized call to worship and who is doing a bang-up job of it pauses a little too long between lines, and the organist launches into the opening hymn. Dazed liturgist stammers off the chancel.
10:12. The palm procession is a train of kids parading around the sanctuary waving palms at worshipers who are waving them back at them. Fun.
10:14. Liturgist now leading Prayer of Confession from memory and with drama. He’s goooood.
10:18. As children scramble forward for the Time with The Children (where the very creative, forward-thinking, interactive T-shirt activity is to take place), someone tells me that most people wouldn’t take the shirts when they came in. Uh oh. The whole Time with The Children, Scripture lesson, and sermon depend almost entirely on lots of people having these shirts to lay down in the center aisle. Hadn’t considered for a moment that people might actually decline taking them.
10:22. Whatever. There’s enough. It’ll work. Remembering that I work with competent and creative people who can cover over my lack of preparation.
10:25. Launching into my first attempt at Biblical storytelling. With lots of guidance from the inestimable Casey Wait Fitzgerald, I’ve practiced these dozens of times this week. Now suddenly afraid I’m going to trip down the chancel steps.
10:27. Still on my feet.
11:01. Liturgist now leading a memorized charge and benediction. Hoping he realizes he’s just creating a need for himself.
11:12. Man from Jerusalem informs me that I misstated the distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. I’d said “22 miles” because that’s what Google Maps had showed me, depicting a long circular route. When I explain this, the man from Jerusalem says, “That’s because of the occupation. It’s really walking distance.” Remember that I know nothing about anything in the world that’s important.
11:25. Making plans to meet Wife and Daughter for lunch in an hour after I lead the Lenten small group.
12:45. Lenten small group still going.
1:03. Arrive at the restaurant where Wife and Daughter have finished their meals and mine is waiting for me. Wife=the best.
1:38. Arrive home just in time to find that the Royals are now behind 4-3. Sigh.
1:52. Royals lose. Nap time.
1:55. Daughter excitedly showing me her sticker book creation.
1:57. Cats nestling in that crook between my knee and ankle.
1:58. Daughter jumping on my stomach and asking why the Royals lose so much.
2:12. Trying to teach Daughter to open Netflix by herself so I won’t have to get off the couch. She can totally do it, and now, I realize, my life is very different from what it was a minute ago.
2:37. Giving up on nap. Making coffee.
2:46. Show wife newspaper article about Disney on Ice this coming weekend.
2:48. Receive text message confirmation of ticket purchase to Disney on Ice. Wait, what?
3:43. Getting daughter ready for play rehearsal. It’s production week. And Holy Week. Awesome.
4:19. Leaving for youth groups. Need more coffee.
4:48. Jr. high student divulges that her login name for Webkins used to be “ChaCha143.” Her peers are now resolved to call her that for the rest of the day.
4:52. Student says, “I tried to give up sweets for Lent, but that didn’t work.” Me: “Why didn’t it work?” Student: “They’re just really good.”
4:55. Urging students to take one week Lenten disciplines. Here’s a commitment: “I commit to being nice to everybody this week. Except my brother.”
5:06. Playing “Run on The Bank” outside, crouching in the bushes with a student. This violates every risk management policy we have.
5:08. Student in camo’s is telling everyone “get down!” Dude, this is a church game, not Call of Duty.
5:48. Intern has brought white wine vinegar for students to smell as we hear the passion story. Student in camo’s drinks some. I love junior high.
6:30. Gathering with high school students at the multiplex for Noah.
6:50. Not appreciating the trailer for “The Other Woman” with my group of high school dudes.
7:22. When Anthony Hopkins appears as Methuselah, whisper to the Youth Volunteer next to me, “Of course it’s Anthony Hopkins. Was Morgan Freeman not available?” Her answer: “Morgan Freeman is God.”
9:30. Dropping a student off home.
9:43. Home. Wife has made daughter’s lunch and prepped everything for Monday morning. Wife=bestbestbest.
Note: Monday Morning Quarterback is a recurring post that examines personal and pastoral events of Sunday.
5:10. Alarm. That the clock reads 10 after the hour means the alarm went off once already. I have no memory of that.
5:33. Sit down to start working on adult ed Sunday school lesson. Start by trying to memorize the story.
6:12. Consider using a piece of music to reflect on Jesus’ question, “What are you looking for.” There are good options and bad options. Never mind. There are no good options.
6:49. Breakfast is a banana parfait, which is fancy pants talk for mashed up banana topped with cornflakes. So, baby food.
7:14. Getting dressed. Ask Wife, “Are you coming to my Sunday School class?” Wife: “Uh, no. I’m sleeping.” Alright. Awesome.
7:37. Making Daughter a smoothie for breakfast. The blender is alive with strawberries!
8:20. Printing signs and Sunday school sign in sheets. Daughter racing to the printer to retrieve papers. Its literally her favorite thing about Sundays.
8:31. Setting up still image Head of Staff wants to display during her sermon. Suggest I could cue up some wolf howl noises as a reprise of my performance a couple of weeks ago when I started playing a video too early. Why isn’t she laughing?
9:08. Start Sunday school class with the prompt: “Think of a time when someone asked you a question that caught you off guard.” Answers include, “Why did you teach those dirty books?” from a former teacher and “Where is home?” asked of a former missionary by her four year-old (bonus: the older sibling’s answer to the four year-old was, “Home is wherever mom isn’t.”).
9:40. Invite Sunday school class to take a moment to silently consider Jesus’ “What are you looking for?” for themselves. The silence is rich.
9:52. I let Sunday school run long, now I’m racing to the sanctuary to turn on announcement slides. Pass the Head of Staff assembled with the communion servers. Cover my face and duck behind them unseen.
10:11. The Prayer of Confession this morning is two junior high girls singing what we’re calling “A contemporary song.” I know my seminary professors would roll their eyes at this, but I’m choking up a bit.
10:20. Children’s time is an art project led by the CE Director. Wait. When I texted her from NEXT that “we should try a Children’s Time that involves kids making some art” I didn’t mean, like, this week!
10:30. Children’s time art project running long. Kids filling baby food jars with fragrant oil and decorating them with stickers. The congregation is totally dialed in though.
10:34. Turn on still image for Head of Staff’s sermon.
10:39. Still image turns to blue screen. Forgot to adjust computer settings. It went to sleep. Seriously. How hard is this?
10:41. Head of Staff working her whole sermon around, “Say something I’m giving up on you.” I’m a little bit in awe.
10:52. Wife has retrieved Daughter and Playmate for communion. They’re in the front pew. Playmate is laying with her head in Daughter’s lap while Daughter strokes her hair.
10:57. Playmate takes two pieces of communion bread!!
11:23. Remark to Wife how precious Daughter and Playmate looked. She corrects me: “They were playing a game: Playmate was a crazy baby and Daughter was her mommy.”
11:46. Meeting to plan kid-friendly Easter vigil. CE Director ordered pizza. I’ll plan a baby-friendly service for pizza.
12:44. Meeting Wife and Daughter at the park. Gleeful to discover student there. On a date. About 200 yards away.
12:45. Text student, “Why weren’t you in church?”
12:45. Text student, “Don’t you hate it when people text you while you’re on a date?”
12:45. Text student, “Like, a lot.”
12:46. Student calls. “You should know this doesn’t happen very often. You should stop now.” Stopping.
1:42. Walking with Wife and Daughter to get pie and coffee. It’s a sunny 77 degree Sunday afternoon and we’re going for pie and coffee; why can’t every day be like this?
2:23. Negotiating junior high youth group snacks by text. High school youth group snack texts going unreturned.
4:44. Two students for junior high youth group. Four adults.
5:18. Students sitting on the curb while I tell the Jesus temptation story from the middle of the street, all so I can point to the mountains behind me at verse 8.
5:48. Game of Things with this youth group can mean only one thing: dead hamster jokes.
7:11. Two students for high school youth group. Five adults.
7:33. Listening to this gem from TAL about The Apology Line.
9:00. Youth group ends with one student storming away irritated at the other student. Awesome. I can’t prevent conflict when there are only two kids.
9:14. Pitching the Intern on the Youth Ministry Coaching Program (see what I did there?).
9:30. Return home to find that Wife has signed all the tax papers and arranged them all with their respective payments paper clipped to color coded envelopes. Decide she gets a pass on skipping my Sunday school class.
In September of 2014 The Synod of Southern California And Hawaii will begin its first ever cohort of The Youth Ministry Coaching Program. I’m very excited to be part of this project, and I hope lots of youth workers in our synod will apply. I’m an alum of this program (see here). It significantly changed my approach to youth ministry.
Click here or on the Synod YMCP Cohort link on the right of the page to learn more and to apply.
There are only 10 spots in the cohort, and priority will be given to applications completed by April 30th.
The fourth NEXT Church national gathering ended yesterday, so here are my takeaways.
I said in some posts leading up to the gathering that I was looking for NEXT to articulate some ideals for leadership, to share prototypes of new ministries, and to continue its trajectory of constructive, infrastructure-heavy work of building the next iteration of the Presbyterian church in the United States.
- Leadership: This was a strong emphasis of the gathering and was carried largely by a presentation and workshop led by Mark Ramsey and Kristy Farber of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church of Asheville. The two drew a very helpful distinction between leaders who invest in strategic planning and those who invest in strategic thinking. The former wants to produce a plan, a course for the future that will ensure viability through the following of articulated steps. The latter wants only to develop the capacity for the church to evaluate the present moment and its opportunities in light of its shared mission, values, and commitments. You accomplish the former with a committee and a document. You accomplish the latter by, in Mark’s great phrase, “funding the theological imagination” of the church. The opportunity is not to set a course for all to follow, but rather to invest in the people of God’s ability to discern which way God is turning us in our day-to-day reality.
- Leadership (II): Jim Kitchens and Deborah Wright said something that stopped me in my tracks. Best practices are dumb. At least in an adaptive challenge, best practices won’t help you. Because best practices are other peoples’ methods for successfully accomplishing defined aims and solving technical problems. But we, they argued, are in a situation where the aims aren’t clear and the problems aren’t technical. We shouldn’t waste another minute coming up with best practices for being the church today.
- Prototypes: Ignite presentations gave participants seven minutes each to pitch something. Some pitches were mini sermons, while others really were descriptions of prototypes. Rob Ater described the Presbytery of Milwaukee’s new relational meeting format: prototype. Leanne Masters of Southern Heights Presbyterian Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, described the food forest their church is starting: prototype. And Landon Whitsitt, the Executive and Stated Clerk of the Synod of Mid-America presented Theocademy, a completely free, completely online video curriculum for officers and members going live next month: prototype.
- Infrastructure: I doubt NEXT’s leadership envisioned it this way, but Casey Wait Fitzgerald’s Biblical storytelling in the event’s worship services and her testimony about the role it plays in her ministry and in her life was all about infrastructure. Casey has completed a certification in Biblical storytelling through an academy run by the Network of Biblical Storytellers. Now she’s got a repertoire of stories that she tells in worship, at conferences, on retreats, and even at home, to share the good news. It’s narrative infrastructure, perhaps the most important kind for a church swimming in a pluralistic postmodern setting.
Two and half days is a long time, and you can cram a wagon full of content in there. NEXT’s organizers did just that. For a more complete picture of what went out, read up on Leslie Scanlon’s articles in The Presbyterian Outlook, which are always artful and informative. John Vest has posted a really thorough reflection on it too. Also, you can spend some time with the event’s hashtag.
NEXT 2014 was reflective, challenging, and hopeful. I’m certainly looking forward to the next NEXT gathering (in Chicago!), but more than that I’m eager to start experimenting with the insights and ideas I got at this one.
Were you there? What’s the biggest thing you got out of it? Were you hoping to get something out of it but didn’t?
The fourth NEXT Church national gathering is next week in Minneapolis. I’ve been to each of these gatherings so far, and I’ve come away each time with lots to think about and experiment with. This week we’ll look back at the first three NEXT gatherings and suggest things I’m looking forward to at this year’s gathering.
The NEXT experience in Charlotte was rich in worship (led by Theresa Cho and her merry band). It was also the first national gathering run by a National Director, the incomparable Jessica Tate. Top to bottom, Charlotte was as good as it gets.
A year on, the thing from the Charlotte gathering that has made the most difference in my work is the worship stuff. Ashley Goff’s plea for a more improvisational sensibility in preaching in liturgy has been in my mind every time I’ve preached in the past year. I tried her “Yes! Let’s!” benediction the very first chance I got. Also, Casey Wait Fitzgerald’s performance of Biblical story telling encouraged me to bring something of a Godly Play feel to Scripture reading in worship and in my work with students, and I put that to work right away.
Pleas for creativity, risk-taking, and even failure were abundant in Charlotte, and I expect that trajectory to continue next week. NEXT has always succeeded at putting those sensibilities on display though, and not just dangling them as ideals that most people (and churches) can’t reach. When people like Aisha Brooks Lytle and Joe Clifford describe the things they’re trying, you come away with concrete ideas. It’s constructive.
What I’m most looking for in Minneapolis is the development of a school of leadership within NEXT. I’m eager to hear distilled some broadly agreed upon ideals and practices among people leading churches in a NEXT-y way. Chad Andrew Herring, I’m looking at you.
I’ll finish up my NEXT Retrospect series tomorrow, because today I want to say something about the World Vision controversy.
If you haven’t been following, World Vision announced earlier this week that it would lift its ban on hiring Christians in legal same gender marriages. Supporters reacted swiftly and vigorously, accusing World Vision of everything from harming children to not believing the Bible to trivializing the cross. Many supporters either threatened to pull child sponsorships directly or speculated that lots of people would (in one of those predictions meant to bring about the thing it predicts).
Amid that wash of evangelical furor, bloggers like Rachel Held Evans defended World Vision and gaped at the pitch of its now disillusioned supporters. Evans even urged people to sponsor a child through World Vision who never had before.
In a statement that sounds like it was written at gunpoint, World Vision President Richard Stearns said
“What we are affirming today is there are certain beliefs that are so core to our Trinitarian faith that we must take a strong stand on those beliefs. We cannot defer to a small minority of churches and denominations that have taken a different position.”
Clearly, threatening to abandon children in poverty works. An international evangelical aid organization cannot hope to survive if the John Pipers and Franklin Grahams of the world are against it. In a culture that disdains clerical authority, these men function as the closest thing evangelicalism has to a pope, and their public denunciations are utterly damning. They know that.
But they’re wrong. They’re not just wrong in their threats and their contempt for gay people, but they’re wrong in their belief that the gospel is at stake in these disputes over sexuality.
It’s just not.
I’ve written about the gospel here, and what I want to say about it now is that it is both the good news about God’s salvation for all of creation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the good news of liberty for captives and sight for the blind that Jesus himself preached and called “gospel.” Neither of those things are threatened by a posture of acceptance towards same gender romantic relationships.
Is something critical at stake here? Yes. But not the gospel.
Evangelical leaders have chained their understanding of the good news of salvation to an edifice of Biblical literalism. That’s what is at stake in the church’s understanding of same gender affections–the fervent belief that, unless you uncritically import patriarchal, idolatry-fearing, and misogynistic Biblical prohibitions against same-gender sex into a contemporary setting full of committed, faithful same gender romantic relationships, you have no part in Jesus. What’s at stake is a posture that makes the whole of our “Trinitarian faith” hinge upon a context-free interpretation of seven passages of scripture.
Progressives make the same mistake when we claim that the gospel is at stake unless the church unconditionally accept homosexuality. That’s because both evangelicals and progressives have far less power than we think to put the gospel at stake. The gospel is gospel: good news– news. An announcement–that the oppressed are delivered, the last are first, the poor are made rich, the kingdom of God has come near, the dividing lines between Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free have all been overcome in God’s triumph of reconciliation over sin and death. That good news is not at stake in disagreements over homosexuality.
The church’s witness to the gospel is at stake, for sure. And here evangelical leaders have just done serious harm to the church’s witness to the gospel, and not just because they forcibly stomped down the humanity of gay people and held hungry children at gunpoint. But also because, more than the good news of little children being welcome and outcasts brought back in and the sick made well, these leaders have witnessed to the efficacy of bullying and financial threats to get what you want. That’s a witness to something, but it ain’t the gospel.
In reversing its decision, World Vision is equating truth and goodness with the volume of the majority. That, too, is a witness, although, again, not to the gospel.