Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Maybe it's time to try something different...

One of the few real gifts I have been given, over the years, has been to be surrounded by young people - both in church and in recovery - who want to both talk and listen. And when I can listen with even a mustard-seed's worth of humility, some amazing awakenings can happen...like tonight. Grab a cup of coffee and brace yourself, though - this one's gonna go a while...

Really, though, it's all Kyle Wetherald's fault. A young man from nearby Bluffton, Ohio, he found his way here, and left a comment here on an earlier post, and his profile led me to this great post of his. And he got me thinking - and you know where that gets me...

Kyle wrote as if he'd been reading my mail. His words echo every plaintive cry for church renewal I've listened to (or been a part of) for 15 years. Whether you listen to Brian McLaren and the Emergent folks, the folks at Relevant magazine, Youth Services, or if you listen to some of my heroes of faith, you'll see a thousand different attempts to change "the church." But while there are isolated successes, there are still people like Kyle (and like me) who keep asking the same questions:
What if church wasn't the Pastor Tim show? What if Church was more like the Bible study on Wednesday night (which is very sparsely attended), where people were actually engaged in their spiritual journey and not just going to church on Sunday because that's what you do...

What if it was okay if someone missed Corporate Worship one week because they were living a Christ centered life and offering love to their neighbor in need?

What if we were actually able to see that we don't go to church to meet God? God was there before too. God is in the parking lot. God is in the bars. God is in the workplace. What if we were able to connect our spiritual life with our physical life because thats where church was?

What if? What if? What if?

I could go on all night.
So could I, Kyle. Thank you for putting into words what I've been struggling with ever since I became a Christian.

I have come to believe this, though: Mennonite, Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic, Baptist - we all stumble around the edges of the mystery, Kyle. Some get closer than others. And many faithful, dedicated pastors (including yours) are trying to make things better - mostly within their context, but some with radical changes, which can bring their own problems. We try, through a thousand variations of speaking, music, Scripture, and all kinds of stuff (from multimedia to drama to lectio divina) to convey the unbelievable and unfathomable love of God in 60 or (God forgive us) 90 minutes. And then we wonder why we fail...

We fighting against the inertia of seventeen hundred years of Christendom (organized Christian religion approved by the authority figures of the times) weighing us down - and we wonder why we aren't making progress. So much of what "church" is today is based on what grew out of Emperor Constantine's conversion in 312 AD, and the building of the institutional church as a castle of righteousness, rather than as a M*A*S*H hospital for sinners.

But somehow, despite all the brokenness of the church, I managed to find God's presence. So as I read Kyle's comments, I had to ask : what did I do - what did God do in me - to help me get it? What were the parts that worked? So I looked at the three different faith communities in which I grew up - and how each one of them had a part in forming and re-forming my faith. It's helpful to see how each one synergized with the others...

The first one was the community of recovery - the 12 step world of AA. Immediately following that was a group of Lutherans - both a group of 20- and 30-somethings and another group of "mature" folks in several congregations in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, who wrapped themselves around me and mentored me in Christian faith. And the last one was a marvelous project called the Alpha Program, with which I am still in love (even though they wouldn't like me very much if they knew the truth about me...)

The heart of my awakening tonight is this: I am coming to believe that it is a loving, caring, accepting community that builds faith. Not worship (and the endless worship wars over various stylistic aspects of it). Not liturgy, or the lack thereof. Not sermons. Not architecture or symbols or icons or salvific theology. All of that helps, but in the end, it will count for nothing. Though conservative Christians will whimper in pain when I say the words, they are still true: it really does take a village. But it took some time to figure out where I'd figured that out from...

In the AA tradition I came from, we were encouraged to attend lots of AA meetings. And there, I found absolute, unconditional acceptance. It didn't matter what laws I'd broken; who or what I had (or had not) slept with; what I looked like, where I lived. None of that mattered. The question was: Do you want to stay sober today? Just for today? Yes? Then welcome. You're welcome here. And the more I came around, the more acceptance and welcome I found.

Then I got introduced to "the three-meeting meeting." The wise-o's in recovery would say stuff like this:
Steve, every time you go to an AA meeting, there are three meetings. There is "the meeting before the meeting," where people get together, meet, and spend time setting up chair and tables, making coffee and stuff. Then there's "the meeting," where people don't tell you what you should do; they tell you what they did, and how it worked for them. (It's called "sharing experience, strength and hope," rather than giving unsolicited advice.) And then there's "the meeting after the meeting," when people clean up, go out for coffee, and continue the fellowship. At "the meeting after the meeting," our primary purpose is to show folks that we don't bite. Make sure you go to all three meetings, Steve...
Strangely enough, I found this group of "young adults" at my first church who did the exact same thing. We met before church, had coffee and talked and sang and prayed together. They put up with my vulgarity, my theological stupidities, and my endless questions. They told me about how to buy my first Bible. And they showed me that you didn't need to be a Bible-wiz in order to go to a Bible study. They invited me into their community, then to be a part of their worship, and before long I was drawn in by the welcome and acceptance they shared. God's hands and feet were at the ends of their arms and legs...

And then, months after I left my first Kansas congregation, I was introduced to the Alpha program. And gee, can you imagine? What was at the heart of Alpha? Well, it was just like my other successful faith experiences:
- It was specifically designed for people who were unchurched. If you were willing to make a commitment to come, you were welcome. No theological litmus test. Heretics and apostates welcome.

- It followed the "three-meetings" rule almost to the letter. Every Alpha session started with a meal, and the #1 rule at the meal was: no church talk. The goal was to make people feel welcome.

- Every effort was to make the hosts (the church folks) as normal and everyday and inclusive as could be. Then there was a presentation - either video or in person - about some question of faith. There was humor, pathos, and honesty.

- And then there was the meeting afterwards - discussion groups where the stated rule was "no question too heretical to be asked, or answered."
In recent years, the Alpha Program and their founder, Nicky Gumbel have become associated more centrally with the folks who "love the sinner but hate the sin" when it comes to gay/lesbian issues, so if I ever went to an Alpha session, I'd more likely be an "outsider" rather than a member of "the faithful." But it was still a blessing - to me, an Alpha program was a sign that a church had a heart for outsiders. It might be fun to see how Alpha is working in the Buckeye state...even as an apostate...

Ten years ago, I was blessed to read one of the most amazing (and under-appreciated) texts ever put out by Augsburg Fortress: What NeXt? Connecting Your Congregation to Generation X. Though it's 8 years old at this point, it's still an amazing text (and video) on looking at church differently. (Augsburg is just about to remainder all these books, it seems. At $6.30 for the book and video, they're cheap at the price.) It spawned a conference at Lutheran Church of Hope in 2000 which was a big deal for me...

I read and heard Pam Fickenscher (the original pastor at Spirit Garage in Minneapolis) speak there, and later read her article in the book and in this article about the founding of this amazing satellite church. Over and over, I heard this message: unchurched folks are not going to come in the front door of your church. For years, Spirit Garage's new members came from Habitat for Humanity projects, food drives, work at homeless shelters, and the like. They came because they found a place where they could meet Christians, outside of church, and found that this particular group was pretty non-toxic, after all.

Needless to say, given some of the changes I've come through, I've been searching far and wide for "non-toxic Christians." And then there have been times when I didn't even want to look, to be honest. Getting back into a traditional (or quasi-traditional) congregation and fighting the same old battles has as much appeal as a traffic accident for me. I keep wishing that there was something more.

For decades now, my own denomination-of-record has believed in the power of bricks and mortar. It's been a kind of Field of Dreams syndrome: build it, and they will come. But so far, that has meant thousands of near-empty congregations, who'd rather die than switch or change.

Kyle, I think there's hope. But I think the hope is with you, and people like you, who are willing to step out of the box that we've allowed to hide the church and God. Keep asking the questions; keep questioning the answers. And thanks for sparking this extended rant. It's been coming for a while...

7 comments:

Kyle said...

I really like your M*A*S*H hospital analogy. We should embrace sinners in the church, not turn them away by being judgemental. It's almost like we're saying "come on in, but leave your cigarettes out in your car" or "come on in but don't tell anyone youre gay... we dont support that..."
and whats worse is that we make the "unsaved" come to us... "just come into the church where youre safe so we can lock the door behind you" I cant say much though because I have fallen into the same ruts. Its so much easier to just go to church, sing afew songs, hear a sermon and go home than it is to live missionally. I only pray that I can find the strength to live like Jesus.

Poor Mad Peter said...

Rant on, Steve man. The best of "church" has always been its community, the place we go to get recharged, renewed, and sometimes challenged.

brother said...

I love this blog!

Preach and teach, Brother Steve. You're just about the best thing on the internet. What a comfort.

drifter said...

Steve,
If you are ever in the youngstown, oh area, stop in, Kyle is a part of a group called "a band of brothers" or bob (when he's not away at collage) anyway we study the bible, pray, do random compassionate deeds - It would be cool to have you as our first guest speaker ever. Great post - keep up the discussion.

juniper68 said...

Hey Steve,
As always, great post - so thoughtful. You are a bridgebuilder, and we need more of those these days.

Hey, when you mentioned Alpha, it reminded me of Living the Questions, which I think is meant to be a progressive Christian alternative:
http://www.livingthequestions.com/

BentonQuest said...

Steve,
Isn't it sad that we have to talk about "Non-toxic Christians"? But unfortunately, we have toxic Christians out there and no matter how well intentioned these people are, they are doing the opposite of what they profess to do.

What I wonder: what would happen if we extended to others the same consideration we would like for ourselves? I think we would change the world.

Pittsburgh M said...

Hey Stephen, I almost didn't do this because it may seem a little silly, but I just wanted to "thank you" for something. I was trying to find which song the "5th Dimension" had recorded that started out with portions of the Declaration of Independence. Well, my search led me to something you had posted back in 2004! So, thanks so much for not only referencing that song, but also including the CD information that it can be found on.
And who says God doesn't work in mysterious ways? M.