Category Archives: Worship

30,000 youth excited about Jesus, service, and justice — let’s not fail them

30,000 youth praising Jesus. (@laurenapollo)

30,000 youth praising Jesus. (@laurenapollo)

I was, admittedly not excited about going to this year’s ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit. I had responsibilities that, leading up to the gathering, had been really stressful. All I could focus on was my Synod Day not being a total failure. I just wanted the gathering to be over so I could stop stressing it and get to my vacation in Cleveland. Then, Friday night, that all changed.

At the Friday night gathering at Ford field, I witnessed something amazing. I witnessed 30,000 youth repeatedly give rousing applause and standing ovations to people talking about social justice, structural evil, Jesus, and the role that young people can play in living out the kingdom in our world. I watched them sing along to praise music. I watched them dance, hug and celebrate the Word of God. As the Motown Experience finished and Rev. Steve Jerbi took the stage I wondered what would happen — 20 minutes of Motown favorites is a hard act to follow. As Rev. Jerbi talked about the heartless, racist murder of his young parishioner Darius Simmons, the crowd fell silent. Kids leaned in to his words, hanging on them, pulled in to his pain, vulnerability and passion. His sermon reached crescendo and he had the whole crowd chanting, “Jesus!” on a move of his arm. Students were standing, banging chairs in response to his call for justice, love, and compassion in this world — all rooted in our love for Jesus Christ (link embedded and you really should listen to it because it is awesome).

I heard kids talking about their joy in the service they were able to do. My cynicism over the ELCA slogan, “God’s work, our hands,” melted as I heard kids repeatedly talking about how this is how they view their lives in this world. They know they are called to be God’s hands in the world. I stood in line behind kids signing pledges and getting tattoos from Reconciling Works, our denomination’s organization that works for LGBTQ equality. I watched them carry water jugs across a conference center to learn what it is like to have to walk miles for clean water. They wandered the exhibition hall talking to all kinds of justice organizations about how they can be the change they want to see in the world. They gave away free hugs. They were so excited for Jesus it was palpable.

And then I was filled with excitement and hope. I was not watching a dying church. I was bearing witness to a church filled with life and hope, calling for Jesus and looking to do his work in the world. In these 30,000 young people lies a vision of the possibility of the kingdom on earth not yet beaten down by cynicism. It was beautiful for behold. 

They have had a mountaintop experience and they are bringing it home. 30,000 youth just spent a week being really excited about Jesus and doing God’s work in the world. We cannot let this energy die. We cannot let them walk away from church. We must find ways to take this excitement and build on it if we want all of this talk about the death of the church to be nothing more than the wringing of hands of an older generation afraid of change.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 10.47.18 AMThese young people want Jesus. They want to be connected to something larger than themselves, they want community — in short, they want church.

In far too many cases, they will return to congregations in which they matter in words far more than action. They will return to congregations in which their needs are silenced. They will go back to congregations that are not interested in examining their worship services to make them more accessible to young people, but want to keep doing what they have been doing for 50 years. My colleagues in youth ministry will return to senior pastors who shut them out or see their jobs as silly or irrelevant, to repeatedly have their activities  left out of announcements. The kids will be seen as cute, encouraged to be on committees only to have their needs and desires ignored. Their excitement for church will fade and the youth gathering will be a memory of a really great time they had once. Maybe it will spur them to service or to pursue their own spirituality away from church. But if we choose to not listen to their experience, to not learn about what excited them and then act on it, this will be another generation we watch walk away from our congregations to develop their own spirituality without the support of the body of Christ. We cannot let this happen.

Colleagues in ministry, church leaders, parents, adults in the church, I implore you — listen. When they talk about how much they loved the worship services, don’t discount it or focus immediately on how your congregations can’t do that or won’t like it or how it isn’t Lutheran. Flip it. What can your congregations do to add elements of what worked for your kids into weekly worship? Were they fired up about the sermons because they related to their everyday lives in the world? Because they were powerful, fiery and passionate? How have your sermons been lately? Can you change? Did they love the music because it was upbeat? Can you occasionally retool a beloved hymn to a different beat? Can you help the youth empower themselves to create a worship band that works for your congregation, maybe once a month on a Saturday night?

Were they passionate about the social justice teachings? How can your congregation become more active in the community? How can the Bible studies they go to in church reflect this passion? Did they love the service? Can we help parents and kids find more ways to structure service into their lives?

What hooked them? How can we keep them hooked?

One of the struggles of a campus pastor is that we allow our worship services and activities to be shaped by our students — we follow their passions and help them use Lutheran theology and tradition as a guide to create worship that is meaningful to them, to have scripture studies that speak to their needs and to do service that hooks into their passions. Then they graduate and go into congregations that have little interest in truly involving them beyond the excitement of, “OMG!!! MILLENNIAL IN CHURCH!!!!” I keep reflecting on this as I see all of the excitement around what happened in Detroit. We are so proud of our youth for the work they did, the excitement they felt and the connections they made with Jesus, multiple communities and themselves. Will they come back to congregations that will build on what they experienced in Detroit, or will Detroit be an exciting one-off in their lives in the church, showing them what church could be before returning them to a church that is still firmly rooted in the 1950’s, with little interest in change and little honest interest in what youth want or need?

It’s up to us.

Let’s not fail them.

We are the body of Christ, and they are our blood, renewing us and giving us the energy to walk forward into this world with the boldness to proclaim the love of God with our words and deeds.

They are our sheep begging to be fed.

They are not only our future, they are our present.

We must not let this moment pass.

Celebrate the good in the church

buddychrist Every now and then, church stuff gets me down. I have decided that, when that happens, I’m going to look to the many amazing things I know are happening in the name of Jesus.¬† I need your help. There is some amazing stuff happening in churches around the country (and the world) that should be lifted up, but it is hard to know about all of it when we’re in our little corner of the world. I’m going to list some of the exciting stuff I know about and the awesome people I happen to be connected to. In the comments, add amazing stuff you know about and pass it on. I don’t want to put any parameters here; I’m looking for ministries that are life giving, new and/or renewed, and are moving the people of God into the future. New ways to reach people, interesting ways Christians are working towards the kingdom here on earth.

In no particular order:

Luther’s Table. My friend Gretchen Mertes (with the help of a number of churches and a million volunteers) runs this Lutheran cafe/bar/music venue in Renton, WA. There, one can rock out with a beer and with some Jesus. It is clear you can come as you are and you will be welcomed. The food is good too ūüėČ They do some great service for the community, including free holiday meals. Luther’s Table is also home to a growing congregation, Roots of the Table, where worship is very different from traditional Lutheran worship and the music is very good.

All People’s Church in Milwaukee, WI. All People’s is an vibrant urban church with an amazing vision and incredibly strong sense of community. If you ever want to listen to a sermon that will get you up out of your seat, listen to Pastor Steve Jerbi (another good friend of mine). The congregation does amazing community education, they are working on issues of food insecurity in their ‘hood (and education around the topic), have a community garden, a food pantry, are building a green house, do job training, and are just generally awesome. I wish I lived closer so I could go to there. I’ll have to subsist off of Pr. Steve’s sermons.

Church of the Apostles in Seattle is one of the original ancient/future or emergent churches. I keep trying to describe aspect of their ministry and, each time, the adjective I want to use is dynamic. I recently went to the ordination of their new pastor, Ivar Hillesland, and it was wonderful. I look forward to what they do in this new phase of their lives together.

Church of the Beloved is a new monastic community in Edmonds, WA. Their music is excellent, as is their idea of communal living. I couldn’t do it, but I greatly admire the way they live.

Valley and Mountain is a community that is also here in Seattle (see, I mostly know what is happening around me) and I love what they do. The way they worship is so life giving. Their tag line on their website is “deep listening. creative liberation. radical hospitality.” That’s a good description. I’m kind of sad I can’t be a part of their community, but that is the life of a pastor.

Trinity Lutheran Church in Lakewood, Ohio is my home church. The people there are a large part of how I grew to be the woman in faith that I am. They have a strong community presence, a soup kitchen, food pantry and community garden. They’re been Reconciling in Christ (open and affirming to the LGBT community and everyone else) for as long as it has been an option (I think) and instead of VBS every summer, they have Peace Camp. They’ve also had a woman pastor for as long as that has been an option. If you live in the greater Cleveland area and are looking for a church, go there. Oh, also, for you Lutherans out there, they’re a mostly white church that uses This Far By Faith. That is another thing I love about them.

Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church is my current internship site. I am an intern at a church that has young people showing up and becoming very active in the church. My first few weeks here I met so many people who were interested in joining who were in their 20’s or 30’s. This is an organ and choir church. This is a church where there is processing and elevating of the gospel and my supervisor wears a chasuble for worship (he gets really dressed up in fancy pastor things). Somehow, with all of the liturgy and hymns and organ, this church feels very alive, like the people aren’t just going through the motions. They’re super into it. And that draws other people in. Also, they are very, very into rite and ritual here, particularly baptism. The membership class is no joke — it’s an adult catechumenate. All potential members gather every Sunday night for months to eat together and have fellowship in small groups. In small groups, people share their faith stories and talk about matters of faith — no questions or topics are off limits. I love this. I’m kind of almost a little Baptist when it comes to asking people to make commitment to their faith, and too many churches seem to be afraid to ask much of members. Phinney asks, and in turn it receives many new members every Easter Vigil.

Re:Imagine out of San Fransisco. I love what they do. Mark and Lisa are incredibly warm people, and the one time I had the opportunity to experience their community, everyone was so welcoming. I wanted more.

Quest Church in Seattle. Multi-ethnic, social justice oriented, prophetic, welcoming… Just rad.

Sorry if I forgot anyone I should have thought about.

Now, what do you know about? Who is doing good work around you? Who is inspiring you? Let’s share the good news!

And this is why it’s dying

I’m on fire right now. Irate. Burning. I went to chapel today. I don’t go to chapel often. Here’s why.

Chapel has been arranged so that it is impossible to sneak in unnoticed if you are late (as I often am).

I remarked to a classmate, “There should be some kind of warning that you can’t sneak into the chapel anymore!” Said classmate was like, “Yeah, right?”

Another classmate said, “Well maybe you should come to chapel more.”

Me: “I would if I liked it.” (I admit, this wasn’t the best statement, but it is very true)

Another classmate (with much snark): “Good luck in your future parish, then.”

Wow. Yup. And that is why the church is dying. I don’t get much out of “traditional” worship, therefore I have no future in the church. To quote Cee-Lo, “Forget you.” Seriously. (Not the person, the attitude.)

Worship is so much bigger than we’re allowing it to be! It doesn’t have to be anything other than preaching the word and administering the sacrament — the form can be so many different things as long as it reflects the community! Acoustic guitars? Great! No instruments? Great! Hip-hop? Go for it! Bluegrass? Right on!

If your community wants to sit still in worship or they want to clap and dance, let them do it. If they want to stay quiet or they want to yell out, “AMEN!” let the spirit move them (and you), let the spirit fill all y’all! If your community wants you to preach for a half an hour, work into it, ask for help! ¬†Yes, I realize I am using a lot of exclamation points!!!!

If we insist on restricting worship to what we know and what we are comfortable with and what we have historically done we are restricting the ways people can encounter God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. Yes, I understand the irony in me not wanting to go to a type of worship I don’t like. It’s not even about whether I like it or not. That’s actually not what bothers me. Most of my church life has been in congregations that are fairly traditional and I can hang. It’s the attitude that this is the way it has to be, that this is the only style of worship that should exist or that is right or valid that gets my panties in a bunch. This is a learning institution, for crying out loud! We should be learning about all of the possibilities in worship, experimenting with styles and genres. STUDENT WRITTEN LITURGIES SHOULD BE SUPPORTED!!!! I have had enough conversations with my community here to know that the style of worship we have every week does not reflect the skills, desires or voices of the entire community. There are many people who are fed by “traditional” worship. There are many, many more who are not. This might explain why so few people go. This is also a reason why so few people go in the rest of our society. It’s certainly not all about worship, but the refusal of so many to even think of trying anything different most certainly contributes to our declining numbers.

Get out of the box. God is bigger than the box. It’s fine if you keep your feet in, but get your arms out there and see what the world is telling you it wants and needs. More importantly, see what God is telling you the world needs. I bet you it will be much bigger than traditional hymns and a mediocre sermon on a Sunday morning.

End of rant. For now.

I am, we are 32 flavors and then some.

Am I broken?

There aren’t enough stars in the sky, oxygen molecules on earth, or freckles on my shoulders to come close to describing my love for God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I crave connection with the holy. It feeds me. It is my faith in God’s love, my knowledge of Christ’s presence in my life, and my awareness of the Holy Spirit that has gotten me through so many deaths in my life at a young age, that got me though the illness and death of my father, that kept me going when I could barely get out of bed and keeps me going today. God’s transformative work in my heart, Christ’s example and the pull of the Holy Spirit compel me to be concerned about social justice, to work towards a world in which all of God’s children are nourished in body, heart and mind — a world without bullying (on an individual or global scale), a world where love and concern for brother and sister are the law of the day. Everything about me is formed, informed and fed by my Christian faith.

I don’t even need all of the fingers on one had to count the times I have felt this way in a church worship service. ¬†This leads me to wonder what is wrong with me. Why is it that someone who loves God so much can’t stand church? WTF? Am I broken (this is not a theological question about the nature of sin)? I go to church hoping to hear a word that convicts or uplifts me, to feel the Holy Spirit in song, to be filled with Christ during eucharist. It happens so rarely that I have a clear memory of each time it has happened. I usually leave church annoyed with the service for not “working” for me (I know this isn’t useful, particularly when I start to nitpick), and with myself for not getting the connection.

In my former congregation, there was a woman who always just said that it wasn’t about us. It was about God. Our needs didn’t matter. We were there to worship God. But isn’t worship a two-way street? Isn’t it about us worshiping God and God’s grace breaking into our lives in word and sacrament (and community)? What does it mean when that doesn’t happen? Over and over and over again?

Where did I get this faith if church has rarely done much for me? Some of it I think I was just born with. I’ve always had a kind of weird desire to connect with God, and a strong awareness of God’s presence in my life. A lot of it comes from my experiences at camp. It was in those worship services that I felt God most clearly. One of my most transformative life moments was when God’s word broke through to my heart in the words of someone I, at the time, kind of hated. That is where I experienced what real Christian community could look like. There I was, an awkward 12-year-old with a ton of friends who let me be me. Later on, it was my friends from camp that prayed for and with me when life seemed to be falling apart. ¬†I saw Christ every day for five summers. He was just there, in the midst of us. He was us. And now, I search and search and am often left wanting.

And I’m studying to be a pastor. A lot of what drives me is that I know there are a lot of people like me out there who, as Dan Kimball says, love Jesus but not the church. For me it’s less about “the” church than church worship services. I am one of them — the people who don’t feel at home in church, who have never really fit in. People who don’t jive with traditional worship, people who want to live their faith outside of the church walls. But I keep feeling like this might not be possible within the confines of a denomination. The impression I get from those around me, those teaching me, is that this will not fit into the denomination I love. I get discouraged. A lot. Yet, God must have called me to this for a reason. So I keep going, keep walking this strange path through a dark wood. Because I want to love Jesus and church. I have experienced this few times, but I have experienced. I know it is possible. I just have to figure out how.

A song that says so much to me right now: God is in the House, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

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.