Category: Church


On Tuesday night I began to jot down a few notes about Mother’s Day.  I didn’t intend to post them…until Wednesday afternoon.  While eating lunch with several staff persons on Wednesday the senior pastor said to me, “Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you: You need to acknowledge the oldest and youngest mothers at the 9:00a worship service on Sunday.”  Before he could get out another word I responded in exuberant and honest haste, “You can forget about that!”  He laughed; I calmed down.  “I knew that would get to you,” he joked.  He was right.  (So below are a few incomplete thoughts…!)  

I grew up in a church with two Mother’s Day rituals: 1) the “oldest/youngest/most times a mother/most children present” mothers were awarded flowers, and 2) all willing and able men sang “Church in the Wildwood” during the special music moment.  The service always had a certain innocent charm.

But something seemed amiss.  You could see some women fidget in their seats.  I always felt a strange twinge of uneasiness during the service.

I always wondered how the celebration of motherhood affected some in the pews:

– the woman who desperately wanted a child but could not conceive?

– the woman who lost a child during pregnancy or delivery?

– the son or daughter who was celebrating the first mother’s day without mom?

– the child whose mother abused or abandoned him or her?

– the person whose memory of “mom” is more painful than heartwarming?

For people who have been told Leave it to Beaver motherhood is the norm (we’re looking at you, Hallmark), I can only imagine that they are not looking for the church to reinforce that myth.   How painful some silly celebration might be for those unable, though desperately wanting, to be a candidate.  (Is it not God, the parent of all, whom worship is all about anyways?)

Is eliminating such moments from worship too pandering, too much trying to meet the needs of all?  Perhaps.  And it’s true that the Church must say something meaningful and compelling about parenthood and families.  We should celebrate those who have nurtured and loved us.  But the reality is that parenthood and families are not one-size-fits-all entities.  Families are different, unique, and messy.  Mothers – and those who wish to be – come from a variety of social locations.  We must be aware that motherhood – or lack thereof – means different things to the women in the pews.

On Mother’s Day I like to think of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  She carried Jesus for nine months in her womb.  She was there when he was born…and when he died.  I imagine she held him, cooed at him, and giggled with him.  She taught him to talk and set the table.  I like to think that she corrected and reprimanded him when necessary.  She counseled; she loved; she nurtured.

When Jesus was young, Mary took him to the Temple where Simon told her that a “sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35).  Can you imagine living with those words echoing in your mind?  Years earlier she told the angel that announced Jesus’ birth, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).  Of course, at that moment she was speaking of her conception by the Spirit, but what trust, what faith, what commitment.  Think of the beauty of Mary’s openness to God to “let it be.”  (This is not a fatalistic “let it be.”  But rather, a trusting in the grace and goodness of God “let it be.”)

Very few words in Methodist literature are devoted to Mary.  If she is mentioned at all it usually comes in the way of saying, “See Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed,’ which state that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin.  Perhaps Mother’s Day is a day to think of Mary in all of her fullness and beauty.  To put aside differences in the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, and to ponder in our hearts her commitment, obedience, and trust.  To be reminded of her openness to being a vessel for God’s glory.  I suppose it is some folks’ Protestant desire to not be Catholic that leads them away from spending time with Mary.  What a shame.  Thinking of Mary more often and more intimately would do our souls good – our longing, fearful, and thirsty souls.

It’s Derby week here in Louisville.  We’re approaching the end of a two-week festival complete with parties, concerts, parades, and invitation-only galas.  The county schools participate in the drama by canceling school on the Friday before Derby Saturday.  Patients cancel appointments.  Roads close.  Attendance at church dips.  A variety of races dot the schedule – a hot air balloon race, running marathons, steamboat races.  And, oh yeah, the actual horse race on Saturday evening.

The Kentucky Derby festivities are…how shall we say it…holy and sacred to many around the city.  The festivities have been consecrated and sanctified by years of pageantry and tradition.

The Kentucky Derby festival is undoubtedly part of the Local Liturgical Calendar (LLC).

Each city has such a calendar.  It includes the events and traditions that give rhythm to the city’s happenings.   The calendar provides an ordering for expectation and planning.  It’s as if the city’s collective mood rises and falls in anticipation and completion of each event.

In addition to the Derby, Louisville’s LLC also includes (among other events): University of Louisville football and basketball in fall and winter, the Kentucky State Fair in August, high school graduations, the St. James Art Fair, days at the Waterfront, and evenings at the Bats games.

While I lived in St. Louis I learned that their LLC centered on the museums, the Arch, and the professional baseball, football, and hockey teams.  In Durham, NC the LLC involved Duke and UNC basketball along with the famous Durham’s Farmer’s Market.  From Charlotte to Greensboro the calendar revolved around professional football, NASCAR, the banking industry events, and concerts.

I was reminded of the hallowed Louisville and Derby events recently when I scheduled a confirmation class retreat.  Without intention I scheduled the overnight retreat on the same day as Thunder over Louisville.  Having been away from the city for a few years my internal attunement to the local calendar was amiss.  Fortunately, those better in sync with the local calendar called to gently remind me that some families would likely have a conflict.  (I should say, they never suggested I cancel or change the retreat (and we didn’t).  They genuinely cared that the children, their families, and I be open to all the happenings and how persons might be affected.)

But herein lies a problem…

Part of the Local Liturgical Calendar problem is churchly and pastoral.  On one bulletin board in my office there is a county school schedule, a minor league baseball schedule, and this coming fall’s UofL football schedule.  To what extent do we, as church leaders, plan around such events?  How do we incorporate the local calendar into the church calendar?  Which calendar takes precedence?

The other dynamic of the Local Liturgical Calendar is personal.  We might ask ourselves, What schedule gives rhythm and meaning to my life?  Do church events earn the same ink or space on my calendar as other local, family, or professional appointments?  After which calendar do I pattern my life?  Does the Church’s liturgical year – that calendar of scripture readings, feast days, and color changes in the sanctuary – matter to me?

Part of the beauty of the church calendar lies in it’s structure and rhythm.  Starting in December it traces the story of God’s activity from Advent to Christmas to Epiphany to Lent to Easter to Pentecost.  Tuning ourselves in to the sacred story provides order in the midst of our frenzied culture.  If it’s chaos we fear, it’s order that the calendar provides. When we participate in the church’s liturgical year we relive for ourselves the sacred story, making it matter here and now.

Is this crazy?  Is it even remotely possible to pattern our lives around a calendar that may seem archaic, distant, or superfluous?  Admittedly, we’ll never “get ahead” in a business sense by attending a bible study instead of a networking seminar.  But it is even a little possible…to make room, to raise the priority level, to create space..for the church’s calendar?

This is not a post to harangue everything Derby.  I ran the mini-marathon.  I watched the fireworks.  I enjoy the Waterfront Chow wagon.  I love the balloon glow.  And, on Saturday, I’ll gather with friends and family to eat, watch the races, and pull the name of a horse out of a hat, hoping that beautiful creature might win the race and earn me a prize.

But then, on Sunday, I’ll go to church…

Lent 4.5 – Transportation

How did God’s people travel?  On their feet?  By boats?  On top of donkeys and camels?

How do we get around town today?  What are the costs associated with us buzzing from place to place?

Ever since the first church put a coffee shop in its lobby the debate has brewed on and on (and on).  Should the church entrance, narthex, lobby (or whatever you call it) be a place that hands out bulletins or cups o’ joe?  Is the lobby for merely passing through on one’s way to the sanctuary?  Or is it a place for gathering and sitting together around a tall table and a plate of breakfast goodies?  Is the narthex for ushers ushering or congregants congregating?

I still remember the first time I saw a coffee shop in a church lobby. It’s presence seemed odd and misplaced, yet fresh and intriguing.  You mean I can worship and drink coffee at the same time?  I can sit with friends around a table, seeing their faces worship, instead of looking at the back of the head in front of me in the pew?

Coffee shops in church?  Maybe.

I recently finished Onward, a book by Starbucks ceo (Starbucks company’s spelling and capitalization, or lack thereof) Howard Shultz detailing the company’s journey through recent ups and downs.

In Onward, Schultz speaks of culture’s “places.”  Places, for him, are those locations where people connect with others in a variety of ways.  Shultz’s suggests that home is the “first place” and work is the “second place” of connection.  The coffee shop, he proposes, is a person’s “third place.”  Shultz’s describes the coffee shop (or in his case, Starbucks locations) as “a social yet personal environment between one’s house and job, where people can connect with others and reconnect with themselves.”

He writes: “The next time you walk by a coffee shop, peer inside.  Take in the variety of people in line or seated.  Men and women in business attire.  Parents with strollers.  College students studying.  High school kids joking.  Couples deep in conversation.  Retired folks reading newspaper and talking politics.  Maybe they’re falling in love with the person next to them.  Or making a friend.”

Cultural places.  Home.  Work.  Coffee shops.

What about the Church?  Or the local church?  What is it’s “place” in society?

Now, I don’t mean to say Shultz is wrong to neglect the “place” of the church.  That’s not his focus as ceo or author.  Nor do I want to suggest that the church exists, or should transform to be, like a coffee shop.  But you can’t help (as a pastor or Christian, I suppose), to read Shultz’s words of “places of connection” and not think of the church.

Shouldn’t the church be a place of connection?

A place where people come together to connect with others through worship, study, and fellowship.  A place of reconnecting with ourselves – both the selves we enjoy and the ones we’d rather not spend any quality time examining – through meditation and spiritual disciplines.  In fact, the Church is the place of ultimate connection, a connection with God.  When we come into the sacred pause that is our Sunday morning we come into the full presence of God, hoping, expecting, longing for God’s spirit to and move and inspire.  In fact, it’s God’s grace through the spirit that does the heavy lifting of connecting and reconnecting God’s people.

We might profitably ask of the church the question Shultz asks of coffee shops: What do people see when they peer inside a church?  A sanctuary?  A few coffee tables?  People connecting?

 

Protecting God’s Creation.

Embracing Gospel Justice.

Nurturing Spiritual Fulfillment.


During Lent, our church has been participating in a wonderfully challenging program, Lent 4.5.  The  program is aimed at cultivating hearts and lifestyles of Christian simplicity.   Over the course of the Sundays in Lent, we have (and will) explore topics such as simplicity, consumption, food, water, energy, transportation, and giving and generosity.

We’re asking questions such as: How do we faithfully live in God’s creation?  How do we view and use our limited resources?  Are we being consumed by marketers and advertisers?

The congregation’s response have been beautifully mixed.  Some folks are really digging all the ways we’ve explored caring for creation.  Others aren’t quite on board…yet.  But God is moving in powerful ways…challenging the skeptics and motivating the passionate!

Over the next few days I’ll share some of the videos I’ve made that highlight the weekly themes.

Lent 4.5 is produced by the Passionist Earth and Spirit Center in Louisville, KY.

A recent article in The New York Times tells the story of an educated, qualified, and experienced man unable to land a job as a pastor.  The problematic note in his resume: Mr. Almlie is single, never married with no children.

Mr. Almlie wrote a few months ago, “Prejudice against single pastors abounds.”  The Times article highlights all the usual arguments for Mr. Almlie’s lack of job offers.  Churches may believe that only a married man can counsel married congregants.  Others may lament the absence of free labor from the (in)voluntary pastoral sidekick (aka. a spouse).  (This is also known as the pastoral “two-for one” deal.)  Some churches may fear the eligible bachelor may run off with a church member, or worse yet, a high school youth.

Some of these fear may be worthwhile, if not a little over the top.  My own youth group experience tells me that single youth leaders may  run off to Florida with 16 year-old sophomores.  (We should have known better when he asked us one youth gathering evening to spend 2 hours in “a private place” in “quiet time with God.”  I obliged…or at least I did for a few minutes.  He, on the other hand, remained quiet by locking his lips with his soon-to-be eloping bride.)  But this is likely the one unusual situation in the midst of all the other single pastors who are faithful in their calling, covenant, and trust with their congregation.

However, might not something else be at the core of Mr. Almlie’s dilemma and church fears?  Could it be that churches know all too well their hiring practices, but are less comfortable with discussions on sexuality?

What if sexuality…or the church’s inability to talk openly about it…or the churches’ fear of talking about it….is at the heart of the matter?

Mr. Almlie admits that he’s heard all the clouded fears and apprehensions with regards to sexuality.  Churches say, sometimes indirectly, “What if he is gay?  There must be something wrong with him if he’s single, right?  He’ll spend all of his time looking for a bride, and may even steal a married one from a congregant.”

If he’s gay…so what?  I have many gay friends, some of whom are church leaders whose spirituality and faith are far deeper than mine.

Is there something sociologically, psychologically, or physiologically wrong with single men and women…of course not.

Can a single man still speak truth into marital problems or circumstances?  Well, can a married man do the same for singles?  Obviously yes.

When will the church be able to have an honest conversation about sexuality?  Heterosexuality.  Homosexuality.  Singleness.  Divorce.  Married life.  Widows.  We must find ways to speak into the “marital” statues of all people.  Does not our call to Christian love demand that we affirm and love people regardless of whether or not there is a ring of their finger or a signed slip of paper at the county clerk’s office?

Even more, what would it take for us to accept a leader who has checked a different box on the marital status application than we check?  Could we not be enriched and shepherded by those whose relationship preference is “different?”

Lauren Winner captures the church’s attitude and problem surrounding sexuality aptly when she writes in her book, Real Sex:  “[In matters of sexuality] I have learned the importance of the church as much by the church’s absence as by its presence.  Sometimes I have been bowled over by the harm the church has done – in my life and others’ – by speaking thoughtlessly, or not speaking at all, about sex.”

I admit it.  I am guilty of worship snobbery.  I am a selective worshiper.  A worship elitist.  A liturgical snob.  Give me a well-put together service; a theologically sound, intellectually challenging, and enlightening sermon; and a choir second only to the heavenly chorus.  I am a worshiper who dines on what fancies me the most, often leaving the remainder of the worship palate untouched.

Each week I examine the Duke Divinity School worship schedule to see who is preaching, what choir is singing, and what worship tradition is being celebrated at each service.

My favorite professor is preaching on Tuesday, I notice.  I will be sure to be there.

Oh, the contemporary praise and worship team is leading the Wednesday service.  I’ll plan to watch “Glee” on Tuesday night, and skip worship on Wednesday to catch up on reading.

It’s an Anglican service on Thursday.  I don’t have the time to spare.  But I’ve always wanted to hear the preacher.  Perhaps I can eavesdrop when the preacher steps into the pulpit.

I fear that I am not alone.  When I go into different churches the demographics and homogeneity of various worship services are predictable (if not also stereotypical).    Young people congregate with other young folks at “contemporary” praise-and-worships services.  Those who have always worshipped in a traditional manner gather to worship “traditionally.”  Different styles of worship and worshipers rarely mix, even worshipping in separate buildings simultaneously.

In the name of being “selective” or “efficient” we prioritize one worship style over another.  We believe one preacher (the popular one we like) is more likely to speak God’s Word than the less well-known preacher we’re not willing to give a chance.  We cling to old hymns and dismiss the new choruses because surely goodness comes with age.

Why do we do this?

Of course, we have our preferences for worship, but why do we prioritize?  Or is that the right word?  Do we prioritize or idolize?  Idolization might be more accurate.  It seems we lift up one style of worship above the One who is to be worshipped.  We enter into churches, sanctuaries, chapels, or other holy places seeking something that pleases us.  We use worship as a means to satisfy our own desires.

When this happens worship becomes a commodity no different than the millions of other products we consume throughout our lives.  We shop for a worship service that is comfortable and accommodating to our preferences like we hunt down a pair of blue jeans that fits just right.  We profess allegiance to a worship style the same way we commit ourselves to a certain auto manufacturer.  We say, “I am contemporary worshipper” as easily, confidently, and trivially as we say, “I’m a Ford or Chevy person.”

When our allegiance to a particular worship style overshadows our allegiance to the One worshipped we’ve missed the point.  Worship becomes our idol; we bow down to the performance and presentation of the mortal over the immortal.  Our emotional and psychological needs – and not our need to praise and glorify God- take center stage.

Jesus’ urging to Mary and Martha may help.  Jesus said, “Only one thing is needed (Luke 10:38-42).  That one thing says the Psalmist: “To dwell in the house of the Lord…to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” (Psalm 27:4).  We don’t need worship to be many selfish and pleasing things; only one thing is needed.  Worship is not bowing down to our own preferences and losing ourselves in our own worshipful delights.  Rather, true worship is getting lost in wonder, love and praise of the God whom calls and invites us to enter God’s holy and mysterious presence always, everywhere, and in any manner.

Sally Morgenthaler’s Worship Evangelism seeks to bridge the perceived chasm between the act of worship and the practice of evangelism.  As she puts it, too many churches view these activities as separate, with one usually taking priority over the other.  She laments the current state of church worship.  She believes many churches have abandoned objective standards for worship, allowing worship to be anything and everything we want it to be (49).  She offers no real critique, assessment, or definition of evangelism, however.  As a result, her desire to hold the two together in theory and in practice falls short.

Worship Evangelism is primarily a collection of antidotes, quotes, and “how-to” suggestions from Evangelical megachurch pastors (e.g. Willow Creek staff) and parachurch organizations (e.g. Promise Keepers).  Many of the statistics come from the late-eighties and early-nineties, probably not the best data to use today.  The anecdotes also feel dated, and at times forced.  Some appear realistic, but they primarily come across as canned and made-up for the sake of illustrating a point.

Morgenthaler’s work also lacks a certain theological depth and integrity.  She repeatedly claims that whom we worship is as important as how we worship.  Yet, she never ventures into any sustained or in-depth discussion of the whom.  Especially in the “how-to” sections, theological engagement with then whom is completely absent. The theological (and worshipful) language of the Trinity, the Incarnation, forgiveness, confession, etc. never comes to the surface.

As a result, Morgenthaler’s proposed thesis never fully materializes.  The connection between evangelism and worship never comes to fruition.  The book is more “worship thoughts and suggestions for Evangelical megachurches” than theological inquiry into worship and evangelism.  The case I believe Morgenthaler is trying to present is this: Worship is evangelism.  When the church worships properly, non-believers are drawn in and made active believers and worshipers.  Unfortunately, this logic does not appear explicitly, directly, or thoroughly in the book.

The authors of Missional Church have provided a wonderful arrangement of coherent, systematic, and thought-provoking theology concerning the state of the Church in North America.  The work captures all the key points of the missional dialogue.  In fact, when the book is read with others in the field of mission and evangelism the book holds a unique place.  In one sense it looks back and recapitulates much of the missional discussion from previous generations.  Yet, the book also points forward to a new vision for what it means to be the church today and in the future.  This theologically engaging book serves as the hinge and turning point for future debate.

Looking back to look ahead also drives the content of the work.  Repeatedly the authors trace the historical trajectory of the most important developments in North American religious history.  Yet beautifully, the authors do not simply end the discussion with the current state.  The offer a vision and challenge for the church to write the next chapter of the church’s history.  They challenge readers to assume their roles in the unfolding of God’s mission.  They challenge the church to be faithful to the tradition, critiquing it when appropriate, and forging new ways to be distinguishable from its current surroundings in order to make visible and witness faithfully to the in-breaking reign of God.

One of the strengths of the work lies in the authors’ ability to consistently return to the New Testament for the apostolic witness and structure of the church.  If we ask ourselves if a contemporary church practices is too relevant and potentially unfaithful, check it against the New Testament.  If we struggle to grasp the essence of Christianity, return to Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom.

In this strength, however, may be a weakness.  The author’s repeatedly depict the landscape of the new modern world.  It’s a world of autonomous thinkers and rational decision-making. It is – in a word – an Enlighten world.  We are unable to turn back the clock.  A simple, “do what Jesus did” may not sufficiently address the issues of new world.  Some translation of “the way Jesus did it” is necessary.  Here the authors sometimes fail to bridge the gap, not adequately translating Jesus’ way into the stream of the North American ways.  (It is interesting to note that the authors rarely call for a demanding critique of culture.  Their posture is often one of convergence and cooperation.  For this reason I would have liked to have more about the translability of the gospel into our time.)

Missional Church is also restricted by its publication date.  Published in 1998, the work came prior to the new wave of social media (facebook, Twitter, etc.).  Thus, when the authors briefly and generally speak of technology, they cannot fully grasp the implications of it.  For all of the talk of “community” in Missional Church, I would love to hear their thoughts on the cyber-communities that exist today.  To the facebook “communities,” I imagine they would say that the church must be tangible human community marked and made to be much more than what appears on the surface.

In all, Missional Church is a highly worthwhile endeavor for any student of mission and evangelism.  I was challenged both as Christian and as a church leader by the history and vision the authors outlined.  I am called by God and challenged by Missional Church to “not be content to equip the church for maintenance and security…to not indulge the temptation to compromise with worldly power” (268).

This is the final review in a ten-part series looking at Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America edited by Darrell Guder.

In chapter eight, the authors argued that particular missional communities are the crux of God’s mission in the world.  Such communities, however, cannot operate in isolation from one another.  “Particularity is not exclusivity” (248).  Rather, the people of God are a universal community of communities (248).  Individual communities flow from the particular of their contexts into the wholeness of the catholic church.  However, this oneness is not limited to institutional unity or good public relations.  Rather, particular missional communities existing in more concrete, practical, and fruitful ways to give a unified witness to the one Lord.

How did the early church do this? (As you can by now, “Let’s get back to the early church” is a prominent theme in Missional Church).  The early church, the writers argue, demonstrated its connectedness through the canonization of scripture and formation of doctrine and confessions.  However, the early church’s strong connectedness eventually succumbed to institutionalization.  David Bosch argues that the failure of the early church was that it ceased to be a movement and turned into an institution (252).  As an institution, the structures of the church in the first centuries (as well as today) may be susceptible to cultural compromise.  For Christians today this susceptibility may mean adopting the latest corporate marketing strategies or hiring processes over and against the biblical witness of fair, faithful, and just business practices.

The authors also explore the four Nicean “marks of the Church” (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic), and their implications for today.  An apostolic church is based on the teaching and preaching of the apostles, carrying forward their legacy.  In the same way the apostles gave witness in their lives and work to the good news of Jesus Christ, so too the Church follows in their footsteps.  The Church’s catholicity is demonstrated in all the ways that the Church witnesses to the one gospel that draws all people unto Christ (257).  Particular communities live out this catholicity when they serve Christ in their own context, yet understand that is it not the only way to be a Christian community.  A community of holiness is expressed in the ways a particular community functions as one set apart for God’s mission. Holiness becomes evident in communal practices of forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, righteousness, and justice.  Finally, the oneness of the Church – unity – is the result of the Church’s faithfulness to apostolicity, holiness, and catholicity.  In the midst of a world of competitiveness, wastefulness, and contention, the Church exists to offer a different way, a united way.

The authors conclude their discussion of the connected nature of the missional church by arguing that the four marks of the church are essential for a connected, missional church.  Such “marks,” when faithfully and honestly lived, represent the missional unity that “transcends all human boundaries and cultural distinctions” (265).  This unity, or connectedness, is the future of the faithful church embodying God’s reign.  Accountability and cooperation, not classic congregationalism, is the way forward for connected missional communities.

While I greatly appreciate the vision the authors present for the church of the 21st century, I remain fuzzy on the details.  The idea of a “community of communities” sounds absolutely faithful, fruitful, and scriptural.  However, I’m unclear what this “looks like.”  It does not seem as if the authors are arguing for institutional unity or uniform organizational polity.  A national “connected” church that exists as collaboration among the thousands of already existing churches does not appear to be the goal.  What then does this “community” look like?  There is no doubt that a conversion of existing church structures is needed if the Church is to be more “unified, holy, apostolic, and catholic,” but how do we discern the next move?

This is the ninth review in a ten-part series looking at Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America edited by Darrell Guder.

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