Monthly Archives: January 2012

The church tourist: Valley and Mountain

I have been a church tourist for a while now. Once I recovered from my last church gig, I embarked on a journey to see what was available to me in the greater Seattle area (and visited a few places as I traveled around the country). It was a casual affair, I was sort of looking for a church home and sort of assuaging my guilt about not going to church. One of the nice things about this year is that I have a vision for where I am going (finally), am excited about the possibilities and have the time to be an intentional church tourist. I get to search for all kinds of ways of being Christian community and talk to the people who do it. It is really, really fun.

While I was back in Seattle over my break, I visited a few Christian communities. The one that gave me a ton of hope and a lot of great ideas was a mission start of the United Methodist Church, Valley and Mountain. Valley and Mountain only has a worship-type event once a month, which they call Celebrations. It was a really gross night in Seattle. We had just received a preview of the snowstorm — most people don’t go out if there is more than an inch on the ground. But this was my only chance, so I was heading out.

They rent part of an old school, that is now a school and community center, in the Colombia City neighborhood of Seattle. Colombia City is one of my favorite places. It’s really diverse (racially, socio-economically, and age-wise), plus there is a great main street with restaurants and such. It also has a strong sense of community, but that is being tested by gentrification (it is one of the few places in Seattle that could be called affordable). When I walked in I was immediately struck by the fact that there were people there — Celebration with community was clearly worth venturing out in the snow for these people.

Welcome: There are a few parts of church visiting that I dislike. One is the awkward what do I do, where do I go, how does this work, do I have to have a name tag period (I hate name tags). It was a little awkward at first, but then I noticed the name tags. Usually in churches, you can tell the members from the visitors by name tags — members often have some shiny permanent name tag, and visitors get a “Hello, my name is…” sticky. This sounds fine, but let’s re-frame it. The people who belong have their own nice name tags. The people who don’t get crapy ones. At Valley and Mountain, everyone gets the same name tag. There are these rectangular pieces of felt for people to write their names on (if you’re new) and pin to yourself. People who have been there before leave their name tage on the table for pick-up. Simple as that. I love this.

Experience: (Some of this might be out of order, but it all happens, I swear) There is a good amount of writing on how post-moderns are into experience. They (we) don’t want to just sit and absorb information like a good little sponge — participation is highly valued. Celebration opens up with everyone sitting in a circle, singing a song then sharing thanksgivings or prayer requests — a great way for people to check in (there were about 20 people there that day, with a lot of name tags left on the table due to the weather). As we went around, I noticed that the diversity of the room reflected the diversity of the neighborhood. Awesome.

We then split off into groups for experiences/projects (I don’t remember what they call this time). The options change, but this week there was someone leading meditation, a duo from the Colombia City Art Walk leading some time with art and community, and sandwich making for the homeless. I made sandwiches — I wasn’t really feeling the meditation theme or artsy.  I got a chance to talk to people, which was cool.

One way to connect with the Holy

Word: After about half an hour, we came back together for another song, some scripture, and a sermon-type thing (reflection). I say sermon type thing because it was conversational. The pastor of the community, John, did an amazing job of making the sermon interactive without having it veer off in another direction. Also, he talked about Dr. King and some of the lesser known players in the Civil Rights Movement, which was like water to my parched soul. That morning, the worship I attended practically ignored that the next day was MLK day. John also included science about memory and made the word really contextual. It was one of the best sermons I had heard in a long time.

Meal: So, there was no eucharist, but there was definitely communion. After the reflection, the community sang a song and them moved to tables to eat soup and bread together, made by some community regulars.

Other: One of the other things I really noticed was that I would not have been able to tell who the community convener but for the fact that I had already been in communication with him. It felt egalitarian and inclusive, without being aimless or unstructured. They do a lot of other really cool things. In January, they were doing an experiment in simple living (a part of their Creative Liberation Laboratories). They have a men’s group. They engage in deep listening.

I got to talk to John and his wife, Freddy, a little about how they started it and it sounds like it was a lot of trust building, careful conversations, and relationship building. I hope to be able to keep the conversation going. I know I can’t reproduce what they do at Valley and Mountain (especially with my love of liturgy and need for weekly eucharist), but I can definitely learn from it. Check out their website, seriously. It’s a lot of good stuff.


Seminary wishes and liturgical dreams

I go back to seminary next week. Back to the frustrations I feel, to the inner conflict and the loneliness. But I also go back to the opportunity to learn — to discover new things about God, church, myself, and my brothers and sisters. I’m hoping to engage our worship professor in conversations about how we can do church in a new way while still reflecting my denominational heritage, teaching people about the word and administering the sacraments rightly. I’m also hoping to do some experiments in worship with my fellow students while I am there (if any of you read this and are interested, hit me up). I’m also going to look into how I can participate in morning prayer with the Episcopalians or maybe start doing it with my people.

I wish I was going back to a place that provided my colleagues and myself more opportunities to experiment with worship and with community. I wish I felt like my forays into spiritual discipline weren’t going to be solitary, but like they were encouraged and supported by the institution — best case scenario, that opportunities to deepen my spiritual life would be provided (and not by lectures. we have enough of those).

I wish I felt like there would be seminary, even classroom, conversations about the culture around us in Berkeley and how we could read it and engage with it — and how to apply that work to our lives wherever we end up.

I wish we would talk less about those outside the church and talk more to those outside the church. Because I want to fish the the ocean, not in a kiddie pool. And I can’t do that unless I understand what kind of fish there are out there, what they eat, how they swim, how to read the currents, and a bunch of other stuff I don’t even know I need to know. For now, I’m going to have to learn that on my own. Well, hopefully, some other folks will come along for the ride.

And, if nothing else, at least I get to have my dog with me this time :-).


Preparing for a modern church in a post-modern world, part 3

I’m almost done, I swear. Just one more thing: curriculum. This comment has some post modern underpinnings, but it is not explicitly so. I am not an educator, that is not what I do. At least not on the graduate, career prep level (but I am really good at helping kids with their AP US History prep). Here’s what I am required to take in order to be an ordained minister in my denomination (this does not include the stuff the church body asks me to do). A full class is 3 credits:

18 credits of Bible (Old Testament, Gospels, Paul, Prophets, and electives)

6 credits of history

6 credits of denominational stuff

6 credits of cross cultural stuff

One class each of Word and Sacrament (worship), Pastoral Care, Christian Ed, Preaching, Leadership and Public Ministry

Plus two semesters of teaching parish (10 hours a week in a local congregation), Clinical Pastoral Experience (chaplaincy intensive), and an internship. And 18 credits of electives.

Now, as I type it out, it actually looks pretty reasonable. It’s four years of training to be a minister. It’s hard to know what I would get rid of in order to add the things I see as missing. I’d like to see more than one pastoral care class, considering the amount of pastoral care ministers do and that the main class (which I have taken at two different seminaries) focuses entirely on meeting people in crisis. I’d also like to see a class in evangelism and mission, as I firmly believe that we are all missionaries. But there is an overarching problem: how we got to this curriculum in the first place.

A few years ago, some people from my seminary (staff, faculty, board) went to congregations and asked them what they wanted of seminary graduates. The seminary was revamping curriculum and wanted to include congregations in their effort. For the longest time, when staff and faculty talked about it, it left me feeling discouraged, but I couldn’t figure out why. The other day, I finally got it. The seminary asked the people who are already there what they wanted. This is not a bad thing. It is good to know what the congregations who will be calling us want. However, there was no input from the people who aren’t there, from the people who have left the church, about what they might want in a leader of a faith community. How are we supposed to know how to meet the needs of God’s people if we only talk to a portion of them? How do we grow a community (that, in theory, has an outward focus) if we only ask those inside our borders what they want?

Could we have had a focus group of people who had let the church? Kids of active members who haven’t come back, despite having children (if you didn’t know, that is supposed to be the re-entry time for those who leave as young adults. It ain’t happenin’). Could we have reached out in some way and asked people why they have left and then used that information to shape our curriculum, at least a little? I bet we could have, but we didn’t. Because, hard as we try to be missional, we are still focused on our members, not on God’s people as a whole. This effort parallels quite well with the way many congregations try to do mission. They sit around their tables in the church and decide what the community wants and needs. I just finished reading a book that repeatedly mentioned serving the community, but never mentioned actually talking to the community. It talked about demographics and charts and church leadership meetings. This is, apparently, how we do. And it starts in seminary.

Now I am learning how to be a minister to the people who remain. The people who like church the way it is. The people who will probably stay in the church because it is what they do and who they are. I’m learning how to fish from a stocked pond, when most of the fish are in the ocean.

This is how we do it.


Preparing for a modern church in a post-modern world pt. 2

In my last post, I wrote about the way my seminary education is preparing me to do worship, and, largely, my problems with it. These posts come out of a pretty extreme frustration with the fact that what I am learning in seminary today is not much different from what I learned in seminary in 2001 and, likely, not very different from what and how the pastor I grew up with learned in seminary. I love Jesus, I am a child of God commissioned to spread the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and to be a representative of God on Earth. What I am learning in seminary is preparing me to use telegrams in the age of Twitter. For the moment, I am complaining – letting it all out so that I can have empty space in which I can ask constructive questions and, hopefully, come to some solutions of my own. But, before that, I have more to dump.

Spiritual but not religious vs. Religious but not spiritual

We are in a time when the church is declining but a majority of Americans still claim they believe in some kind of higher power, and many call that power God. A 2011 Gallup poll showed that 92% of Americans believe in God. In a 2009 Newsweek poll, 48% of respondents described themselves as religious and spiritual and another 30% said they were spiritual but not religious. Most important for those of us thinking about the future of the church: a study by Lifeway Christian Resources showed that 72% of Millenials say they are spiritual but not religious.

Spiritual but not religious gets a lot of flack. Some in Christian leadership see it as a cop out or a symptom of our individualized society (see here or here). They rightly observe that this is often a pretty self-centered look at spirituality and can neglect important Christian ideals like helping the poor (both of these could be critiques of Christianity, BTW). Those critiques might be right but, here’s the thing: that’s the reality of our situation. Mock spiritual but not religious all you want, that’s our mission field. And we’re not prepared.

Another effect the industrial revolution and the enlightenment had on churches is that, in mainline Protestant churches, God became a thinking game. We thought a lot about God, pontificated a lot about God and talked a lot about God for generations. We threw out mystical things (or things that were “too Catholic”) like the laying on of hands, personal prayer, icons, chanting and things we didn’t understand fully in favor of activities of faith that fed the mind.

As the enlightenment fades we have begun to enjoy mystery again. As science (and with it, humanity) learns more, it learns how much it doesn’t know. Yet we have stripped mystery from the daily practice and education in most of our congregations. Where do people go to deal with this newfound appreciation for mystery and their desire to connect with it? They go outdoors to see God in the sunset, they go to yoga to be with God in the silence, they read books that connect them with worlds of fictional magic (most excellent worlds of magic, I might add). Like Fox Mulder, people want to believe. They go to these places and not church there because we have little to offer them in the church outside of talk about the mystery and wonder of God.

Back to what seminary is not teaching me: how to have a spiritual life. I am learning how to be religious without learning how to be spiritual. Maybe there is some kind of assumption that because I am in seminary, I have it down. But I don’t. We don’t. In conversations with fellow seminarians, it is clear that few of us have active, disciplined prayer lives. We have never been taught how, and most of us don’t know where to begin. We are often terrified at the idea of having to pray out loud with another person outside of the pastoral role. As long as we are in charge, we can pray with others. We can take classes at the Catholic or Unitarian school on prayer, that’s their thing (Protestants, in my experience, fear the Holy Spirit and seem to ignore it past Pentecost). We learn how to lead prayer in worship. But we don’t learn how to dwell in the mystery of God. In my pastoral care class, it seemed like I shocked most everyone (including the professor) by suggesting that we make room for the possibility that God actually can (and sometimes does) cure people. We don’t learn how to use a labyrinth or chant or do liturgical art or even have a non-intellectual conversation about God. Some of us know how to do this inherently, but many don’t. For the most part, we are pushed further and further into the intellectualization of faith, and, while that is important, it seems to be the opposite of what God’s stray sheep are asking for. We don’t have to agree with our context, but we have to understand it. God’s people want to know the mystery that is our creator. Let’s help them. But we’ll have a hard time helping them connect with God if no one helps us.


Preparing for the modern church in a post-modern world, pt. 1

I now know how to keep people in their seats in a place like this for a full hour, after which they will leave good little products of my little factory church. Or leave with their to-do list written and check book balanced.

This is what seminary is doing for me (and for most of my colleagues across denominations and seminaries). I am being well prepared to lead the church of the 1960’s (or before). I go to a seminary that is a part of a major protestant denomination. We are aware that our flock is shrinking and that America’s future is one in which white people will be the minority. Due to this fact, the seminary prepares us (as best a mainly white seminary can) to interact with people of color by making us aware that people of other cultures exist and by singing hymns in other languages. We even have a hymnal for African American congregations and one for Latino congregations. Problem solved?

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Preparing students for a worship style and structure that was created by and for the modernist era will not grow the church, even if it is translated into other languages. Teaching students how to pump theology into parishoners so that they come out of the church-factory as well-educated, Enlightment-minded Christians will not create churches that will bring todays young adults to Jesus. Yet this is exactly what we learn how to do, each and every day.

At my seminary, our weekly worship is by-The-Book. Sometimes, we get crazy and use the part of the book for Latinos or the book for African-Americans, but it is always by-The-Book. It is important to know how to use the book and why our worship is structured the way it is, just as all artists learn the fundamentals of art before they go creating new and interesting works. But we stop at the book. We stop at people sitting in chairs that are all in a row (or, sometimes, in the round), facing forward having faith poured into their heads like good little products of the church factory. There is no room to play, no room to try something new — at least not in the campus-wide worship service. There is no room to move. The people who feel like post-modernism is that where they fit), want to not only taste and see, they want to touch, smell and move as well. They don’t want to be products of the faith factory, they want to be participants in the creation of faith in themselves and in the community. They want this participation to not be relegated to the activities that happen outside of worship. This means allowing more parts of the worship to be led by participants, it means leaving room for productive, contemplative silence, it means allowing for time to move (other than the passing of the peace). This means singing songs that are a part of their culture as well as reaching back and singing ancient chants and hymns from the middle ages. This may be entirely personal, but if I have to spend another worship service singing songs that are entirely in King James language, I’m going to throw something. That is not my language or my culture. I love the occasional old-school hymn, but I also want to hear some Indigo Girls, Over the Rhine or Mumford and Sons. That’s my language and my culture.

And that gets to the heart of it: culture. My seminary asks students to do a cultural immersion into another culture. Our options are (so far as I know) Urban African-American and Latino. But never, at any point, are we asked to parse our own culture, the culture we are living in now. We aren’t asked to learn how to speak post-modernism (or post-post modernism or whatever time it is now). We’re asked to translate our modernist, factory-system based church culture into Spanish or into something that works in the African American community (don’t get me started on multi-culturalism in the mainline churches, that is a whole other conversation) without translating it in to the language of the era that effects us all — the language of social networking and text messaging and you-tube and tattoos and piercings, of globalization and de-centralization and mistrust of institutions and the church of me and the language of Oprah spirituality. We never have to understand any of that. I don’t know if it is assumed that we know how to do that, but, if so, it is a wrong assumption for many.

Now, I’ve been to two seminaries, and the one I attended earlier in my life was more flexible when it came to worship. There was a bit of room to play — there was a rock band, acoustic guitars came in, and the structure was less rigid than it is where I currently attend. However, we were still doing worship the way it had always been done, we just found new instruments to use. There was at least an attempt to translate worship to the culture in which we were living. I give props to that.

No one worship service is the “right” way to do things. There are people who enjoy praise bands, people who feel God when chanting, people whose faith is fed through the use of incense and veneration of saints, people who see God in liturgical dance and people who feel like what really connects them with God is a good hymn by Martin Luther. There are people who love the idea of tweeting during worship and people who would leave the worship space if that happened. There are many who think that we should start thinking about creating online worship services (even a Second Life for church), and others who feel like the community would be fractured if that was done. Every worship service is determined by the culture that surrounds it. But if we don’t know a) how to investigate that culture b) how to speak to culture and c) what our options for worship are outside of the book, the church is going to keep pushing itself into irrelevance.