Church

Community Is Not Enough

Many of the conversations among church folk about what we should be and do employ the word “community.” Yet I have been surprised to note in some recent studies that several published and studied frameworks for “healthy” or “vibrant” or “growing” churches don’t mention “community” at all.

One lists “holistic small groups” and “loving relationships.” Another talks about “caring relationships,” while still a third goes only so far as “radical hospitality.” None of them say “community.”

Community cannot be an end in itself for the church. I’ve felt that from even before I went to seminary, but I always expressed it in terms of distinctiveness, like, “People can find community anywhere. The community of church should be distinct, special.” I’m no longer so sure about the ready availability of community, because it seems more and more true that churches are in fact one of the few remaining cultural spaces where the sense of personal belonging outside of one’s family can still be experienced. We are an isolated people.

But I’ve come to believe that community cannot be an end in itself for the church for another reason, and that is that, by itself, community can be dangerous.

We are experiencing a crippling and frightening level of political polarization in the United States in 2019, but don’t both sides of that divide enjoy community with their like-minded peers? Don’t bullies move in tight communities? Aren’t cultures that wink at–or even encourage–abuse enabled by the community enjoyed by those in power? One of the most terrifying elements of the white nationalist violence we have witnessed of late is the thriving (and mostly online) community enjoyed by its practitioners.

For the church, community cannot be its own end. Here we need adjectives, words imaginative and practical like “truthful,” and not mushy and vague like “authentic.” Inclusive, yes, but also serving and compassionate and maybe even delightful.

The adjective doesn’t conjure the thing it’s describing, of course, but it gives us the marker we’re all moving toward and it guides us in our worship, our formation, our evangelism, and our decision making.

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Church

Benediction

The introductory chords of the closing hymn had just begun when he appeared in my vision, a man striding intently down the center aisle of the sanctuary toward the chancel and the communion table–toward me and my colleague. It’s not an uncommon occurrence, actually. I can’t count the times a person has taken this route from the sanctuary entrance to the Fellowship Hall, where the coffee and cookies are, during a worship service.

But this gentleman did not turn left toward cookies and coffee. Instead, he reached the table, planted his feet, extended both his arms straight out to their sides in a cruciform pattern and bowed his head. Neither my colleague or I moved. We didn’t look at each other. We watched him. After a moment he looked up at her and then me and declared with utter conviction and strong diction, “I’m going to be okay.” He then turned around and began running back down the center aisle, breaking into a sprint and then slamming through the rear doors and out onto the sidewalk.

Unfazed, the congregation stood and sang the hymn.

We’re going to be okay.

Go in peace.

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Church

What Are They Here For?

The band were great but they hardly talked at all. One hit after another, they set ’em up and knocked ’em down. It was a nonstop rock show.

The previous concert was different. The performer at that one talked almost as much as he sang. He had a story for every song. It was one part live music and one part confessional, full of intimate oversharing.

Do people come to see you do what you do? Or do they come to see you? Do they want to hear you play your hits or tell your story?

You best be clear about that.

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Church

Jim?

We were ten minutes out from the airport on Highway 40 when the notification chimed on my phone that Jim had cancelled my ride. I thought it must be a mistake, a glitch in the algorithm, since Jim was quietly and intently driving us down the highway. He couldn’t have cancelled our ride; I’d just watched him tuck a pinch of Skoal into his lower lip. People still do that?

“Uh oh Jim. It says you cancelled our ride.” Jim doesn’t react for a solid moment, then he lifts his phone out of its dashboard cradle and studies it. We’re on a highway, and it’s raining. Watch the road, Jim.

“Where am I taking you?” he asks. I tell him the address, and before he can point out the discrepancy I can see that that is not the destination on his screen.

Nothing is true. My whole life is a lie.

“Is your name Jim?”

“No.”

Jim, Jim, Jim. I have called him “Jim” at least three times since we got in the car. I phoned him from rideshare pickup zone 2 because I wasn’t seeing the white Toyota Camry my screen was displaying. He’d practically shouted into the phone: “We’re not allowed to pickup in zone 2. You have to walk down to zone 1. I’m right behind the Chevy Suburban.” Sure enough, Suburban with a Camry right behind it. I climbed in the back and confirmed the driver’s name, as I always do.

“Jim?” Here my memory fails. Did he say “Yes” to that first address? It’s not clear, but he certainly did not say “No.” He just started driving.

So now we’re a half dozen miles from the airport in the wrong car with the wrong driver speeding towards the wrong destination. I’m trying to make sense and make a plan. There is no plan; I press for sense.

“But I called you from the Lyft app. We spoke on the phone.”

“I’m not Lyft. I’m Uber.”

“But then what about the person you were supposed to pick up?”

“Um . . . they cancelled.” It’s the pause after “Um,” the pause of someone who, charitably understood, is utterly lost, but who could also be plotting heinous deceit. Clearly it’s the latter.

Tell my wife and daughter I love them. When they find my hacked apart body, its pieces scattered, half-buried, across an Indiana cornfield, tell them I have no regrets. I lived life to the fullest.

Seconds that feel like hours pass in silence. In those seconds I watch my fellow passenger’s body, rigid and quiet in the front passenger seat. I don’t know him, don’t know what he might be capable of. We only met this morning. Is his right hand sliding down between the seat and the door in search of a weapon? Is our shared commute to an afternoon meeting about to morph into a fight for our lives?

The man I have been calling Jim breaks the silence by instructing his phone to navigate to our actual destination. He says he will just drive us there and that we don’t need to pay him. My fellow passenger sheepishly admits he has no cash, and I add that neither do I. More silence. I open the navigation on my phone to make sure it matches the route showing on Fake Jim’s screen.

We pull together some cash at our destination and pay him, and he urgently drives off. I trudge back inside through the drizzle and wonder if he wasn’t also playing out a murder scenario in his head as he drove, convincing himself with each passing mile marker that he was his passengers’ next victim.

I was still wondering about that when I landed back in Chicago and made my way outside to get a ride back to my apartment.

I took a taxi.


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NEXT Church

Next Church Notes: Six Lines from Two Keynotes

Here are six assertions I heard from the two keynote speakers at Next Church this week, Tali Hairston and Jennifer Harvey. These are the big insights I will be working on mentally and spiritually over the next several months.

From Tali Hairston’s Keynote

Transformational relationships require people with power to be uncomfortable, otherwise we end up with transactional relationships that sustain marginalization.

Trust is required for transformational relationships.

We need lament more than we need confession. Lament produces empathy. Then you can confess.

From Jennifer Harvey’s Keynote

Hospitality is not a survival strategy, and it certainly isn’t justice.

Reconciliation as a paradigm for race is a problem. It rests on an assumption that celebration and appreciation are all that’s needed. It is morally incoherent.

It is urgent for white people in America to identify with peoples of color as “my people” and to “show up” in spaces where we are not in the majority. Not wanting to intrude is a copout that is mostly about our own discomfort.

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NEXT Church

See You in Seattle

Next Church starts on Monday, and as I have been for all but one of them since 2011, I will be there. I am way looking forward to it.

It’s been awhile since I blogged about this movement and its terrific annual gatherings. For the first four years of its existence, I tried to narrate what I saw happening at the conferences in Indianapolis, Dallas, Charlotte, and Minneapolis. Then I helped organize the one in Chicago and got a very different perspective on what it means to tee up a substantive conversation for a diverse national group of church leaders. I think that’s when my Next blogging stopped.

I think I had deluded myself for half a decade that what was unfolding at Next was linear and could be described in the terms framed by the leaders of the organization and its national events. But I saw pretty clearly in 2015 that the Next Church conversation changes significantly from year to year, and the people up front are only one part of choosing what it’s about.

I missed the event in 2017, and when I went back to it last spring I felt like a Presbyterian Rip Van Winkle. The people, the environment, the tone, the sheer scale of the thing: Next 2018 felt like something I’d never been part of before. It was disorienting, even a little disappointing; for most of my professional ministry I had counted on these annual gatherings to be like the first ones I experienced, relatively small and like-minded. But my ministry context changed in 2016. A lot changed in 2016. Next changed with it.

So it’s actually exciting to participate in a movement that is undergoing such drastic and substantive change, growth and development you can actually experience first hand annually. That the course of that change is being directed by an increasingly diverse team of leaders–in concert with the Spirit–responding to what feels like an increasingly unpredictable culture only means that no single group of adherents has possession of what it is and what it’s doing.

Bring it.

See you next week!

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Church

Ash Wednesday

A white van pulls to a stop on the curb of the busy downtown street in front of the big gothic church, where a minister stands wearing a winter coat and a handmade stole behind a sidewalk sign that reads, “Ashes on The Way. Imposition of Ashes Available To All Throughout The Day.”

The driver of the van springs from the driver side door, rounds the front bumper in a few urgent steps and makes straight for the minister with the pewter dish of ashes in his ski-gloved hand.

The minister is ready. “You want your ashes?”

“Yes, Father.” Though he is a minister, and though this church is Presbyterian, “Father” is still the most common address he receives on Ash Wednesday, doling out dust and the promise of inevitable death on a cold afternoon in a city with a large Catholic population. The female ministers also offering ashes are, of course, never addressed this way. Still, he doesn’t correct them.

“Remember that you are dust [press the ash into the forehead just below the hairline and pull down about two inches], and to dust you shall return [drag the crossbar left to right, always left to right].”

The driver smiles and says thank you. Then he stands there for a moment, deciding about something. He asks, “Can I have some ashes to take with me, for my wife and our baby? The baby is sick and can’t go outside.” Immediately, a napkin appears from the driver’s pocket. He holds it open in two cupped hands, head bowed.

“Of course.” The minister tips a small pile of the black sooty dust into the napkin, shielding it from the wind. He straightens up and smiles at the man with his ash-dotted napkin.

“Can I have a little more? My wife needs some too.”

“Of course,” the minister answers, fighting the impulse to explain that it doesn’t take much and that the amount he’s already got is more than he needs. It’s a symbol. Sometimes you need a lot of symbol.

Satisfied now, the driver thanks the minister again and sprints back to the waiting van. It glides back into traffic smoothly and is off down the street, leaving the minister to imagine the scene later, when the driver imposes ashes on his wife and baby, or maybe his wife will impose them on the baby. How lovely that will be.

Moments later the minister receives a text from his wife, asking him to bring home some ashes for her and their daughter.

“Of course.”


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Church

On Getting It (And Not)

There is a pronounced difference between getting it and not. There are people about whom we say, in affirmation, “She just gets it,” and there are others of us who spend our days in a constant state of not-getting-it.

The superiority of one character’s moral and intellectual clarity over another character’s in television in films is never expressed more clearly than: “You just don’t get it, do you?”

But what does getting it amount to?

Probably more than accurately grasping the facts of the matter at hand. Probably something closer to acting right, which assumes an appropriate grasp of the facts.

The route from not getting it to getting it runs through acts more than thoughts.


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Church

Lent Forms Grooves

Lent has snuck up on me again. It starts tomorrow, and I find I am not in a state of mind to enter it contemplatively, even intentionally. Instead of Ash Wednesday, I have a committee meeting on my mind. Instead of a Lenten discipline, I’m contemplating a digital declutter and carb cutting. I need to drink more water. I need to read more. I need to exercise.

I didn’t grow up observing Lent (lots of Evangelicals don’t), so when I discovered it in my early 20’s I embraced it with vigor. The more demanding the discipline the better. I look back on those first penitential efforts with a combination of nostalgia and embarrassment now, because, yes, I was quite self-centered about it, imagining that the piety of a 23 year-old single guy was literally the most important thing there was, but those experiences also created grooves in my spirit and my memory that carried me into serious openness to vocational ministry.

It would be foolish to hold someone who is 42 to the same standard of devotion as their two-decades-earlier self. So I don’t. Instead of expecting Lent to be a six week course of intense devotion set apart from the rest of my life, I hope it infuses my entire life–work, parenting, husbanding, neighboring, self-caring–with more humility and penitence. I am hoping for new grooves, widely distributed.

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Church

It’s The Annual Youth Sunday Post

Yesterday was Youth Sunday. Youth from 6th-12th grade led every single element of two worship services, including composing most of the liturgy and preaching. They did great, of course. They always do.

It is finally dawning on me that leading a worship service is not the most challenging thing these young people have to do in their lives. I think the schools they go to and the pursuits they are committed to demand more practice and more poise of them than leading a prayer, probably even more than writing and delivering a sermon. So Youth Sunday, for me, is becoming less focused on preparing a group of youth for the challenge of leading worship and more focused on inviting them and equipping them to take advantage of a terrific opportunity.

It is a gift to remind a congregation, “In Jesus Christ we are forgiven,” as the leader of the Assurance of Pardon gets to do. It is a gift to call the church to offering, to lead it in prayers for the world, and to share with it your reflection on a Biblical text. Perhaps not more challenging than a euphonium recital, serving as a worship leader is uniquely cool, both for the leader and the led.

It is an opportunity they relish. You can see it.

Thanks be to God.

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