Book Review: God and Hamilton by Kevin Cloud

I believe that in the musical Hamilton, Miranda has turned preacher, or perhaps prophet. The story he tells about the life of Hamilton reverberates with the central truths of the Christian Scriptures. It becomes a thin place for us, reminding us of the presence of God among us. It points us toward love, grace, and redemption, and inspires us to transform our lives as a response to this transcendent experience. - Kevin Cloud, God and Hamilton

I was a relative latecomer to the Hamilton phenomenon. It was probably 6 months to a year after the musical had debuted on Broadway, and then it was only by happenstance that I'd even heard about it. A family member had been dropping the show's name in social media posts a handful of times until I finally became curious enough about what she was talking about to do some research.

A Spotify listen later, I understood. Hamilton is a creative and daring presentation of the life of Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father perhaps most known for the manner in which he died. Otherwise, he never served as president like many of his contemporaries and for that and other reasons has a less-celebrated legacy than others with whom he served in shaping the country in its earliest days.

Lin-Manuel Miranda set out to change that through a musical both acclaimed by critics and beloved by fans. Not only are the music and lyrics well-written, but its underlying messages regarding issues like women's and civil rights and immigration are timely, and the intentionality of having a multicultural cast provokes audiences to consider things from a new angle.

Early in God and Hamilton: Spiritual Themes from the Life of Alexander Hamilton & the Broadway Musical He Inspired, Kevin Cloud likens attending a performance of Hamilton to attending a worship service. He reasons that the combination of the way the music and portrayal of events in the characters' lives engage the heart and the presentation of social commentary make for a transformative spiritual experience. He describes being moved to tears more than once during a single show, and identifies over the course of his work how much of what the musical shares may provide insights into many themes of Christian faith.

Cloud structures his book around twelve such themes, many of which will be familiar to Christian readers. He covers topics like redemption, suffering, death, sin, faith, grace, forgiveness, and so on. Most chapters reference scenes or songs from the musical version of Hamilton's life, but these are often augmented by other historical writings, including correspondence that Hamilton wrote to his wife Eliza and others, or entries from his journals. He also includes quotes from Miranda and others who have worked on the show onstage and off to round out the intent behind certain portrayals or moments. Cloud shows a depth of understanding of his subject that greatly augments the issues he explores in each chapter.

The theological parts of his work are more of a mixed bag. He often seems to be writing to an inside audience, and the language he uses sometimes assumes that the reader will already have an understanding of the Bible or will recognize some buzzwords. Having recently completed work on a book that combines pop culture with spirituality myself, I was especially sensitive to how a non- or nominally Christian reader might react to some of his chosen terminology. But it may be that this was intended as a study guide for those already involved in a faith community, and he wasn't very concerned with such things.

Even with that quibble, Cloud often doesn't allow for the themes that he explores to remain in the abstract. This is more pointed in his chapters that deal with Hamilton's origins as an orphan and immigrant, as well as his need to seek forgiveness after having an affair. The musical raises the real-life implications of these parts of Hamilton's life, not just for himself but for others going through similar things or with the power to change them, and Cloud does well in pointing out that Christian faith includes a calling to change those parts of the world that are unjust or harmful.

Cloud also does so while acknowledging the messiness of life, where everyone is both "sinner and saint." The character of Burr is an easy example, as he is often maligned for his role in Hamilton's death without much regard for who he was otherwise. Hamilton's own life provides plenty of examples as well: as brilliant and relentless as he was, he could also be abrasive and confrontational; his affair should not be dismissed, but neither should his long path of genuine repentance after be, either.

God and Hamilton is a thoughtful exploration of how a popular musical can inform a life of faith. Readers should be prepared for some jargon that Cloud assumes they'll already know, but also to wrestle with many challenges and complexities that the show itself presents as well.

(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.)

A Prayer for Stormy Sailing

based on Mark 4:35-41

Faithful God, the storms of our lives are overwhelming us. The waves are so high, crashing against what we've counted on for safe passage through tough moments. The wind is so strong, bending our usual tools for navigation and coping to the point where we're worried they'll break. What we've relied on before doesn't seem to be enough this time. And along with everything else, we confess that our trust in you may not be what it once was, either.

We cry out to you, "Save us! Don't you realize what is happening? Don't you care? Are you going to do anything?" We wonder if you're sleeping, laying down on the job while we fend for ourselves. We wait and watch and long for you to appear in our storms to say, "Peace! Be still!"

And you do, although it is not in the way we expect. At times you calm the storms blowing against us, at other times you quiet those that rage within us. If you do not banish the rough seas, you at least strengthen our resilience to face them. If you do not silence the wind, you at least reinforce the trust and courage that we need to move through them.

And so we seek that strength and resilience and courage and trust now, in the hope that we will find solid ground again.

O God, may we find peace. May we be still. May we listen to your voice in rocky times, and see clear sky and calm water again. Amen.

(Image via pxhere)

Vintage CC: Why I'm Giving Up Aspiring to Be a Writer

In honor of the release of my second book, I thought I'd pull up this post from March 2015. As it happened, I only wrote this a few months before landing the opportunity for my first book. But by that point I was resolved to begin thinking about myself in a different way. As far as I was concerned, 10+ years of regular writing was enough of a sign that I could call myself a writer. That I've been able to sign book contracts since then has been a bonus.

I have been keeping this blog for over 10 years. That's a long time and a lot of words. Near the beginning, it wasn't something I took too seriously.

But as tends to happen, I started reading other blogs. Some seemed similar to mine: light reflections on ministry or daily life or whatever passing thought that popped into the person's head and demanded sharing.

Other blogs, however, were Serious Blogs by Serious Writers. Each post clocked in at thousands of words and garnered hundreds of hits and had dozens of comments and were leading to Serious Book Deals and Serious Feature Articles in Serious Magazines.

This all caused me to want to be a Serious Writer, too. A Real Writer. Not just one who played around on his little internet toy but who'd be scoring some of those same articles and books.

Just to show how Serious I was, I started mentioning it in my bio. I'd list myself as an "aspiring writer" or "writer wannabe." Something that said to the world that I wasn't there yet, but if you kept paying attention, I'd make it someday. I'm going to keep aspiring and pining and working and striving to be a Writer.

Lately, it seems like colleagues are signing book deals left and right. Just in the past few months, people I know have shared the good news of sending their contracts back, ready for the next step. This, too, has motivated me to keep aspiring, keep driving toward the big goal, and I, like them, will be a Writer, too.

In 2010, I attended the Festival of Homiletics in Nashville. Lauren Winner, a Real Writer, was speaking. At one point, almost as an aside from her main point, she said to us, "You who are in ministry are in one of the professions that demands the most writing. Between sermons and newsletter articles and guest columns in local newspapers, you're writing all the time. So stop saying you want to be a writer when you grow up."

The truth of that didn't hit me until a few weeks ago, when I thought about the last 10+ years that I've spent in this internet space. I thought about the articles that have made it into cyber or print magazines. I thought about the contributions to books. I thought about the couple of posts that have gone viral. I thought about the strong desire to get up every morning and think about what new thing I want to say here that transcends any short-term mental block. I thought about how I can't not write, whether through my work or on this blog or in my Moleskine notebook. It's a compulsion that transcends status and page views and publishing dates; something that I need to do whether those things are factors or not.

I thought about all of that, and decided to quit.

I decided to quit pretending that I haven't been a writer for the past decade. I decided to quit "aspiring" and being a "wannabe," because I'm already there. I decided to quit measuring my status as a Real Writer against a bar that only I set up for myself to begin with. Even if I still hope to achieve certain goals, they won't make me a Real Writer.

They won't make me a real writer, because I already am one.

Brand vs. Ethics (book excerpt)

Below is an excerpt from Wonder and Whiskey: Insights on Faith from the Music of Dave Matthews Band.

During a 1999 appearance on VH1 Storytellers, during which artists would not only play songs but also talk about the inspiration and meaning behind them, Matthews included “Christmas Song” in his setlist. While introducing the song, he stated that his inspiration for it came from a quote by Oscar Wilde: “If Christ was alive now, the one thing he wouldn’t be is a Christian.”

Per Matthews in the song, Jesus shares his own sense of purpose, which is to enlighten and inspire; to show people how to live and how to treat one another, as well as perhaps provide a sense of hope. However, Jesus also voices a concern that the way people will receive and implement his message will be very different, and much more violent. Rather than bring hope, peace, and love to a hurting world, people will interpret or use Jesus’ life for purposes such as angling for political power or governmental control, excluding those who are different, withholding help from the poor, hurting, and hungry, and using coercive and deadly force to convert or control. All of this in Jesus’ name, as if invoking him will make it all okay, no matter how divorced from what he said it actually is.

Here is where Wilde’s quote about Jesus probably not being a Christian comes in, because a lot of what self-identifies as “Christian” today seems to have very little to do with Jesus. Here was a man who during his life said things like “blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matt 5:7) and “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44). Here was a man who had no problem interacting with a Samaritan woman, despite his own ethno-religious background forbidding it (John 4:5–42) and who elsewhere made a Samaritan the hero of one of his best known stories (Luke 10:25–37). Here was a man who taught about a father who welcomed back his irresponsible and disrespectful son with open arms, rather than shunning him, as the culture would have demanded (Luke 15:11–32).

Over the centuries, many calling themselves Christian have either forgotten or chosen to forego these sorts of teachings and the many instances in which Jesus hung out with prostitutes and “sinners”; who saw them all as people seeking love and redemption. As a result, many have experienced Jesus wielded at them like a weapon, rather than emulated in acts of kindness, welcome, and justice. This includes women, racial minorities, those who adhere to other faiths or no faith, and those who identify as LGBTQ. At times the blood spilled in the name of Jesus has been literal; at other times the wounds have been emotional or spiritual.

And if Jesus were alive today, would he be welcome in most churches? Would he be able to bring his leper and prostitute friends with him without being turned away at the door, or avoided in the pews? If he served as guest preacher, could he stand up and talk about loving enemies without ridicule or accusations of being too offensive? Or could he challenge the values of today’s empires without facing backlash or even being crucified all over again?

These questions lie behind Wilde’s claim that Jesus probably wouldn’t call himself a Christian. A lot of what Christians do nowadays looks and sounds little like the person who inspired the religion that bears his name.

Both Matthews and Wilde are calling attention to the way people of faith approach Jesus; how they receive who he was, and how they live while striving to follow him. We could name more than two ways of doing so, but I’ll focus on just two. Both profess a belief that Jesus was special, and worth listening to. Some from both groups may have faith that he was somehow God in human form, or otherwise had a unique role given to him by God. So what I am trying to name is less an issue of belief, and more one of action.

The people Jesus describes here are the first set I want to talk about: they are the ones who use him as a brand, as a name to slap on whatever they want to do, whether it looks much like what he did and taught in the Gospels or not. Often, this group will use Jesus to justify what they’ve already decided, rationalizing that they are on his team, wearing the uniform, and saying the right things about him.

In these instances, Jesus’ likeness is a means of selling something, even if it is diametrically opposed to what he stood for. Politicians may do it to convince people to buy in to a policy that harms those in poverty or who are part of minority groups. Religious leaders may do it to justify excluding groups of people from participating in their faith communities. Individuals may do it to make themselves feel better about how they treat others on a daily basis. Jesus’ example is nowhere to be found in these cases, only his name.

The second way of following Jesus is to give attention to his ethics. This takes his words more seriously, if not imperfectly. This way recognizes that what he taught was more than a series of nice things to pass the time while waiting for the events of the crucifixion to begin. After all, he had to have said or done something to have gotten the authorities’ attention to begin with. So he gave hope to those downtrodden by religious rules and civil policy; he encouraged a different way of treating one another aside from the hierarchical system that people were familiar with, showing people a system of values based on love, forgiveness, peacemaking, and justice, rather than one of power, discrimination, coercion, and fear.

To follow this in any serious way, as more than a brand name, is to see people differently. It is to stand up for the troubled and struggling. It is to let the voiceless tell their story and take it seriously. It is to occasionally encounter resistance to a radically different way of interacting with the world. An ethical approach to Jesus is to begin with the baby boy and see where his life takes him, rather than skip to the end or turn to what other Biblical writers say about him. It is to start with the difficult things he said, the surprising people he ate with, the countercultural way he saw people. It is to look at his vision of love  spreading to everyone regardless of status or worth, and wondering how we can help bring it to fruition.


(Wonder and Whiskey: Insights on Faith from the Music of Dave Matthews Band is now available on Amazon and at Wipf and Stock.)

Frequently Asked Questions About Wonder and Whiskey

Now that Wonder and Whiskey: Insights on Faith from the Music of Dave Matthews Band has officially been released into the world, here are my answers to what I presume are some of the most common questions that people might have about it.

Why does this book exist? The short answer is: because one day I said, "Why not?" The longer answer goes like this: On a whim, I put together a proposal for a book focusing on DMB for a theology and music series that a division of Wipf and Stock is putting together, figuring that I knew their catalogue thoroughly enough that I could easily contribute to what this group was doing. I was told that my approach didn't quite fit with their intent, but I was encouraged to submit my idea separately. I did, and then didn't hear anything back for what seemed like forever, so I figured it wasn't going to happen. And then out of the blue one day, it did.

Okay, but why Dave Matthews Band now? It's been a long time since "Crash Into Me" and "Ants Marching." Even if their newer songs don't get the same amount of radio play that their classic 1990s singles continue to enjoy, as of 2016 they are still one of the highest-grossing tour acts in the country. And they're more known and loved for their live shows, anyway. So even though their studio efforts have not garnered as much attention the last decade or more, they remain one of the most popular bands out there. So this sort of book is as relevant as ever.

I'm not a fan of this band. Why would I want to read this? The music of this band deals with living in the moment, enjoying the gifts of this life while also guarding against overindulgence, being active in helping others in need, calling out the dangerous side of institutional religion, and following the ethics of Jesus, among other issues. Even if you have never cared for DMB's music, you'll be able to find plenty in this book that is resonant with what faithful living looks like beyond doctrinal platitudes, presented in a unique way.

I'm a fan of the band but I'm not a Christian. Why would I want to read this? I think that the problem with a lot of "Gospel According to [Pop Culture Thing]" books tends to be one of two related issues: 1) They don't delve deep enough into the source material to really let it lead the discussion, and/or 2) They use said source material as a marginal prop for what they were already planning to say. I tried to be as conscious of both these problems as I could, and began with the band's catalogue rather than tried to use their lyrics as "proof texts." I mean, it's bad enough when people use the Bible that way, and I respect this band's art too much to treat it like that.

But yes, the book is written from a Christian perspective, and does include quite a bit of Biblical references. But I started with the songs, and let them dictate the book's themes. The result is a lot of what I see as healthy critique of religious belief that can help lead people of faith into something more authentic, stripped of non-essentials, and grounded in the needs of this world and this life.

Readers who don't consider themselves Christian will hopefully see ways that DMB's music does have spiritual themes, and I hope that whatever each reader's path entails, they will find something in this book that enriches that in some way.

There aren't any actual lyrics in here. Why is that? The basic answer is time and money. Gaining permission to reprint even a single line from a song can take a long time and can have a steep cost. I decided that it would be simpler to offer general descriptions of the songs' ideas rather than go through that process. Near the beginning I encourage readers to listen to each song on their own as they move through the book.

To help readers with this, I've created a Spotify playlist of every song mentioned in the book, in the order in which they appear. You can check that out at this link.

Where else can I keep up with book and author news besides this blog? I send out a monthly-ish e-newsletter that you can subscribe to here. I also provide updates on my professional Facebook page and on Twitter.

Any plans for a release event? I'm doing a Facebook Live reading and Q & A on June 24th at 9 p.m. You should come.

Hey, you have another book besides this one, right? Why, as a matter of fact, I do! And you can get it here. Thanks for asking!

Wonder and Whiskey: Insights on Faith from the Music of Dave Matthews Band

Now available through Wipf and Stock!

Dave Matthews likes Jesus, but not dogmatic beliefs about him. He openly wonders about God’s existence while singing of showing love to each other as life’s highest ideal. His songs celebrate making the most of each day’s pleasures because we aren’t guaranteed tomorrow, but also caution against overindulgence. His music wrestles with deep questions about identity and mortality, while proposing that upholding others’ worth is one of the most important roles we can fulfill. Wonder and Whiskey is an exploration of the lyrics of Dave Matthews Band as a multilayered call to be present in the moment, both for oneself and others, as well as how these ideas intersect with the highest aspirations of a lived Christian spirituality.

Order at these retailers:

Wipf and Stock
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Cokesbury
Christianbook

This book is for...

...fans of Dave Matthews Band interested in an analysis of music from across their catalogue...

...general music fans wanting to learn more about the band's background and songs...

...non-fans nonetheless curious about the band's relevance to modern spiritual and social issues...

...spiritual seekers who'd find the interpretation of song lyrics more accessible than of Biblical texts...

...those who have declared themselves done with formal religious affiliation but who have retained an interest in charting their own faith path...

...Christian believers who enjoy making connections between faith and popular culture.

Praise for Wonder and Whiskey:

"Jeff Nelson has taken his love for the music of Dave Matthews to a new level! Drawing from Matthews's life experience and inspiration, Jeff pulls the reader into the stories that crafted the lyrics and musical fabric of such a diverse musician. Not only does Jeff take into consideration Matthews's own life but Jeff goes one step further by viewing the songs through a lens of spirituality. While I learned so much about Dave Matthews in reading Wonder and Whiskey, I also learned more about myself, and for that I am grateful for Jeff Nelson's dedication to create such a book as this." - Leanor Ortega Till, saxophonist for Five Iron Frenzy and Staff Member at Urban Skye Ministries

"Fans of the Dave Matthews Band will love this book! And if you are not a fan, this book will make you want to become one. Demonstrating a thorough familiarity with the life and career of Dave Matthews, the other members of the band, and the band’s musical catalogue, Jeff Nelson tells us not only how he came to hear his own life in the band’s songs, but he also invites us to do the same. Defining spirituality as connectedness to something or someone transcendent, to others, and to our own selves, Jeff relates lyrics of the band’s songs to several crucial spiritual issues – the nature of faith and religious experience, understandings of God and Jesus, celebrating life, avoiding greed and over-indulgence, finding one’s identity, the importance of community, doing good, and awareness of our finitude. Along the way, Jeff is also in conversation with several biblical passages, as well as with spiritual greats such as John of the Cross, Ignatius Loyola, and Thomas Merton. I was instructed and inspired, and you will be too!" - J. Clinton McCann, Jr., Evangelical Professor of Biblical Interpretation, Eden Theological Seminary

"There’s something reliably inspiring about listening to anyone wax eloquent about whatever it is they deeply and truly love, whether or not you love it yourself.  Jeff’s point here isn’t to project his supernatural faith onto his favorite band, but rather to help their music draw his readers into what he calls following Jesus and I call humanism: Making the most of this life by learning to love, doing good work for others, and cultivating joyful gratitude for the many wonders of nature, including consciousness itself. So then, get out your headphones and read on." – Bart Campolo, Humanist Chaplain at the University of Cincinnati and co-author of Why I Left, Why I Stayed

Book Review: God, Improv, and the Art of Living by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

My latest review for the Englewood Review of Books is part of their Eastertide 2018 print issue.

This time around I've reviewed God, Improv, and the Art of Living by MaryAnn McKibben Dana. My review appears alongside many others, which you should also check out.

Click here to learn how to get your own physical copy.

And keep up with the Englewood Review in general. It provides a great way to hear about new books related to progressive theology, justice issues, spirituality, and popular culture.

Small Sips Bids Farewell

Closing time. After this month, I am retiring this blog feature. I think Small Sips has run its course and it's time to envision something new. Maybe it'll get a reboot sometime down the line, but for now I'm letting it go.

The name Small Sips lives on, however, as that's what I've entitled my new author newsletter, which you should totally subscribe to.

Well. It's true. Jan Edmiston reflects on how hardly anyone cares about what mainline denominations do:
And even Church People care at different levels about Church World:
  • Level One:  There’s a church in town and I’ve participated at least once.
  • Level Two: I participate fairly regularly in that church.
  • Level Three:  I’m a leader in that church.
  • Level Four:  My leadership in church has expanded to connections with other believers outside my particular congregation.
  • Level Five:  Church people know me as a church leader.
  • Level Six: I go to church conferences in my geographic area.
  • Level Seven: I spend money and/or take vacation time to go to church conferences that require a plane ticket.
  • Level Eight: I can identify the mid-council leaders of my denomination/somebody’s denomination.
  • Level Nine:  I know and care about denominational policies and can name at least three people who serve at the highest level of my denomination/somebody’s denomination.
  • Level Ten:  I can tell you who Paige Patterson is and what he said recently said that caused an uproar.  I know what the United Methodist bishops just said about homosexual pastors and (for extra points) I know who the new Presbyterian Mission Agency Executive Director is.
This list is a fantastic summary. The vast majority of people I've been in ministry with over the years have been Level 2 at best, a smaller circle at Level 3, and handfuls at Level 8 (which could be re-ordered to be Level 4 or 5...people in churches where I've been pastor could name at least one of our Association Ministers but wouldn't give up a Saturday or vacation to travel to meetings).

So what's that mean? It means that local churches are mostly known by what they do in their own communities, save for when the denomination they're affiliated with makes the news for taking a controversial stand on something and then they're lining up to talk to their pastor about it (congrats, you've briefly achieved Level 10!).

It also means that even most members don't care about wider church things because 95% of the time it doesn't affect the ministries that their church offers. That 5% exception is for when a local church will adopt or adapt a program or curriculum their denomination suggests or produced.

Of course, I'm speaking from a Congregational tradition. If your mainline church is more hierarchical, mileage varies.

But all ministry is local. And the more mainline churches focus on those local contexts, the more they might be willing to care about higher levels.

Maybe.

Times are changing. Yonat Shimron reports that more seminary students are choosing MA programs over the M.Div:
The gold standard for church leaders — the Master of Divinity — is losing some of its luster to its humbler cousin, the two-year Master of Arts. 
“People are trying to get the training they need and get out,” said Robinson, 28, who graduated Friday (May 11) from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. “It all boils down to time and convenience and the culture and lifestyle we see today.” 
A new projection from the Association of Theological Schools, the main accrediting body for seminaries in the U.S. and Canada, finds that the number of seminary students enrolled in various Master of Arts degrees will likely exceed the number of Master of Divinity students by 2021.
This reflects several things. First, many traditions don't require M.Divs and are fine with MAs. Second, The MA is a more versatile degree that perhaps can be appealing to a wider variety of professional opportunities.

Whether this will have any implications as mainline denominations increasingly make changes to requirements for ordination--including making the M.Div an option among others--is yet to be seen. Such things will likely be considered case by case, person to person. But the appeal of a 2-year degree that covers a lot of the same academic bases as a longer professional-oriented degree will seem like a no-brainer for a lot of candidates, especially if certain processes will differentiate less and less.

No lies detected. In a post from last August, Natalie Patton shares eight cliches that Christians use to get themselves out of caring for others. Here's one appropriate to the times:
2. “I love everybody!” 
Or: "I don’t have anything against black people/Hispanics/Arabs/Muslims..." 
How This Lets Us Off the Hook: "I believe God loves all people, but don’t ask me to invite any of them to my dinner table, frequent one of their businesses, send my kids to school with their kids, or live in one of their neighborhoods! I'd like to stay comfortable in my holy huddle." 
Growing up in Arkansas, I’ve heard generous, well-intentioned church people say this too many times to count. We say that we love everybody, but our actions don’t really show it. We live in different neighborhoods, go to different schools and churches, and frequent different businesses. Jim Crow doesn’t have to enforce it — we do it to ourselves. But racial tension is growing like cancer in America right now. How should the church respond? What’s our role in all of this? 
What would it look like if the hands and feet of Jesus embodied a theology of justice — of grace and redemption to all people, and we started seeing ourselves all on the same side of the equation of grace?
The rest of the list is very good as well, with a lot of the usual suspects named.

And with this, we say good night. A cartoon from David Hayward:


Misc. Chaplain Mike at Internet Monk on finding an oasis in a mainline congregation. Here's another poll showing Protestants are declining and "nones" are rising. Actor Ryan Reynolds opens up about his struggles with anxiety.

The Blessing of Failures

As a pastor, I read a lot of books and articles about church practice.
I read about the new best way to organize governing boards and committees that do away with tired forms from the 1950s.
I read about the changes that Christian education programs require to thrive when families and youth have so many more activities competing for their attention.
I read about increasingly creative worship ideas to engage people who need something to stimulate them in ways other than the printed or auditory word.
I read about fantastic new mission and evangelism programs that “meet the culture where it is” and promise to be the next new big bold wonderful ministry to 21st century seekers.
Some of these are more concerned with big picture inspiration, calling the church to have the courage to think and act in new ways. Others are more practical, detailing how a faith community might pursue its goal to provide the envisioned model or program.
Far and away, a feature common to many of these writings is the success story.
“First Church in Omaha began offering our prayer station worship idea, and now they’ve doubled their Sunday morning attendance!”
“Christ the Redeemer in San Diego gave up Sunday School and started doing things like I suggest, and now their faith formation ministry is thriving!”
“St. John’s in Teaneck implemented our open door policy for their homeless population. Listen to all these wonderful life-changing anecdotes!”
These stories can do a lot to show the reader that what the author proposes is really possible. If they can do it, so can you, wherever you are!
Of course, these pieces never tell the failure stories. They never share accounts of when churches meet a wall of opposition or a black hole of apathy, encounter a strong start that quickly flames out, or sabotage themselves by trying too hard to do things the exact way listed in the book.
These stories of failure are better tucked into couch cushions or hidden behind corners. Don’t worry about those. The point is that what I’m sharing can work! You have to believe me! Just go ahead and do it!
I have plenty of my own failure stories.
I could tell you about the pub discussion group that enjoyed a few months of high interest before fizzling out.
I could tell you about the young adult group that ended after a few meetings because everyone became too busy.
I could tell you about the community mission that was too ambitious and disorganized to work.
I could tell you about acts of “radical hospitality” that only encouraged bad behavior and pushed me to the brink of complete burnout.
These stories caused me to go back and figure out what could have gone better. They taught me to keep striving on behalf of God’s kingdom, but to keep my head out of the clouds while doing it. They taught me about expectations and what to consider the next time.
I’ve learned way more about faithful ministry from stories of failure than those of success.
But nobody wants to tell those.
(Originally posted at New Sacred. Image via Wikimedia Commons)