Part Revival, Part Book Tour, Part Fashion Show

Roadshow three
The Church Basement Roadshow just might be coming your way.  Part revival, part book tour, and part fashion show – ok, it doesn't bill itself as a fashion show, but the guys wear odd clothes – The Church Basement Roadshow promises to combine "old time revival flair with a 21st century gospel" (for full press release, click here).  It's the latest big thing to come from the emergent church folks. 

[I blogged about emergent a handful of times, particularly a few years ago.  Those posts can be found here.]

I admit to being simultaneously baffled and awed by this show, featuring "three of the most outspoken emergent church leaders and authors" – Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt and Mark Scandrette.  I'm baffled by the rather odd early-20th century cultural motif they've chosen, but at least it's a change of pace from the skinny-white-guys-with-Apple-iBooks cultural motif that has characterized emergent in recent years.  The YouTube promo videos – one showing grainy images of Tony singing a twangy Roadshow theme song – are just odd.  For fans of Tony, Doug and Mark, these are surely interesting and engaging.  But for me, anyway, this is all a bit strange.

But I'm awed, too.  First, I'm awed by anybody who can do something that looks fairly ridiculous to your average bystander and pull it off with some sense of integrity and earnestness.  Adopting fictional personas, wearing early 20th century clothes, touring the country in a biodiesel RV, and producing a Christian marketing/evangelizing road show is so weird that it just might be genius.  Or lunacy.  I'm not sure.

And I'm impressed, too, by the entrepreneurial spirit of these guys.  Yes, this show is part revival, but it is also part book tour.  There's a $10 cover charge for each show.  There are various institutional sponsors undoubtedly providing financial and/or in-kind support.  And surely while you're at the show you'll be encouraged to purchase a few books.  As a former sales representative for Augsburg Fortress Publishers – and as one who took a bookstore display on the road to synod assemblies and church conventions – I'm impressed by their imaginative marketing.

But I remain more baffled than awed.  A pay-to-enter "revival" is much less a revival than a marketing enterprise calling consumers rather than converts, pocketbooks rather than pious souls.  And the cultural trappings of the early 20th century – from the grainy video to the twangy music and accents to the clothes and facial hair – simply contribute to my fear that this roadshow might be long on production value and short on substance.

I hope I'm wrong.  As I've written in the past, I'm intrigued by the emergent project, but I remain unconvinced of its methodology.  I wish I could attend the Roadshow's stop in my neck of the woods – at American University on July 31.  But alas, that's the night before I leave for an 11 day trip to El Salvador.  I'll miss it.  But if any of you are able to catch the Roadshow, please leave me a note and let me know what you think.

Thanks.

“Tradition” is not the Millennials’ problem

I recently attended a discussion for church leaders on ministry with Millennials (the so-called Generation Y, or those who were born from the late 1970’s through to the turn of the century).  Within the discussion it was assumed that members of this generation do not like "traditional" worship, "traditional" Sunday School, "traditional" Bible studies, the "traditional" way of doing church.

But there’s a difference between "tradition" and the way we customarily do things in the church.  Is it "tradition" they don’t like, or is it the (often poorly executed) way we do things in the church they don’t like?

  • That is, do Millennials not like 17th century hymns because they’re old and supposedly irrelevant to today, or do they not like such hymns when they’re played and sung as funeral dirges and inappropriately revered as the highest pinnacle of religious and musical achievement?
  • Do they not like traditional liturgy because it is (supposedly) rigid, or do they not like traditional liturgy because we do a poor job at planning and executing the liturgy faithfully?
  • Do they not like preaching because they are suspicious of authority figures and/or are attuned to a world of constantly-changing multimedia presentations, or do they not like preaching because most preachers are not very good at it?
  • Do they not like traditional Bible studies or Sunday School because such Bible studies are rigid and dogmatic, or because they’re usually poorly planned and unwelcoming?
  • Do they prefer to sleep in on Sunday mornings because that’s their nature, or because we haven’t given them something worth waking up for?

I’m convinced that our churches need to worry less about post-modern ministry techniques than we do about simply doing our "traditional" (modern, ancient, whatever) ministry techniques a whole lot better.  It has been my experience – as a church leader, a church member in non-leadership roles, and an observer of "effective" and "healthy" churches – that churches which engage in intensive planning and preparation, churches that show up on Sunday morning and midweek Bible study ready to proclaim the Gospel, are often doing just fine. 

It’s when we’re planning Sunday School lessons in the car on the way to church that we get in trouble.  It’s when we’re writing sermons exhausted late on Saturday evening – when the time for reflection, review and editing is rapidly waning – that we get in trouble.  It’s when we throw untrained people into leadership roles that we get in trouble.  It’s when we have no cohesive vision to pull this whole church enterprise together that we get in trouble.

Everyday Millennials go to rather traditional schools or universities or workplaces, and they thrive within these "traditional" institutions.  They know how to do the "modern" thing.  That is, they don’t live in an exclusively "post modern" world (oh my, just imagine what that would be like!). 

I don’t deny that the church can learn a few things from the postmodern project.  I’m just not convinced that we need some turn-the-church-on-its-steeple radical reformation.  Perhaps we just need to build a better steeple.  Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

My First Nooma Video

Rob_bell This week at my internship cluster meeting I saw my first Nooma video (Rhythm), the highly stylized video reflections from Rob Bell, a leader in the new generation of evangelicals.  Both from the introduction it was given and from what I had heard from many other sources previously, I was supposed to be impressed, overwhelmed, moved and otherwise wowed.

It was . . . alright.

The highly stylized production quality was incredibly distracting to
me.  The folks in the video didn’t look very real to me at all.  They all
seemed to have walked off the pages of an airbrushed Abercrombie and Fitch catalog.  With their Starbucks coffee cups, über hip clothing,
and perfect hair, I was confronted with a crowd of people who seemed just a bit too "cool" for me.

And then there are the odd camera angles.  Sometimes Rob Bell is looking at the camera.  Sometimes we see his profile.  Sometimes we see the back of his head.  Despite the angle, however, we usually can catch a glimpse of his fashionable glasses and overstyled hair.

Nooma_rhythm_2Let me be clear – the spoken text itself was pretty good.  Rob Bell’s message is a personal, passionate and fresh message about faith and the life of discipleship.  As a printed text his words would have been a pretty good devotion. 

It only gets a "pretty good," however. From his website description of this video he writes:

Maybe it’s through trusting Jesus and living the kind of life he taught us to live – a life of truth, love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, and sacrifice – that we have a relationship with God.

What Rob Bell is telling us is that our relationship with God may be a product of the way we live our life.  But I wonder if I’m truly capable of doing these things – living a life of truth, love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, and sacrifice – without a relationship with God in the first place. 

Well, that’s the kicker.  Contra Rob Bell, my relationship with God is not dependent upon how I live my life.  God has a relationship with me no matter what – that’s just God’s nature, and that’s why we baptize infants.  God loves that infant and has a relationship with that infant even though she doesn’t live a life of truth, love, justice . . . it’s just eating, sleeping and pooping for her. 

But God doesn’t care.  God just loves. 

What Rob should have told us is that our life of truth, love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, and sacrifice is possible as a joyful response to the love of God, a love that came to us before we were even formed in the womb, before we hear the Word of God proclaimed, before we ever made a decision for Christ or a decision to sleep in on Sunday mornings.  Before any of that, God loves us.

And this love of God is best shared not through a funky video or a great website or any other technology.  No.  This love of God comes to us incarnate, in the flesh and blood of our brothers and sisters who are "little Christs" (as Luther put it) to us.  That is, this love of God comes to us in relationship – raw, real, authentic relationship.  Yes, this video series is an attempt to present a raw, real and authentic faith, but at the end of the day such a faith is nurtured not in front of the television, computer monitor or digital projection screen, but in face-to-face encounters, in community, in the Body of Christ.

The Body of Christ, given for you.  The Blood of Christ, shed for you.  Thanks be to God!

The Lord’s Prayer in video

Tears welled up in my eyes when I saw this video of The Lord’s Prayer in multiple languages accompanied by a great,
modern soundtrack while showing images of everyday city life (link takes you to page with three free videos – click on full movie icon for The Lord’s Prayer video).  Until now I had never been moved by one of these emergent video prayer things.  This video is making me believe there’s something to it all. It’s done by the folks over at prayerscapes.

Sustaining Emergent

A post by Sarcastic Lutheran got me thinking about worshiping communities, mission, and financial sustainability.  She writes about traveling to Detroit at the invitation of the Bishop’s Office to explore the possibility of a planting a postmodern, emergent ministry in an arts community adjacent to Wayne State University.  This pocket of artsy folks is otherwise surrounded by an economically-devastated neighborhood that has more abandoned homes than residents.  (Ryan Torma of Minneapolis’ Spirit Garage was also on the trip, and blogs about it here.)

I immediately asked myself several questions, wondering how relevant a church in the (overwhelmingly white, middle-class) postmodern, emergent paradigm would be in the midst of an impoverished African-American zip code.  But I also wondered about how such a ministry would sustain itself.  In my limited engagement with the emergent movement (a few books, a few seminars, a few discussions with emergent-types, and a visit to an "emergent" church – about which I’ve blogged under the tag "emergent") I have found little discussion of stewardship or financial sustainability.  Most postmodern/emergent ministries of which I’m aware survive by significant financial support from denominations or patrons, not the offerings or tithes of its members.  This fact concerns me, and begs me to ask if a model of congregational ministry is flawed if it cannot sustain itself?

Financial sustainability is a bigger issue than just emergent.  I think of the many urban congregations in poor neighborhoods that receive very little money in weekly offerings from its members.  Many of these churches end up closing their doors permanently, unable to maintain aging church buildings or pay for a pastor and other church staff.  Does this mean that ministry in low-income neighborhoods is inherently a flawed model?  Should the Church only minister in middle- and upper-class areas?  Of course not. In these situations the broader church needs to support ministry where congregations cannot be self-sustaining.  (That we fail to do so is another issue for another day.)

To this end I commend the work of congregations that have the vision to initiate new worshipping communities and/or to give generously to low-income congregations.  The ELCA’s Mission Partner program, connecting low-income congregations with wealthier partners, has been a helpful – if far from perfect – way to address this problem.  Less common, congregations sometimes spawn new worshipping communitites in different locations, often with a different style or culture than the "parent" congregation.  Evangelical Lutheran Church in Frederick, MD and Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Fairfax, VA are two such examples of the one-church-two-locations model.  Spirit Garage in Minneapolis, the much-publicized, innovative, postmodern Lutheran worshiping community is financially supported by the 3200-member Bethlehem Lutheran Church in South Minneapolis.  A month ago I blogged about a Vineyard Church that decided to begin a ministry 1000 miles away, sending a pastor and several church members to relocate to a new town to initiate a new ministry.  Each of these scenarios embodies a deep commitment to mission, and offer models that more congregations should consider.

Back to emergent, with two points.  First, is emergent inherently flawed if it cannot sustain itself?  Not necessarily, but I think it has to grow in this area.  Over a year ago I wrote a post critical of the adolescent attitude of some emergent-types in regards to "institutional" religion.  I wrote:

But is it possible that the emergent movement is in denial about the extent to which it depends on traditional main line or evangelical Christian institutions? Many leaders in the emergent movement attended seminaries built and supported by denominations. Some of them are pastors whose pensions and health benefits are provided by denominations. Some of them engage in ministries that are funded in part or entirely through denominations or congregations affiliated with denominations.

Perhaps this is fine, especially if emergent is still in a start-up phase. But if emergent’s rhetoric is going to continue along an anti-denominational trajectory, then it seems to me that the emergent movement should emerge from the shadows and financial support of traditional Christianity and get on its own two feet.

I checked the websites of two Lutheran emergent ministries and struggled to find information about giving or stewardship (what I did find on one of the sites was good, but it was hard to track down).  Information about their denominational affiliation was scant.  This dearth of information stood in contrast to the otherwise information-rich, engaging and excellent design of their websites.

Second, even though I have questions about emergent – from finances to theology to "style" – my biggest problem with emergent is not actually with emergent, but with the folks who promote emergent as if it were the cure for what ails the Main Line (in my experience, such promoters are not actually emergent leaders themselves, but rather are anxious pastors and church bureocrats in traditional ministries looking for the next best thing).  In my area alone about four major events discussing and advocating a post-modern/emergent approach to ministry have taken place in the past year or so.  This is not bad in and of itself – in fact, it has been very good, for these events have raised important questions.  But I fear that what results is a perception that by adding a few couches to your worship space or projecting a few funky videos from an apple iBook, your ministry will turn around.  P’shaw.

I know and believe that the emergent paradigm has a place in the church, and a graceful Word to proclaim in our society.  But I fear that emergent is being misunderstood, misapplied and misappropriated, and what will result is something like the half-hearted appropriation of evangelical-style worship of the past generation that created worship wars and mostly mediocre "contemporary" worship services in mid-sized churches searching for the next best thing.

More to say about this.  I’ve probably already pissed off enough people for one post.

Lutheran Charisms

In my previous post I was thinking about the charisms, the gifts, that Lutheranism offers to the church and world, in light of recent conversations about postmodern ministry (read that post before you read this one). What follows is a slightly reworked version of an old post from September:

Lutherans know that God comes down the ladder. We are not able to climb up any ladder of righteousness or spirituality or piety or goodness to reach God and attain some status of holiness or purity. We are not able to climb up some ladder to achieve happiness, fulfillment, contentment. Though we constantly struggle to get up the ladder, to get above others, the ladders we climb just lead us further and further from God and true community. Rather, God comes down the ladder to us, blesses us, graces us, loves us. What did I do to deserve this? Nothing. That’s just the nature of God.

Lutherans know that God dwells where we least expect God to dwell. We know that God is most clearly seen in odd, out-of-the-way places such as the suffering on the cross, or the shame of the animal stable, or among the outcasts. Or with people who can’t climb a ladder to save themselves. When we humans draw lines dividing us from them, good from bad, righteous from unrighteous, God is on the other side of the line. And the Cross forces us to the other side of the line, the other side of the train tracks, the other side of life, to look at and experience God’s presence amidst suffering and brokenness.

Lutherans take sin seriously. In our liturgy many of our churches proclaim, "We confess that we are in bondage to sin, and we cannot free ourselves." Lutherans admit that on our own we cannot escape the power of sin. We do not have a free will – our will and our whole being is bound to sin. Lutherans are, frankly, quite pessimistic about human nature.

Lutherans embrace paradox. We live in a complex world that is many things at the same time. Our world and our worldview is not a black and white, either/or kind of world. But rather, the world is a mucky, messy simul (Latin, meaning at the same time). We Lutherans embrace many paradoxes, many tensions in our theology and practice:

  • Simul justus et pecador – we are at the same time sinner and saint.
  • God’s Word is law and gospel at the same time.
  • We live in two kingdoms – a kingdom of God and a kingdom of man – at the same time.
  • By the grace of God we are free to live yet are bound to serve – at the same time.

Because we are people of paradox, Lutherans can’t draw clear lines of either/or, us/them, etc.

Lutherans preach about God (not about us!). Preachers in our churches are called to proclaim the acts and comfort of God. Sermons, while addressing our human condition, do not proclaim (for example) 3 Steps to a Better Life or How to Have a Closer Relationship with God. Lutheran preaching is emphatically not about us. Lutheran preachers proclaim God’s grace, love, compassion, presence . . .

Lutheranism embraces the common stuff of everyday life. Martin Luther valued daily life and the vocation of common people (once saying that it is more blessed to change a baby’s diaper than to be a priest). In the tangible things of daily life, Lutherans find God. Our spiritual life and encounter with God is daily – daily we die to sin and daily we rise with Christ. Church is not a Sunday recharging of the batteries that gets us through the week, because in the week itself we Lutherans acknowledge the blessedness of "ordinary" work that might not otherwise seem spiritual or important in the eyes of our world.

Lutheranism has such potential. For me, Lutheranism is less about traditional forms of worship or polity (though I greatly appreciate those things) and more about a pastoral theology and appreciation of the grace of God that speaks to humanity in many different ways. As such, I think Lutheranism has the potential to be the church in many different ways, proclaiming the Gospel/Good News and administering the Means of Grace – Baptism, Holy Communion, God’s Word – in creative and comforting ways at the dawn of the 21st century.

Lutheran Charisms and Ministry with Post-Moderns

I have recently heard two speakers address the challenge of ministry with postmoderns: Karen Ward, Lutheran pastor of Seattle’s Church of the Apostles (a shared ministry with the Episcopal Church, USA) whose ministry embraces the alt worship paradigm, and Jim Kitchens, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Nashville, TN, whose former congregation in California had an emergent ministry, and who wrote the book The Postmodern Parish: New Ministry for a New Era. They both had a similar perspective:

Main line churches need to be generous and flexible with (or even willing to shed!) the non-essentials that are part of our parish practice, while embracing the essential gifts of our traditions.

Jim Kitchens yesterday used the Biblical image of wheat and chaff: we should separate the wheat from the chaff in our tradition for the sake of ministry with postmoderns. It is suggested that the wheat of our traditions – Jesus Christ, Word, Sacrament, communion with God and with each other, service to others – is appealing to postmoderns, but that the chaff of our churches – stiff worship practices, rigidly corporate structures, unwritten dress or behavior codes, us-vs.-them mentalities, etc. – is a major turn off.

Both Kitchens and Ward have suggested that each of our traditions has a charism, a gift, to offer the wider church and world. Our churches should identify the charisms of our tradition and re-evaluate how to best nurture and offer these charisms to a postmodern culture. I like that image. In fact, back in September I wrote a Why I am a Lutheran post could also be read as a list of Lutheran charisms. Perhaps I’ll rework that post later today . . .

I think that our churches need to reorient around our Lutheran charisms. Many Lutherans think our identity is wrapped up in 16th century German chorales, a particular style of liturgy, or that we’re simply a bunch of Nots – we’re Not Catholic, Not Baptist, Not Evangelical, Not Fundamentalist . . . But what the heck are we? I think our churches need to revist that question from time to time, in dialogue with the Lutheran Confessions, the broader tradition of the church, and the wider culture.