In my last post, I got on a soap box about the “dying” church. I firmly believe that the church is not dying, passively, but rather failing–actively, to meet a very spiritually hungry people.
Categorically obsessed with how our establishment is “dying”, we’ve missed the point: our job is to encounter God and God’s work, not preserve our own idea of what church ought to be.
And, God’s work is the work of resurrection: the work of bringing all people into new, more whole, better life through unending and unfathomable love.
When we stop talking about resurrection and incarnation, we stop talking about who we are. We stop living authentically, and people see no further reason to associate with us.
So what does that authenticity look like to me?
First and foremost, to be authentic we must always be a people who point towards resurrection for all people in the love of God. We don’t always have to say it quite like that, but we do need to live it just like that. Everything we do points to that fact: that God’s love transforms our deaths and turns them into new life.
And here are some other thoughts:
Take the Bible seriously. Be in a real, hard, serious marriage with that book. It’s a crazy, weird and bizzare book. It says beautiful things. It says horrible things. Don’t lie about that.
People notice when Conservatives take the anti-homosexual passages super seriously, but not the kosher passages.
People notice when Liberals take the ‘serve your neighbor’ passages super seriously, but don’t reach out and do that work.
People notice when we sing Mary’s song, but then ignore white privilege or hang onto our own power as the elite in this country. People notice when we don’t talk about the end of days shenanigans, or the vicious stories of violence. People notice when we ignore the uncomfortable parts because they are ‘anachronistic’.
We are married to this book. And marriages take some serious, serious work. Get to work, because people notice when we ignore this book’s complicatedness. They’re not stupid, and neither are we.
All that we do, every thing that we say, every conversation that we have points back to God’s work of resurrection–of making God visible and real for people.
Point back to God, always. Remember in petty arguments that it’s not about keeping people happy–it’s about God’s call. And if it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of God’s call–then it doesn’t matter enough to fight about. Make meaning out of task lists and droning business issues. These things are important–absolutely important, but do them with a care that remembers: we do this to spread the Word–not for it’s own sake. Ask that good Methodist question of everyone–“How is it with your soul?” What’s going on between you and God today?
You can speak languages other than Churchanese.
Sure–ask that good Methodist question, “How is it with your soul?” But in some circles, in some every day languages, “How are you?” asked with the right level of sincerity means the same thing. Re-direct a question about whether or not your bulletin paper is of the right quality into a conversation about how many kids somebody has. Translate. Often. Know the different coded languages of your lives, and speak Jesus in them. Christianity does not need to keep speaking Churchanese. It’s sort of like Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Beautiful, beautiful languages, useful for many things–totally not understood by anybody other than Biblical scholars. Don’t forget it. Help people learn it. Help people own it. Help people see the power in it. And move fluidly in and out of it so that you don’t become irrelevant.
Let go of the failing programs in your church.
You don’t need to keep tired, anxious committees alive. You don’t need to keep up ministries that you’re totally burnt out on. We can honor your work, let it go, mourn it even, and say goodbye. If it’s time is up, then it’s time is up.
Stop letting people be mean because we “love each other here”.
Sometimes love means telling people that they’re assholes. Sometimes love means protecting the community or the message from people who are going to be total jerks. Bad behavior is unChristian behavior, and it makes us worse Christians, not better Christians for not addressing it. If you have a parishioner who is a bully, don’t let it hold the congregation hostage.
Do not, ever, ever, tell your kids what to think about God. They already know God. Help them tell their story.
Most of the people that I know who hate church hate it because of something they were told to believe in Sunday School or Youth Group. Most of the people who had the strongest experience of being denied by the church had it before they were an adult, and it was the hypocracy of adults who tried to tell children how to experience God that killed their religious life.
I trust the Godly Play curriculum more than anything in this endeavor. And the basic premise is that this tells Bible stories in meaningful, accessible ways so to teach children a “language” with which they can express their already established relationship with God. Children are not empty vessels to be filled up with religious information. They are tiny humans loved by their creator, who like adults, get glimpses of their relationship with that creator slowly but surely, and want to know how to express that relationship.
Where are these mytical churches that do this stuff?
I know of a few places that I hold in high esteem. I know other places that are growing towards this mentality through tough conversations. I’m sure you do too. You can share them in the comments if you want. Lots of communities exist to share amazing church plants, ideas, or whatever that shows a new, resurrected church.
I’ll focus, though, on three places that I know that are your “typical” 1950s style mainline parish that have transformed the “failure” of that model into new life.
There is a church of somewhat mythic proportions in Chicago that turned a broken, rotting building into a huge community service center. Their rector marched in the #blacklivesmatter protests in Chicago in full clergy regalia. The photo is stupendously and strangely powerful.
My home church in Chicago teaches kids about God in a way that makes them run to “Sunday School”. It creates inquisitive, religiously thoughtful kids who are not convinced that God wants them to “be good or else”. They also turned their front lawn into a community food garden that distributes fresh organic food to local shelters. And they were named one of the 10 best urban gardens in Chicago.
The church I work for now has an exciting relationship with the university across the street. It’s a host for interns in our own community garden, and ministry interns–even once hosted an archeological dig. It hosts the office of the local block nurse program. We’re also in a movement across the Twin Cities to build these awesome community bread ovens, which make fresh bread and fresh pizza for a whole neighborhood. I have never seen so many church dads show up to church as I have when we have an all-call for building volunteers. They also completely run a restaurant on volunteers and spaz for the 2 weeks of the state fair. It’s totally mind boggling to me.
But at the core–the point is that these places are thriving Churches because they are more than just cool social service organizations.
These places are places of God’s work, of worship, of spiritual awakening. The way that we speak, the reasons why we do these things, the directions that we go, it is because we meet God in the breaking of the bread, because in our work we help make space for incarnation and resurrection–God renewing the world through us. We are places of worship. We can do good church when we pay attention to God, and listen for God, and speak the word of God. Not before.