Exploring a Post-Establishment Church

One thing I’ve noticed about new churches and new mission starts in my denomination (the ELCA) is that they often seem to try to do the same thing in a new way. Many of them, anyway.

By “same thing,” I mean that these new mission starts seek to establish (or renew) a congregation with a building and a full time pastor and worship and Bible studies and social gatherings and service projects and the whole nine yards. Good stuff. Holy stuff. The stuff that churches on our continent have been made of for a hundred years and more. The kind of stuff that formed me as a Christian and contributed to the kind of pastor that I am today.

Of course, these new starts seek to inject a new type of DNA into this established model of church. A DNA that takes seriously the changing landscape of America – a landscape that is richly multi-religious. A landscape that includes a rapidly growing group of people who do not identify with any religion at all. A landscape that includes a new – and less secure – economic reality for young people. A landscape that includes a culture which doesn’t necessarily value joining organizations. And we can go on with the descriptors of the new realities, but we won’t. For sure, the landscape today is significantly different than the post-Word War II era which birthed or shaped so many of our established suburban congregations.

To be sure, some of these new mission start congregations are not seeking simply to inject a new DNA into the old, established model. Some of these congregations are departing from the established model in that they do not seek to have their own dedicated building, but instead seek to only ever rent space, or meet in public spaces. And some of these ministries don’t intend to ever have their own space, nor do they ever intend to be self sufficient financially. They build into their ministry structure an expectation to receive mission support dollars from the denomination, from partners in ministry, and from members of the broader community. And yet others are ministries that are starting out as arts or social service organizations, or even as small not-for-profit businesses, that are led in and with and by faith. Great stuff. Amazing stuff.

I’m at the very beginning of part way down a road of exploration of another model of ministry (even as I have yet to learn much more about these other models I’ve observed already). I’ve been walking down this road for the past few years.

For the past several years I’ve served in established congregations. Wonderful congregations. Faithful congregations. Congregations with good and holy people doing good and holy work. Yet each of these congregations has had struggles around maintaining the institution, challenges supporting the received model of ministry. From facility costs (mortgage and facility maintenance), to having the resources to pay for staff, to identifying and cultivating leaders for the various constitutionally-mandated committees and ministries, these congregations each struggled in some way to address the differing ministry needs called for by the established model of congregational ministry.

Many of the church leadership and administration books I’ve read over the years have been about doing the established model in a better, or in a new, way. I see this, too, in what some of our mission start congregations are doing. A modified, and perhaps fresh, way of doing congregational ministry. Surely we need this. The established model of ministry is not going away any time soon, and it needs to be done well, to be refreshed, to be renewed.

But … what models exist, or have yet to be explored, for doing church in a post-establishment, less centralized, more diffuse kind of way? Something more along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous, Scouts, or Little League … something with some coordination, of course, but with fewer institutional trappings, and with a structure deeply imbedded in the community? Something vaguely like the house churches of the Book of Acts or of modern day China? Something that would perhaps challenge our established ecclesiology and understanding of ordination, while being nimble enough to scatter and gather in various small corners of our communities …

I’m exploring, because I love the church, its mission, and its message. While I have serious concerns about the viability of the current way we tend to “do” church, I have no doubt that God will continue to bless the church and make the Gospel known, to be faithful to God’s people and rebirth the church in a variety of ways for a new day. The church wasn’t always organized with congregations led by full-time clergy meeting in large facilities on multi-acre lots. Over the centuries the church has had other ways of carrying out its God-given mission, and in each era the church has flourished with multiple models of ministry at the same time.

I’m excited to explore – and to join in – some new ways of doing church in this new day.

Putting Everything on the Table, In Faith – Acts 15

I haven’t been posting sermons here recently … but this one on Acts 15, and the bold faith of those first believers to trust in and be moved by the Spirit to do a new thing, is one I wanted to share. I believe that the church today is in an Acts 15 moment.

Preached on Sunday, April 28

Grace to you and peace, from the One who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.

“If the people lead, the leaders will follow.”

This is sometimes true.
Leaders often take a pulse, barometer of people,
read what the people are already doing, and only then make decisions.

In the Early Church, the leaders of those first Church Councils decided
upon the Books of the Bible in large part simply by seeing and accepting
what the local churches, what the people, were already reading.
In American history, the constitutional amendment repealing prohibition
was less a bold act of leadership than it was an acknowledgement
of what people were already doing.

Sometimes, often, the people lead, and the leaders simply follow.

In today’s reading from Acts 15, the leaders made a profound decision.
Huge decision. Paradigm-shifting decision.
But, they were merely following what the people – and God’s Spirit – were already doing.
What the people were doing, what God’s Spirit was doing, was profound,
huge, paradigm-shifting.
The Council only recognized it and went along with it.

So what, exactly, were some of those first Christians doing?
They were doing a new thing in faith, in stark contrast to the tradition they received,
in stark contrast to the familiar ways of doing things,
and indeed, in stark contrast to God’s Word itself.
Indeed, on the surface, what they were doing was heresy – Spirit-filled, Spirit-led heresy.

You see, Jesus was a faithful Jew, and the first followers of his were Jews, too,
as were the broader group of Jews who followed his work closely,
including the Pharisees.
Devout Jews observed the Law as a sign of the promises God made to them.
Following the Law – including circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath laws,
and other such laws – was a way to live faithfully as God’s people,
to follow God’s command, to be a sign and a witness to the world of who you are
and whose you are.
These laws were a big deal. BIG deal. HUGE deal.
Even re-interpreted, so much of Jesus’ work has to do with the law,
and how it is to be followed.
Let’s think of groups today and their distinctive practices.
The Amish reject most forms of modern technology.
Devout Muslims stop everything and pray five times a day, and fast during Ramadan.
Vegetarians do not eat meat.
Vegans do not eat anything derived from animals.
These are distinctive practices that define a group.
Take away these distinctive practice, and the group might not exist,
or at least, might not have as strong an identity and be recognizable.

First century Jews had their distinctive practices. To be a Jew meant to follow the law.
Circumcision. Dietary laws. Sabbath. And more. That is what Jews did.
There was no other way to be a Jew, to be part of God’s chosen people.

And yet, the early Christians – who were Jewish –
had this crazy experience of God’s Spirit moving among them.
Jews from all over the world were coming to faith in Christ,
and Peter and the early Christians were proclaiming the Good News faithfully.
Last week we heard about an Ethiopian – a non-Jew, perhaps – who came to faith.
Philip baptized him.
Then, a few chapters later in Acts, Cornelius, a God-believing Gentile, a Roman Centurion,
is brought to faith and is baptized.
Two non-Jews, brought to faith.
Then, just a little later in Acts, a large number of people were brought to faith in Antioch,
and also these were non-Jews.
And these are only the ones we know about. Surely there were more.

God’s Spirit was moving in ways that were unknown, that were unsettling to the faithful,
ways that were considered heretical because God’s Spirit hadn’t done this before,
moving among the Gentiles in such a way.
God’s law clearly seemed to outline a different experience and life of faith.
Indeed, what was happening was contrary
to much of what they had learned and known about God.
Unsettling, disturbing, baffling … indeed!

But of course, the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus
was also contrary to much of what they had learned and known
about faith and life and death and the way God works.
Indeed, a new thing was underfoot,
and it was unsettling and baffling to those committed
to the established ways of doing things, the God-given ways.
Yet, this new thing was an exciting, uncontainable opening to a whole new population,
a whole new segment of believers previously not considered part of God’s people.
Seeing this new thing at work,
the Council at Jerusalem decided to welcome the Gentiles into the church
without burdening them first with the requirements of the law.
No circumcision. No dietary laws. Just faith and baptism.
And in doing so, the leaders were simply affirming what had already happened,
what the people and the Spirit had already done,
with the Ethiopian Eunuch, Cornelius the Centurion, and the Gentiles in Antioch.
No circumcision. No detailed commitment to the distinctive laws of the covenant.
Just faith and baptism, and the life that flows from that.

I wonder what the Spirit might be up to in the church today,
nearly 2000 years after these events.
What is God doing among Lutherans, nearly 500 years after Luther
nailed the 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door, starting the Reformation?
What is God up to here on the East Side, and here at Grace,
96 years after starting a new thing through those first saints
who established Grace English Evangelical Lutheran Church,
leaving behind the language and customs of their parents’ and grandparents’ faith?

What is that experience of the Spirit here that we,
established in our patterns and practices of faith for many years –
decades, and centuries –
patterns and practices that are legitimate and wonderful and life-giving,
as were the laws of Moses that fed those first Jewish Christians …
What is the experience of the Spirit
that we might need to work hard to grasp, see, and comprehend?
How might God’s Spirit be moving, how might God be at work in ways earth-shatteringly new,
unsettling, and perhaps even heretical and yet, simultaneously, powerful?

I ask a lot of questions here. I’m not entirely sure how to answer them.
But, let me say this. We have to ask the questions.
We have to put everything on the table.
Sacraments. Sunday worship. Music styles. Worship times.
How we spend our money.
What we expect of our members.
How we speak of God.
What and how we teach and live the faith – among children, and adults.
How we serve our community.
How we act toward one another, how we act toward others,
and how we respond to the real hurts and challenges in our world.
Even, what we eat and drink at Coffee Hour.
Everything on the table and up for negotiation with the movement of God’s Spirit.
Hold nothing back. Put everything on the table. Crazy, huh?

Those first Jewish Christians did just that –
they put their valued and beloved traditions – traditions and laws given by God! –
on the table for the sake of sharing the Gospel with those different from them.
These people were willing to mess with the very Word of God, the command of God,
for the sake of sharing this God with others.
Do you see that? Do you see what they did?
They took something they cherished, something they believed given by God Himself,
and they were able to set it aside for the sake of the outsider.
Rather than make the Gentiles become Jews, that is,
rather than make the outsiders become one of them,
they said “let’s make the church look more like the outsiders.”
Let’s make the church look more like the outsiders.

And you know how they did this, how they could make such a huge leap?
They knew the love and power and comfort of our Lord.
They knew that they could let go of something they cherished and enter into a bold –
and frightening – new future because Jesus was with them,
the one who died and rose again would not abandon them.
And so they let something go, they let something die,
knowing that a new life would blow through them in a new way.

They did this not out of any strategy for survival, self-preservation, or institutional renewal.
They did this in faith in the One who promised to always be with them, unto the end of the age,
the One who comes among them, and us, as an outsider.

Dear friends, our Lord is with us, here and now.
Our traditions and practices, handed down to us over 96 years in this place,
500 years in the Lutheran tradition, and 2000 years of Christianity,
our traditions and distinctive practices of faith have told us this –
God is with us. God is faithful to us. God is not going to leave us. God is with us.
With this comforting knowledge, now what?
Are we at another Acts 15 time in history, at least of some degree?
I think we are.
Where is the Spirit of our God blowing now? Let’s look outside and see.
And, wherever the Spirit is blowing, whoever is caught up in that Spirit,
however the church looks kicked up and remade in the Spirit’s movement,
we know this – Christ is with us.
Christ has been faithful to his church since Day One,
and He promises to be faithful until the Time to Come.
And that, dear friends, is good news.

Amen.

Our Church’s Life, Death, and Resurrection

As I prepare to attend next week's synod assembly, I find myself thinking about the church and how it is organized for its God-given mission of proclaiming the Gospel.

The church has been around for nearly 2000 years. The church has taken on a variety of forms and said a variety of prayers, engaged in a variety of efforts for war and for peace, and has adapted itself to a variety of cultures. This should give us great comfort and great hope.

In 20th century North America, the church became an increasingly professional institution. Accredited seminaries provided professional three year degrees to candidates for the ministry. Congregations lining major corridors along rapidly sprawling suburbs built vast education wings complete with school bells and libraries, miniature religious versions of the public schools being built across the country at the time. These growing congregations welcomed the post-war generation with religious education for all ages, Luther Leagues for the youth, women's and men's groups, fellowship opportunities and dignified worship services. Their bells rang throughout the community, and a growing number of citizens heeded their call.

Congregations hired paid staff, not only paid clergy but also professional office, maintenance, and education staff as well. As there were buildings and funds and personnel to manage, structures of congregational governance took on a more significant role. Roberts Rules of Order became one of three books named in the constitutions of Lutheran congregations, alongside the Bible and Book of Concord. Managing the institutional and programmatic affairs of the congregation became a massive undertaking.

Denominations organized their ministries with national structures governing domestic and foreign missions, with boards and regional presidents and untold vast numbers of committees and commissions. Such institutional growth mirrored efforts to organize civil society with national labor unions and service organizations, and global society with the United Nations. Denominational organizations for women's ministry and youth ministry also flourished, with national boards, regional boards, and congregational boards overseeing and organizing their ongoing work and annual or biannual national conventions.

Denominational leaders were featured on the cover of Time magazine, and congregations were a cornerstone of neighborhood life. Clergy gave the invocation at town council meetings, and school systems deferred to the churches for scheduling of extracurricular activities. Prayer kicked off public school football games and high school graduations. 

This is not how the church had always been structured in its 2000 year history. As I wrote above, over its long history the church has taken on a variety of forms and has adapted to a variety of cultures. This description, above, is simply how the mainline church was structured in many parts of mid-20th century North America. The church looked somewhat different a hundred years prior, and it will look different a hundred years hence. 

We cannot keep trying to maintain a mid-20th century model of church in the rapidly-changing 21st century. The early-mid 20th century cultural factors that supported the massive institutionalization of the church are simply not part of our culture and society today. A new model of church has to be formed. 

The Good News is that God's Word will thrive, and the Holy Spirit will continue to gather the gather the church when and where it pleases, just as it has for 2000 years. Let us give thanks for what the church did in the last century, for the ways that God worked through the church and its institutions. And let us look forward in faith to how the Spirit will move through the church, empowering it to carry out a mission of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament in this next century. 

I think that as people of faith who also love our church, our challenge is to believe the Easter message that out of death comes life, and that everything – even the church we love – dies and rises to new life with Christ.

And more, I think that many of us in the church find ourselves in a Holy Saturday posture of not being sure of whether resurrection will really happen. Or, perhaps we find ourselves in an Easter Sunday posture, bewildered and not sure of what to make of the resurrection that's staring us in the face.

More thoughts to come. Later. 

“Joining God in the Neighborhood”

I was very excited to see Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood by Alan J. Roxburgh arrive from Amazon. Please know that I didn't order the book and wasn't anticipating its arrival. My wife, a seminary professor, ordered it. However, upon reading the second paragraph on the back of the book, I knew I had to read it:

Missional calls you to reenter your neighborhood and community to discover what the Spirit is doing there – to start with God's mission – and join in, shaping your local church around that mission. With inspiring true stories and a solid biblical base, this is a book that will change lives and communities as its message is lived out.

It was a few years ago, when I worked for Augsburg Fortress Publishers, that I first began to think of God having a mission in the world. Up until that point, I had always associated mission with the church – that the church is on a mission. I had never really thought of God having a mission. But Kelly Fryer wrote an excellent Bible study series called No Experience Necessary – which I, as an Augsburg Fortress sales representative, was charged with selling. One of the themes of No Experience Necessary was, "God is on a mission to love and save the world." I asked myself, "What does it mean for God to be on a mission in the world … and what does it mean for us to join in that mission?"

Then a few years later, while planning for a mission trip to El Salvador, a North American missionary with extensive work in Central America described the work that God was doing through the church in El Salvador. Our job as North American mission partners, he said, was to join in the mission that God was already accomplishing through the Salvadoran church. Too many North American church groups travel to Latin America to "do mission" in Latin America, assuming that there isn't any mission going on unless they bring it. But the truth is that God has been at work in Latin America, through the local churches, long before we even thought about traveling there for our "mission trip." Thus, our calling is to recognize and participate in what God is already doing, to accompany the Latin American church on its mission.

This idea that God is already at work in the world has been an ongoing theme in my preaching, too. I'm convinced that God is at work within the church walls, yes, but also beyond the church walls. God-things are happening at the altar and font, but also at the corner store, the barber shop, the shelter, the county government offices, the public schools, social service organizations, ten mile runs, and more. The church's mission is to carry out its God-given call to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, to baptize and to teach, yes. But its mission must also include seeing where God is at work in the world and to joining in that blessed work.

If this book, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, examines and extends these themes, I'm sure it will be a worthy read.

Ministering to < 27.5%

Render.php A few weeks ago Dr. Roger Nishioka, professor of practical theology at Columbia Theological Seminary, spoke at our synod assembly's fall session on the topic of young adults in the church.  He had lots of wonderful, challenging, and insightful things to say, many of which were captured in a series of blogposts posted from the floor of the assembly.

But it was one simple fact, I'm ashamed to say, that just shocked me.  Only 27.5% of young adults have a college degree, yet we Lutherans often conduct our ministries in ways that assume that the people in the pews will have at least a college education, and an interest in the theological and Biblical scholarship of the church.  Lutherans, he said, easily appeal to the head with their approach to ministry, concerned with good theology and good liturgical practice.  (As a Presbyterian, he also included in this assesment his tradition, many of whose ministers use an academc style gown when preaching and presiding at worship.)  And not only are we concerned with such things, but we often lead with such things, preaching and teaching and holding conferences about the importance of theology and preaching and liturgy while, perhaps, giving less attention to the life-giving Lord himself, who is the sole purpose and foundation of any good theology or liturgical practice in the first place.  As I confessed in these pixels two weeks ago, I have often attempted to preach in a way that would appease the intellectual gods that I fancy seminary professors and Christian Century editors to be, at the expense of the people who are actually – or who potentially could be – in the pews.

And more.  As our Lutheran pietist sisters and brothers have often highlighted, to what extent does an emphasis on orthodoxy often fail to warm the heart in the way that our Lord's presence warmed the hearts of the disciples on the road to Emmaus?  Orthodoxy and heart-felt faith are not polar opposites – such an opposition would be a false dichotomy – but we who value good order and right doctrine must remember that human beings are whole bodied beings, able and yearning to experience God in all facets of our being, not just through intellectual assent.  For the Word became flesh, took on the entirety of human experience, and lived among us.

But back to the 27.5%.  According to data from the 2000 census, young adults have obtained college degrees at a higher rate than the rest of the population.  That is, the proportion of Americans who have college degrees drops when we factor in older Americans (and by "older," I mean people as young as their late 30s, and older).

For the sake of discussion, let's pretend that this 27.5% is stands for the whole population (which it doesn't).  If in the way we conduct our ministry we're appealing to 27.5% of the population (represented by the green area in the pie chart, above), what about the other 72.5% of the population (represented by the blue area in the chart)?  By the way we conduct our ministry, are we essentially narrowing our proclamation of the Lord of all peoples to only 27.5% of the people, excluding – intentionally or not – the other 72.5% of God's people?  Classism and educational elitism comes into view …

Though I'm suspicioius of Paul's claim to be all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) – that's a pretty darned hard thing to do if we're honest with ourselves – I like what he says in these verses nonetheless.  "To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews," that is, in order to speak and teach and minister in ways that make sense to Jews.  Same thing "to those under the law," "to those outside the law," and "to the weak" – Paul became as one of them, "that I might by all means save some."  He knows that he cannot "win" any – that is, that he cannot proclaim the Gospel in ways that draw people to Christ – simply by staying within his own worldview.  He is willing to change the manner in which he conducts his ministry, "for the sake of the gospel."

Are we willing to try and follow Paul's lead?  Are we willing, for the sake of the gospel, to change the manner in which we conduct our ministry?  Are we able going to become weak for the weak, under the law for those under the law, outside the law for those outside the law?  Are we willing to view the world from the perspective of 72.5% of the population who does not have a college education, and conduct our ministry in a way that might speak to even some of them?  Are we willing to believe that God might care less about the framed degrees on our office walls than He does the people who never had the ability, opportunity, or luxury to accumulate such learning?  And if so, how does that belief shape the way we conduct our ministry?

As this last paragraph attests, I have more questions than answers.  I'm more convicted of my own failure than I am convinced about what to do.  I'm humbled by Paul and all the saints who have gone before me in genuine service to all God's people.  I'm awed by the God who chooses weakness and foolishness as his way in the world.  I'm weighed down by the sin of my own pride, the storing up of academic treasures framed on my wall and stacking up on my bookshelf, and I ask God to change my heart and my ways, so that I might more faithfully serve all his people.

Sending out the Seventy: What Do They See?

Please contribute to my Sunday sermon.  Keep reading … thanks!

I've returned home to the Philadelphia area for my longest stay in the area since moving to Virginia three years ago.  And I'm amazed, and saddened, at the situation of the local economy.  Living inside the Beltway, where government creates jobs even (and especially?) during depressed economies, I'm a bit insulated to the economic realities of the rest of the country.  As I've driven around the Philadelphia suburbs and exurbs, I've passed more boarded up gas stations and restaurants, and seen more Dollar Stores, than I can remember seeing when I lived here three years ago.  The situation isn't dire, for sure, but it is surely isn't that great.

—–

"The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go." – Luke 10:1 (from this Sunday's Gospel reading).

I wonder what these seventy other followers of our Lord saw on their journeys.  What was the condition of the people and the towns?  How were the local economies?  Did people have jobs?  Was the harvest good?  How were relations with the ruling Roman colonial leaders?

We don't know what the seventy saw on their missions, but we know that they reported with joy that "even the demons submit to us!" (Luke 10:17).  We can assume that they healed the sick, as instructed by Jesus (Luke 10:9), and perhaps performed other miraculous acts.

—–

What would seventy disciples see if they were sent into towns throughout our country?  What kind of demons would they drive out of these towns, and of the people who live in them?  Could this Sunday's Gospel text be read as a call to mission, to go out and cast out demons of economic depression and hopelessness?  That's the direction I'm heading, I think.

Sunday is July 4, Independence Day, a fact that no preacher should ignore in preparing their Sunday sermon (but something that we needn't inappropriately embrace, either!).  Can we preachers can use this text, on this national holiday and in these difficult economic times, as a call to serve our nation and our neighbors, to commit ourselves to working for jobs and opportunity, and to helping those who have neither.

Can you help with with my sermon?  Please share with me stories of the local economy in your area.  How are jobs?  Are people optimistic about the future?  What about high school and college graduates – how are they doing?  Are there jobs for those new to the job market?  What are the signs of hope in your neighborhood?

And what about your church?  Is your church making efforts to help the poor or serve the newly unemployed?  Is your church suffering decreased giving, and as a result being forced to change its ministries?

Please post comments here, on my Facebook page, or email me directly.  Thank you very much.