Monday, June 29, 2015

You're Allowed to Grieve the Church's Decline

General Synod, the big biennial national gathering of the United Church of Christ, is happening in Cleveland through tomorrow. I hope to write more about that later this week. In the meantime, I wanted to highlight one other piece of news that has come out of the UCC national offices, which concerns the physical offices themselves:
In its continuous effort to bring in more financial resources to advance the mission and ministry of the United Church of Christ, the denomination’s leaders are signing a letter of intent today, June 10, to sell the national offices building and the adjoining hotel the church owns to a Georgia-based property management firm. The silver-lining in the agreement is that the UCC will continue to make downtown Cleveland its home by leasing the building back for another two decades.  
"This is all very good news for all employees of the United Church of Christ, and cements the commitment of the church to maintaining Cleveland’s Gateway District as home to the National Setting for the next 20 years," said Lee Foley, chief administrative officer of the UCC.
The article goes on to explain some of the terms of the agreement, including a reduction in how much space the UCC will use. As an official media outlet of the denomination, the whole thing is presented in a positive, hopeful light.

The comments paint a much different picture, as have many other opinions that I've read and heard since this news broke. People are worried. People are angry. Some are wondering why a broader conversation about this wasn't hosted leading up to the decision. Many see this as the latest in a long line of signs that we probably won't have a denomination in the next few decades, perhaps even by the time this lease agreement is up.

I read a lot of articles about the decline of the church. I can't count the number of opinions that I've seen or heard in the last ten years about the future of American Christianity. Numbers are down all over the place. Churches are closing, denominations shrinking, institutions dwindling. And everyone has their own theory, their own single root factor, to explain why things are progressing the way that they are.

People don't gather in formal groups the way they used to.

Religious pluralism and an appreciation for multiple viewpoints has been on the rise.

Many are more interested in being "spiritual but not religious," "none," or "done."

It's the Millennials' fault.

It's the Boomers' fault.

People have more options for things to do on Sunday mornings and would rather do any of them.

The church has strayed from The Truth Of The Bible (TM).

A fair number of these analyses, like the article quoted above, have a hopeful tone to them. The decline of the church as an institution is good news, many of them say, because it means we can finally get back to really being the church. No more Constantinian comfort and privilege keeping us from truly following Jesus and helping others! We're entering an exciting and bold new day where the old paradigms are finally passing away and something wonderful and more authentic will take its place. These articles celebrate what is happening, because it means an overdue shedding of heavy baggage for something lighter, more nimble, and more in tune with the rest of the culture.

I confess that, despite living an hour south of Cleveland, I've only ever visited the UCC offices once. It was just a few years ago, when I was invited to be part of a group looking at the future of education in the denomination. I was glad to finally have the chance to visit, and was especially interested in the Amistad Chapel.

The chapel is a beautiful space, very modern yet tasteful. We had opening worship there during our meeting, but I with my love of lingering in worship spaces made sure to steal a chance to meander around during a break. It was during this exploration that I could take time to really notice the elements kept there: the table, made from wood imported from Africa; the organs, one a larger Hammond and the other a more modest Bedient; the artwork, the candles, the hymnals. I now think back to this space, and I wonder about its future. I think about its original purpose of being a sacred place in the middle of a bustling downtown area, and think about the possibility of its no longer being there.

It can be argued that the sidewalk outside can be just as sacred, just as infused with God's presence as the polished room that overlooks it, and I wouldn't argue. Nevertheless, I think about where the organs, paintings, worship books, and all the rest end up if something happens to the space as a whole. Where would they go? Would they ever help bless others, helping to remind them of God's presence in their lives?

People ask these same sorts of questions whenever a church closes. That organ that led our singing for 100 years, that sanctuary in which generations were baptized, married, and commended to God, those classrooms in which questions were asked, that office where pastors both beloved and less so provided counsel...all now gone. Maybe they'll be razed for condominiums or given to a new congregation or just sit dormant until it just falls down, an empty reminder of times past.

And some say, "Good." This includes believers reading the signs of the times and knowing we can't be what we were any more. And there are a million more thought-pieces being written about that at this very moment.

But still, there are lives of faith feeling a lot of disruption and anxiety over what is happening. Treasured spaces and practices that served many people for so long are passing away. Pieces of history are being stashed in storage units or destroyed. Groups of people who long gave each other support are dispersing.

I think that there needs to be more to offer them than "Good."

We're allowed to grieve what is happening. In fact, many will need to. We are certainly called into a new future as disciples and as faith communities, but as with any type of loss, many will not be able simply to barrel forward in joy and thanksgiving. There are lingering emotions that we must be allowed to recognize and that we should affirm in one another. We can't be what we were, but we can be sad while admitting that before moving into what God wants us to do next.

Friday, June 26, 2015

June 2015 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for June...

1. I recently read Jennifer Knapp's memoir, Facing the Music, during which she recounts her childhood family struggles, rise to Christian music stardom and subsequent disappearance from the scene, reconciling her sexuality and faith, and her return to music. Knapp doesn't really hold much back as she shares the difficulty of walking the line as a CCM artist, and later enduring the judgment of former fans and other public Christians after her coming out. She's tremendously honest when sharing the darker periods in her life and how she's always wrestled with being in the spotlight, and offers a helpful insight into how one can be Christian without necessarily having to uphold certain beliefs and social positions. It's a genuine, vulnerable read that I couldn't put down.

2. I also read Fiddlehead by Cherie Priest this month, the final installment of her Clockwork Century series that I've enjoyed reading the past few years. She returns to the alternate steampunk history of the Civil War era that she has created, where at this point President Ulysses Grant wants to find a way to end the war and re-unify the country once and for all. People around him have other plans, however, and he turns to a scientist who has developed an early computer nicknamed the Fiddlehead to help him, along with special agent Maria Boyd, whom was first introduced in Clementine. We also have Abraham Lincoln, whom scientists managed to save and is basically part steampunk cyborg, and of course zombies. The narrative is as gripping as any of Priest's previous novels, and also offers some commentary on war profiteering, which seemed timely.

3. I recently read A More Christlike God by Bradley Jersak, the review for which you can read here.

4. Along with reading her book, I've been listening to and enjoying Jennifer Knapp's most recent album, Set Me Free. It was released last year, and I remember listening to it maybe once, albeit while distracted, and didn't give it much more thought. I was very glad to revisit it, as it's as strong an album as any previous effort. By far, my favorite track is "Neosho:"

5. I've also been listening to Florence + the Machine's latest, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. Florence Welch has this way of writing songs that are driven, passionate, and rich in sound. Their latest is no different. Here's the title track:

Monday, June 22, 2015

Book Review: A More Christlike God by Bradley Jersak

The Christian faith, at its core, is the gospel announcement that God--the eternal Spirit who created, fills and sustains the universe--has shown us who he is and what he's like--exactly what he's like--in the flesh and blood human we sometimes call Emmanuel ('God with us'). Conversely, we believe Jesus has shown us the face and heart of God through the fullness of his life on earth: revealed through eyewitness accounts of his birth, ministry, death and resurrection. We regard this life as the decisive revelation and act of God in time and space. That's still a faith statement, but for Christians, it is our starting point. To look at Jesus--especially on the Cross, says 1 John--is to behold the clearest depiction of the God who is love (1 John 4:8). I've come to believe that Jesus alone is perfect theology. - Bradley Jersak, A More Christlike God

Years ago, I regularly read and enjoyed the writings of the late Michael Spencer, usually referred to by his blog title and online moniker, the Internet Monk. Spencer was an early voice for the "evangelical in exile:" one who was feeling increasingly alienated by the practices and beliefs of that strand of Christianity, holding appreciation for the tradition's contributions to his own journey while reimagining how to be one, with mixed results.

Spencer coined a term that has always stuck with me, that has remained an integral part of his online legacy: "Jesus-shaped spirituality." What would the Christian faith look like, he regularly wondered, if we based it on the life and teachings of Jesus while stripping away everything else? As the term suggests, he explored a spirituality shaped more like Jesus and less like the consumeristic and entertainment-driven trappings of megachurches, the stifling focus on self-preservation of institutions and denominations, and the reactionary theology of fundamentalists that tamps down questions and rarely seems grace-filled. His reflections pointed toward a God of transformational, steadfast love and forgiveness, and a life that followed such a God accordingly. His book, Mere Churchianity, was an excellent look into the meaning and practice of this term.

In A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel, Bradley Jersak undertakes a similar project. He seeks to redeem the concept of God from images that are punitive, judgmental, wrathful, and capricious. The method at the heart of the matter is to begin with the type of God that Jesus embodies. He is seeking, in other words, a "Jesus-shaped" God.

The book is divided into three sections. The first is a deconstruction of problematic images of God with which many work, believer and non-believer alike. He spends time differentiating between a "God of will" and a "God of love." This includes an extensive analysis of the basic theodicy question: how is it that we can consider God all-powerful and all-loving, yet evil exists? Jersak breaks down the typical arguments offered by many to this dilemma, including that God causes evil either for God's glorification or for reasons God doesn't need to explain. Over the course of his argument, he attempts to redeem texts that seem to add to these views of God, interpreting them in light of the God that Jesus reveals instead.

It is in the second section that Jersak analyzes this image of God in a deeper way. Focusing on the cross, he uses the term "cruciform" to describe this new image of a God who chooses to be vulnerable, loving, grace-filled, and freedom-bestowing. There are shades of Jurgen Moltmann in this section of the book--he outright uses the term "crucified God" at one point--as he suggests that a cruciform view of God does not reveal an image of punishment, anger, or bringing disaster for its own sake. To help drive this point home, the final chapter in this section is even entitled, "God is Good and Sh** Happens." He presents the cross, along with other tragic events, as the result of human freedom and the created order rather than God's will. Nevertheless, he says, God is present, loving, and working in suffering. Along with Moltmann, Jersak seems to be influenced by process theology and open theism, as he repeatedly suggests that it is out of God's love that God doesn't interfere with the freedom God has given to creation, including humanity.

The third section is almost entirely about wrath. Jersak makes his way through parts of the Hebrew scriptures, Gospels, and Pauline letters and explores how God's wrath is portrayed in each. This includes a reflection on the development of Biblical interpretation according to one's own spiritual maturity and understanding of and appreciation for complexity. He suggests that many are stuck at an earlier, more literal stage of development, and that a consideration of a more Christlike God may cause us to revisit and reconsider how to read these texts. He also discusses theories of atonement at some length, building on his cruciform idea introduced in the previous section.

All in all, A More Christlike God is a good introduction to the concept of what a God shaped like Jesus looks like. The third section seemed to slip into Christianese jargon a little more, and seemed to fall back on atonement concepts that assume the cross was a necessary event for human salvation rather than the result of a life lived in a certain way. He does frame the resurrection more as a redemption of death, but there is a lingering sense that Jesus' crucifixion had to happen to satisfy something in the universe. I also noticed some erroneous scripture references (he cites a story that he says is from 1 Samuel that is actually from 2 Samuel, for instance), which were relatively minor but still may be problematic for those who go looking up the passages for themselves.

I'd recommend this book with those caveats. I recommend Spencer's book, too.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Unspoken Expectations and the Welcoming Church

It was a random Saturday a few years ago. We were out running errands, and we figured Burger King would be a quick and easy option for lunch. There was the added incentive of the play area for Coffeeson: after a morning spent trudging along shopping carts, he’d be able to burn off some energy.

I would like to share two things about the play area at Burger King. The first is that all those tubes through which kids can crawl seem to have shrunk exponentially since I played in them years ago. Nevertheless, I followed Coffeeson’s lead to ensure his enjoyment and safety.

The second is that those who choose to play on this equipment need to remove their shoes before entering, presumably to ensure that excess dirt doesn’t get left everywhere. I wanted to honor the requirements, so I set my shoes under the seat of our booth and began ducking and twisting my way through everything.

At one point, after we reached the top of the structure, I glanced down at our table to find that my shoes were no longer where I’d left them.

I wasn’t sure how to react. I had to keep an eye on Coffeeson, so I couldn’t immediately come down to assess the situation. In addition, I was a little shocked and confused. Had someone really chosen to steal my shoes? They were pretty well-worn, so if they had been stolen my best guess was that it was for one’s own use rather than to be re-sold.

Eventually, we made it back to the table, and I began a search. To my relief, someone had taken the liberty of putting them in the nearby cubby holes placed for the convenience of shoeless play area participants. It would have been nice to be notified of this move somehow, but the initial act was meant to be one of kindness, if not also of passive reproof: how dare I not put my shoes in the proper place! I don’t know which it was exactly. In my defense, I neither saw the cubby holes, nor thought that that was the understood proper procedure.

Churches follow a lot of procedures that are just understood by the "regulars."  Consider all the unstated expectations on Sunday morning alone: when to stand, when to sit, what to say or sing, how to behave, how to dress, where the bathrooms and nursery are…the list can be pretty extensive. One not familiar with these things can feel incredibly out of place, perhaps worried that they’ll be frowned upon for not acting according to this unspoken code of conduct. It can be courageous enough for someone just to step into a church for the first time, as it can bring tremendous anxiety about whether they'll be welcomed or rejected based on appearances alone. But then comes how well you'll be able to keep up with What We Do, and feeling like all eyes are on you to see how well you'll pass the test to fit in.

This past Sunday, I attended worship at my brother's church to celebrate my niece's baptism. They're Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and as I expected, there were elements to the service that were different from what I'm used to. I had to watch the people around me to see what to do next: when to stand or sit, and the response prompts that came second nature to those accustomed to the service's flow and rhythm. Thankfully, the pastor and some notes in the bulletin both helped with this as well. But if even those assists hadn't been provided and if I hadn't spent a lifetime in a variety of worship settings, how lost would I have been? How out of place would I have felt? Where would my shoes have ended up?

In this increasingly unchurched, de-churched, formerly churched, and never-churched culture, congregations must assume less and less that visitors will know much of anything about their traditions, rituals, and practices. Even more importantly, they can't assume that people will willingly buy in without question. This will include worship, but it will also include wondering about who's truly welcome, and why.

Will the man with the Starbucks cup in the sanctuary be glared at, or the teenager with ear gauges, or the woman with the fussy baby? After all, they've taken the time and effort to be a part of your gathering for the morning, willing to trust you enough not only with part of their day, but with themselves. They have shown up to see not just what you have to say about God and love and grace and the world, but what you model to them as well. And they'll do this nervously, wary of how they'll be received, knowing they won't understand everything that will be said or done. The last thing a church should do is make the experience even harder.

As a community seeking to embody Christ’s hospitality, we are entrusted to be as welcoming as possible, including helping guests entering that which is unfamiliar. It would be far better for us to point out these sorts of things; to be ready to guide others and fully invite their participation, rather than presume, metaphorically speaking, to move their shoes.

Monday, June 15, 2015

author, lowercase a

Coffeewife and I were talking about my book the other day. I was telling her about the latest chapter I was working on and how much more I needed to do to finish it, which is quite a bit yet. Then she asked what might happen next; whether I'd want to write another one or if this would be it. I said I'd hope this might lead to another, which prompted her to ask whether I'm aspiring to be a full-fledged Author.

Granted, this book makes me an author by definition. That's kind of how it works. But I differentiate between being an author and being an Author. It's my understanding that the average person who writes a book isn't exactly Scrooge McDuck swimming in his money bin. You have to sell a lot of books to make even a modest living. Many authors have day jobs while doing what they can to promote their work.

Now, an Author, on the other hand, is quite different. They land on big important book lists, they fly all over to speak at conferences and lead workshops, they appear on TV. They can properly live off of this vocation.

At times, the Author becomes the object of promotion rather than his or her work. It's been my experience several times over that those who write on faith and spiritual things are far from immune from this. At other times, the Author becomes the object of derision rather than his or her work. I've seen this plenty of times, too.

I have no illusions that this book will make me an Author. But I've seen enough from afar to not want to be one. But even besides those reasons, I really like what I'm doing.

I like the amount of time I'm spending with my family. I treasure Friday Pizza Night and vacations and seeing Coffeeson in plays and accompanying him to Cub Scouts and chasing Coffeedaughter around the house.

I like my church. We've got our work cut out for us just like any other when it comes to remaining healthy and vibrant, but we're in a good spot overall and I as their not-so-new-anymore pastor am finding my groove among them, deepening relationships and discerning how we can best be faithful together.

If I'm constantly away at conferences or wherever else, I don't get to do what I want to do in either of those areas. I honestly don't know how Authors who serve churches juggle those things. It boggles my mind.

Make no mistake, I'm committed to my writing and to being an author. I want my book to reach people and help them. I want to take seriously my commitment not just to writing it but to tell people about it. I also want to write to help people explore or name something for themselves; for the book to be the focus rather than me. Some adjustment is inevitable and a certain amount of promotion is necessary, and I accept that. But I hope that as all of this develops I listen to people if they notice that I'm making myself the focus rather than the work, or if I'm neglecting important areas of my life.

I'm not very interested in being an Author. I'm nervous about the attention that even being an author, lowercase a, will bring, both for what it might do to me and for what it might do to parts of my life that I want to preserve no matter what happens.

So I'm going to leave this post here as a reference point. Maybe every once in a while a reader can refer me back to it. "Hey, remember that thing you wrote back in June? You're not doing it. Get it together." That sort of thing. It'd probably help. Really.

Now, having said all of that, back to writing.