Church

Fall

I started having serious conversations last week with parents and students about fall youth ministry plans. Our state has progressed in reopening to the point that allows in-person meetings of 50 or fewer people, all masked, who retain six feet of physical distance and who preferably gather outside. So it seemed worth considering: could we gather youth under those conditions?

The conversations revealed persistent anxiety about reopening, even though we’ve slowly been doing it for weeks. Outbreaks in other regions of the country are scary, and the daily case count in our state started moving in the wrong direction last week, too, making any mid-July decisions about September and October feel tentative, if not foolish. The parents of my students are on top of that, for very good reason.

Talking with them also made clear that decisions about church participation will likely follow decisions about school and sports activities. If schools aren’t open, church events won’t see a lot of kids. If schools are, they might see some.

The clearest picture right now is one of continuing online youth ministry. Of course, “continuing” need not mean extending our emergency plans from the spring into the indefinite future. We can iterate on Zoom. We can make the kinds of plans we’ve never made before, not simply because the circumstances don’t permit anything else, but also because they urgently call for this.

Many of us have lamented that we weren’t trained for this. Yes we were.

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Church

Stop Throwing Your Ideas

I’m working on caring enough about the ideas I share to 1) spend sufficient time and energy thinking about them before I share them and 2) argue for them until I’m convinced they’re wrong or limited. I don’t want to “put an idea out there” (much less “throw an idea out there”) anymore. I want to care enough about my ideas to handle them well. Unless it’s a ball or a back handspring, you don’t throw things you care about.

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Urgency

It feels like a measure of maturity, the ability assess the severity of a problem against the severity of other problems, to avoid both diminishing and inflating a problem’s urgency relative to everything else we’re dealing with.

“How urgent is this problem compared to all the other problems?” feels like a critical question, and the leaders who know where and when to ask it make a valuable contribution.

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Online

Our first online Urban Youth Ministry cohort enters its last day today. 11 junior high youth spent Monday and Tuesday morning learning about homelessness in Chicago from social workers and advocates. They’ve worked through a budget to understand why affordable housing in the city with a minimum wage job is such a precarious proposition. They’ve challenged their own perceptions and given voice to the change they think is needed.

Coronavirus laid waste to the work we thought we would be doing with young people this summer, in person, on trains, on site. But it has also opened up a space to try something that, two days in, feels like a meaningful supplement to that in-person youth ministry. We’re going to exercise this muscle for as long as the moment requires, and we will probably keep using it when circumstances change for the better.

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Church

No Video

I spent three hours yesterday with junior high youth on Zoom. At the same time, my soon-to-be 7th grader at home was on a Zoom class of her own. She kept the video camera off for most of it, as did almost all of the youth I was working with. I don’t like it. It feels rude. I suspect it permits students to disengage while they do other things.

But I don’t insist they keep their cameras on. As much as I dislike staring at a black box where a face should be, it also feels like a potential technological disparity and a developmental risk to insist on video. I’ve had at least one young person explain to me that their laptop didn’t have a camera, so “requiring” one introduces an immediate inequity. And early adolescents are experiencing a higher level of negative self-awareness than they will at any other time in their life, and it feels like going dark on video is a protective measure. It feels icky to force it.

Like everything in this moment, I’m sure much of the time that I’m reacting the wrong way. But, for now, I’m fine with being wrong for the right reasons.

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Church

Graveside

It was approaching a muggy 90 degrees by the time the family climbed out of their line-up cars and began the short walk across the grass to the Easy Up at the mouth of the grave that would hold their beloved. This was a full burial graveside service. A dump truck loaded with dirt sat barely 10 yards from several folding chairs neatly arranged under the tent.

As always with these services, the words were few. The family didn’t even sat. They stood in the full sun instead, blocking the dump truck, so that when the talking was done the Funeral Director had to tactfully coach them all in moving to the side to let it through. Only once the cemetery personnel had back-and-forthed the truck into position and begun elevating the bed to release the dirt did people sweatily sit. And sob.

A low flying plane could be heard overhead. Grateful for the momentary distraction, I squinted at the sky to see a red rectangular banner being pulled through the sky overhead: “Keep America Great. Text ‘TRUMP’ to XXXX.”

I could hardly think of anything less great in that moment.

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Church

Lillith

The new episode of Hit Parade, one of my favorite podcasts, revives The Lillith Fair, the all-women concert tour from the late 90’s. I am geeking out.

I saw a Lillith Fair show in the summer of 1997 in Winter Park, Colorado. Sarah McLachlan, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tracy Chapman, Jewell, Ani Difranco, Paula Cole, and a bunch more amazing artists played on a mountainside all day long, and it formed one of my most enduring memories of music and friends and nature and community.

Two takeaways then. 1) Hit Parade is amazing and well worth the subscription it now requires, and 2) the cancellation of live music through this summer is foreclosing lifetimes worth of joy and celebration. That’s a tangible loss.

1997 – Lilith Fair Tour | About Tracy Chapman
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Church

You’re Wrong

Your side is wrong. You’re not always the good guys, and sometimes you stand in the way of progress more than you aid it. The argument you think is so airtight is built on flawed assumptions. Your leader has a lot to learn.

Hard things to hear. But if we have a trusting relationship with someone who will say them to us, we are well situated. Of course we can hear the errors of our side enumerated by ideologues on the other side. We’ll brush those off as zealotry and ignorance. They don’t agree with us about anything. A friend, though, someone who knows us and cares about us and agrees with us most of the time? When she’s willing to say “You’re wrong,” we darn well better listen.

That’s a gift.

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Church

Two Spaces

I experienced the church as two different spaces on Sunday. The first was eerily empty and the second was bustling with life.

In the morning, the Fellowship Hall and the sanctuary I am accustomed to finding filled with well-dressed people happy to see one another and eager for worship, my footsteps echoed off the walls. I spoke softly into a microphone and looked into a camera to lead a prayer during worship, ignoring the sea of empty pews. It felt impossibly sad.

Then in the afternoon I returned for the weekly Sunday Night Supper, where over 100 people lined the walkway in the courtyard to get a hot meal or a bag lunch served by the same small crew that has been serving like this since March. People were happy to see one another. Their loud greetings and well-wishes filled the enclosed outdoor space.

Church right now is both of those spaces on the same day.

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To Zoom Or No

As restrictions on in-person gatherings are eased, an important ministry question arises: if we can safely gather together by limiting the number of participants and ensuring they all wear masks and keep 6 feet apart, should we? Is a physically-distanced gathering better than an online one?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the breadth and depth of interaction permitted through Zoom. It shouldn’t have been a surprise; lots of people have been using this technology for a long time. Coaching, for example, is a field that has thrived over the past decade by convening online cohorts, some of which never meet in person. Those cohorts do important work.

And yet . . . Zoom.

You know the depleted feeling by now, the one that settles on you after about an hour staring into your screen and trying to communicate without the nonverbal cues communication needs. Students are sick of it, so why should my ministry with them demand more of it, especially if an in-person option is available?

Zoom is a valuable tool, but it’s starting to feel more valuable when you don’t have to use it.

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