The purpose of the church has to change

A while back, I wrote that I thought Christianity was a brand in crisis. We had a problem, I contended, with “confusing the drill with the hole.” In other words, we assume that people want one thing when what they want is actually another. People don’t want a drill. They use a drill to get a hole. For me, the question still remains as to what the “Church hole” is that we actually want.

A couple of times this year I was made aware of a sociological concept that might help get at the answer. In 1887, a German sociologist named Ferdinand Tonnies posited a theory called Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. I think this idea has the potential to help us.

Community and Association

In Tonnies’ conception, Gemeinschaft is

an association in which individuals are oriented to the large association as much as, if not more than, to their own self-interest. Furthermore, individuals in gemeinschaft are regulated by common mores, or beliefs about the appropriate behavior and responsibility of members of the association, to each other and to the association at large; associations are marked by “unity of will” (Tönnies, 22).

The typical English translation of Gemeinschaft is “community,” and has, as a chief characterization, strong personal relationships.

In contrast, Tonnies posited Gesellschaft

…associations in which, for the individual, the larger association never takes precedence over the individual’s self-interest, and these associations lack the same level of shared mores. Gesellschaft is maintained through individuals acting in their own self-interest.

Modern business is a good example of Gesellschaft, in that people come together in associations in order to accomplish a goal. But that goal is secondary to the paycheck that they earn by participating in the work. Relationships are contractual in that sense.

The Drill and the Hole, revisited

Here’s what I think has happened recently: In trying to achieve community, we enacted association. I suspect that the heart of many arguments in the church are because one player believes the church should be a “community” and the other believes it should function as an “association.”

The reality is that associations were great when we were talking about economies of scale. If we want to support foreign mission workers, for example, joining together with others is a great way to accomplish that. It matters not that we know these other partners, that we care about them terribly deeply. What matters is that we want to support a mission worker and we need help, so we enter into an agreement – an association – to accomplish it. The reasons for doing so are absolutely out of self-interest (we want to support a mission worker), and not because of any commonality we have with one another.

But then we have to – once again – confront the technological revolution known as the Internet. I don’t need to walk this dog again. We know the ways that informational technology has made the world a different place. But the import for this discussion is found in the fact that there are now other ways to accomplish goals that the Church used to take care of. The ability to “do good” is so much greater at this point in history than it seems it has ever been. The level of social consciousness is rapidly reaching a critical mass to shift the ways societies function. The number of social service organizations attending to the needs of the world is staggering, and it is only growing.

Why does the church think it can compete for that market niche? Why should it? If the goal of our preaching, etc is to get people to “love one another,” and they are doing so, why would we say “Unless you do it as a part of us, it’s not good enough”?

The purpose of the church has to change. I think the days of seeing the church as a social service organization are just about over. Economies of scale mean that there are many other organizations doing what we used to do, and doing it better. Tangible service to our neighbors will always be part and parcel of the Love Thing we do, but the Church as the centralizing force behind it is rapidly becoming outdated.

I believe the Church has a unique opportunity to recover Tonnies’ understanding of Community. To be sure, there needs to be an updating of the theory to reflect modern sensibilities, but when I think about what the Nones/SBNRs are saying about faith and religion, reclaiming our authoritative voice as to what it means to daily share one another’s place is the best hope I think we have, going forward.

Can we stop it with the whole “Christian subculture” thing?

imageI have to admit to being quite troubled by the adherence to, the quest of, and the reliance upon anything that smacks of a Christian “subculture.” I’m not denying that there are not unique aspects to being Christian, just that propping up some sort of alternative web of relationships fundamentally undermines the thing we’ve been called to be.

Christ called his people the “Salt of the Earth.” Last time I checked, food could be too salty, yes? Wouldn’t it stand to reason that being too Christian might be just as bad?

Some churches care more

A recent blog post from Alan Cohen about business startups has caught my attention. In surveying what “experts” say is needed to have a successful new venture, the author found evidence of what he calls “the start-up trifecta”:

A brief (and perhaps little unfair) survey of recent entrepreneurial literature boils down to what I call the “start-up trifecta”:

  1. Doing your homework about the market/having a brilliant insight about technology
  2. Gaining sufficient investment and strong investors/advisors
  3. Finding great talent: hire “A” players.

These are the things that most companies focus on, with the belief that, if they have them in abundance, everything will be okay. Not so, he says.

In his experience, companies that succeed want it more.

The Church Planting Trifecta

In the Church, we are guilty of this same line of thinking. Whether it is about starting new churches or saving old ones, we believe that if we just get our trifecta straight we’ll be golden.

In my denomination, whenever one pastor leaves and the congregation is searching for a new one, a usual practice is to do a demographic study of the community. They download data on median income, political persuasions, crime rate, age dispersement, racial/ethnic breakdowns, etc.  They do all of this under the assumption that knowing this information will help them to know what kind of ministry they should be about and, therefore, what kind of pastor is needed to lead the community going forward, given that information. It seems sound, but I have yet to find a congregation that has actually had that research impact their search process.

Likewise, there is a big push going on now about using new media as a part of your ministry toolbox. My friend Bruce Reyes-Chow is the best at this that I know of, and I think his insights are some of the more nuanced around. But he will be quick to tell you that he’s just helping folks gain basic competency with social media. He will be quick to tell you that this isn’t a panacea.

We also think that if we can attract the right group of people, we’ll be set. I address this at length in Open Source Church, but the idea that we can bank on “experts” to show us the way is a flawed notion.

However, finding “experts” is often a secondary concern. The primary concern is finding givers. Yep. We want cash. I’m convinced that part of the reason we do demographic surveys when planting new churches is that we want to gather a congregation in “growing areas.” You should read that as “young, middle to upper class families.” If we go where the cash is, we’ll be able to have a successful ministry.

And, finally, my uber-pet peeve: We want to hire the perfect pastor, the “local resident church expert.” Everyone in my age range (in particular) has heard it: “We’re looking for someone that can attract young families” or “We’re looking for a person with a lot of experience and vision.”

Yes, of course, we don’t want a dolt in our pulpit, but this will not save our church. Intelligence is not fungible. We’re not hiring a CEO. We’re hiring a teacher. She will not save us from ourselves.

Some churches care more

I agree with Cohen’s point, in that the trifecta will not ensure any measure of “success.” I have seen congregations with the trifecta in abundance, and ones that are severely lacking. But the ones that are the acknowledged leaders in the Missio Dei are those that, quite simply, care more.

These congregations, their members, and their leadership never seem to let the lack of an “ideal location,” wealthy giving base, or rockstar staff/volunteers inhibit their ability to offer tangible care for the poor, marginalized, and oppressed. I see this in small and large congregations; rural and urban ones. The congregations that make an impact simply care more.

There is a palpable feeling of concern for the other over themselves. There is a distinct lack of infighting. There is nowhere present the need to preserve the organization. There is a mindset of sacrifice and action.

In my denomination, there is one job requirement for being elected as a leader: A leader must demonstrate the New Commandment to love as Jesus loved as a matter of course. There is nothing that says they must be world renowned (or even passable) theologians. There is nothing about possessing a certain skill-set. They need to love. That’s it.

I spend a lot of time delving into and parsing the philosophy of ministry. However, at the end of the day, the things I write about are just tools and tips and tricks. They are not the solution.

If you want to be a vibrant disciple of Jesus, and if you want to be a part of a congregation that vibrantly participates in God’s Mission, forget programs and worship styles and whatever else. Just be Love and be a part of Love.

A Good Word: Some Sermons of Hope

Update: I’ve just released a free PDF ebook containing 87 sermons, prayers, and liturgies. Many of the sermons I found for this post were submitted, and you can find it here.

I spent most of this afternoon reading sermons.

I love sermons. I love reading them. I love hearing them. I’m not a fan of having to write them, but when people ask me what I miss about serving a congregation, I almost immediately say, “Preaching.”

There is something about bringing the word. It is a call no one should ever take lightly. It is a call that demands quite a bit of a person, because it asks us, for one brief moment, to be willing to say what we’ve seen in a text and risk having people not believe us.

This weekend, after the shooting at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, CT, was a test of the mettle of many preachers. Did they have it in them? Could they rise above or use their own emotions to offer a glimpse of the Good News? Could they say “Hope” when everyone else was saying “Despair”? Could they withstand the ridicule, of being called naive?

Many did. I asked for and received copies of sermons from worthy practitioners of the craft.

They are proof positive that God kept the promise made to those who are called. They gave themselves as a vessel and the Word of the Lord came breaking through. Thanks be to God for these women and men, who struggled to be true to the calling.

Here’s some quotes from a few that really resonated with my soul, but I encourage you to take some time and dig through this entire list. I’ll update it as more come in.

A Holy “No” – MaryAnn Mckibben Dana

It’s that longing in the midst of joy that we hear from Mary’s lips. Mary sings for the weak and the lowly, the poor and the hungry. And there is a stubbornness to Mary. She’s no fool, after all. She must look around and see rich getting richer and poor getting poorer. Surely she must see the powerful comfortably on their thrones and the lowly begging for food. She is singing of a world that does not yet exist, but still could.

And Mary invites that same holy stubbornness to erupt from our own hearts and lives.

We must refuse to be defeated.

We must refuse to let the darkness win.

We must refuse to let Friday’s atrocities be the lasting legacy of our age.

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent – Lauren Lyon

That journey from fear and sorrow to joy and hope is what Advent prepares us for. We await the telling of that story in which a man and woman travel to a distant and unknown place, endure a birth under the most difficult of circumstances and together, look into the face of the child that has been born to them, with all its innocence and promise. His death would be the broken hallelujah that made humanity whole and holy again. May God give us the grace to see the promise of Advent in all that is and will be broken in the seasons of our sorrow and the seasons of our rejoicing; may God bring comfort to those who mourn and healing to those whose innocence has been lost too soon. May there be abundant peace from heaven and life for us and for all.

Rejoice in the Lord Always – Robert Cornwall

Pray, Paul says, and lay your burdens down before the Lord, so that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (NRSV) This peace isn’t the kind of peace that the world gives us. It’s not an absence of conflict or problems. Karl Barth writes that “the peace of God is the order and security of the kingdom of Christ among those who are his.” It’s a sense of calmness in the midst of the storm.

Rejoicing In Spite of it All – Kate LeFranc

And so today is still the Sunday of Joy. We rejoice not because everything is already right with our world, but because we have seen the promise of something better. We rejoice because we have seen our God working in and through and despite the brokenness of these times, we rejoice because brave and loving people protect each other and those around them, we rejoice because we today can show forth God’s love and God’s presence in our own community. We rejoice because we know that this is not the end of the story.

Discomfort and Joy – Martha Spong

Experts will tell us how to care for our children. It’s okay to let them know we are sad, but we shouldn’t show so much emotion that we upset them. They need to count on us, so we need to mask our distress to comfort them. Teach them to follow each worried thought with a brave one.[i] (Easier said than done, I fear, for most of us.)

That’s all psychological advice, and it’s good as far as it goes. But my area is the theological. I want to know where God is in all this. Mr. Rogers, perhaps my favorite Wise Man, drew on his faith when he wrote,

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”[ii]

The “Why” Questions Can’t Be Answered – Laura Becker

…as writer Anne Lamott reminds us “Advent is not for the naïve.” She writes: “Because in spite of the dark and cold, we see light—you look up, or you make light, with candles, trees. And you give light. Beauty helps, in art and nature and faces. Friends help. Solidarity helps. If you ask me, when people return phone calls, it’s about as good as it gets. And who knows beyond that.”
Advent says that there is a way out of this trap—that we embrace our humanity, and Jesus’s humanity, and then we remember that he is wrapped up in God. It’s good to know where to find Jesus —in the least of these–among the broken, the very poor and marginalized. Jesus says, ‘You want to see me? Look there.’”

Everything is Broken, and Flashes of Light – Kara Root

Our lives are a gift. We are given to each other – family, friends, communities, to share life with one another. We are called to do that faithfully. To be faithful friends, parents, brothers and sisters, faithful members of our communities and responsible for the place we’ve been planted for this time in life. Everywhere in the world right now, Newtown included, there are people standing with other people, sharing suffering and joy, and that is the place God is present. We are called to live faithfully where we are and God-with-us is with us.

JOY to the World – Marci Auld Glass

One of my friends shared this quote with me.

Joy is not the absence of suffering. It is the presence of God.

This is joy Sunday, the day of Advent we remind each other of this truth. God is present with us. God is being born for us again, a babe in a manger.

There is joy in the world because of this. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

And ever o’er it’s Babel sounds the blessed angels sing (A Children’s Sermon) – Mary Newberg Gale

All those things, feeling sad, scared, or angry, are ok. I feel that way. One of the things our Advent Candles means is that even when something really bad happens, even when we feel sad, scared, or angry, God is there with us. When we celebrate the birth of baby Jesus, we celebrate that God came to us. When we’re happy, when we’re sad, when we’re safe, or when we’re scared, God is with us.

It’s also ok if you don’t feel sad, or scared, or angry. Because God isn’t just with us when bad things happen, God is with us all the time.

What Then Should We Do? – Leanne Masters

Joy Abundant – Andy James

Tenebrae: A Service for Shadows and Grieving after the Sandy Hook Shooting – David Hensen

Of Snakes and Imperatives – James Sledge

With The Holy Spirit and Fire – Eric Beene

Light – Kirk Jeffery

Waiting For A Child – Mihee Kim-Kort

Sermon for Dec 16, Two Days After a School Shooting – Drew Lugwig

A Cold and Broken Hallelujah – Mark Davis

Peace & Peace (A Reflection on Tragedy) – Jamie McLeod

God in our midst… – Jeff Binder

Reconciling Joy after Sandy Hook – Stephen McKinney-Whitaker

Hope…and other Absurdities – Paul Alcorn

In Our Midst – Teri Peterson

What Should We Do? – Jonathan Carroll

Dead babies. – Paul Rack

Nurturing Generations – Andrew Whaley

Joy – Jeff Tindall

Rachel Weeps – Carla Gentry

The Promise of Joy: A Response to the MAssacre in Connecticut – Eric Lederman

Estas buenas noticias (THIS good news) – Jose Manuel Capella-Pratts

What should we do? – Rob Dyer

The Longing of God: Restoration – Stephanie Anthony

If this is Good News, I’d hate to hear Bad News – Ken Evers-Hood

Singing Out Against The Darkness – Jim Kitchens

Be a Scrooge! – David Hansen

Membership has its privileges. Or does it?

I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member. – Groucho Marx

I’ve never been a joiner.

Perhaps it’s my personality type. I’m an INTJ and a 4 on the Eneagramm. I am the most original person in the world, damnit. I can’t be a part of no club.

Perhaps it’s because I am either the youngest Gen Xer or the oldest Millennial. I don’t like or trust institutions, or I find them completely irrelevant and useless.

Perhaps it’s because I’m an artist. I have rarely had the support of the establishment. That is, until they needed what I had in order to sell something or make themselves feels better.

Perhaps it’s because I’m an ex-Fundegelical. I know the stories and themes of being “an alien in this world,” and have been encouraged to view my life as something that will be persecuted. Standing apart is a birthright.

Perhaps (ironically) it’s because I’m a young, straight, white male. I can exist in our world with ease. I do not need validation for who I am because that validation is present all around me.

Whatever the reason(s), I’m discovering that I’m not alone. There are a lot of people who are not joiners.

The easiest explanation for the current crop of non-joiners is that the internet has made the world a place where we can self-actualize at an alarming rate. We can be, do, and say whatever it is we want to be, do, and say without a lot of fuss. And this has caused a lot of problems for Church Folk.

My friend Carol Howard Merritt addresses “non joining” with authority in her book Tribal Church. Using more facts and figures than Ben Bernanke at a Senate hearing, Carol makes as strong of a case as one could make for the lack of “joining” on the part of Young Adults. She reminds us of the fragile financial state of YAs, which contributes to the transient nature of their living arrangements (if they’re not living in their old room at Mom and Dad’s). Carol’s testimony, certainly, is not the whole reason, but it has to be a significant part of it.

Further, in the upcoming issue of PLGRM, we will feature an interview with two of our favorite Twitizens, Megan and David Hansen, in which they share about their thinking behind #epicenterofmatrimony (their uber-awesome wedding hashtag). In the interview, it is revealed how they deftly walk the line between acknowledging our calling to be part of somethign larger than ourelves and the reality that that “something” no longer need be physical. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

Since writing Open Source Church, I’ve thought a lot about church membership. I can give you all the standard reasons why one should join a church, but I’m not sure that those reasons are really good ones anymore. Perhaps the truest reason I can say that the very idea of “church membership” has begun to get under my skin is that it has ceased to be about conforming me to the image of Christ and more about my cash.

The Head Tax

I’m sure that most denominations have some form of uniform giving expectation. In the Presbyterian Church, it is called the per capita apportionment. Most folks, however (rightly or wrongly), call it “The Head Tax.” For every member in a congregation, a certain amount is requested to support the ministries of the broader levels of the church.

I’m not blind to organizational realities. My current employment is tied, in large part, to this apportionment. If we are going to have a denominational structure that is functional and allows us to do things together that we would not be able to do alone, then some sort of organized giving method is a must.

Further, even if there’s not a “dues” system in place, what congregation does not fret over the budget every year? One of my good friends is the Stewardship Guy at the congregation I previously served, and I know his pain. O Lord, hear our prayer…

Cash affects almost every decision that a church makes. And it should no be so. Too often, despite best intentions, the concern for the spiritual health and well being of people takes a backseat to cash for the budget. Truly, we plan programs, etc for the benefit of people, but when it comes time to assess their “success” what is the criteria? How much, how often, and how many.

But its not just church boards. It is us, the people in the pew, as well. We pay our dues… I’m sorry, we offer our tithes and offerings, and we expect services in return. We rarely understand church to be anything other than a place where we receive Religious Goods and Services. All the fuss over pastoral work hours is because “that’s what we pay them to do.”

We are spiritual consumers. To be a member is to be part of a Columbia House arrangement: I pay you, you send me stuff. If I do not pay, you cut me off.

I don’t like that.

Church membership should not be about cash. It should be, in the first place, about something else.

I am 10 pounds of shit in a 5 pound bag

When I taught confirmation classes and covered the Reformed idea of “Total Depravity,” I would define it for the kids as being “10 pounds of $#!+ in a 5 pound bag.”* No, I didn’t cuss in front of your kids, but I did try to get through to them that, while everything else in their life tells them how amazing they are, the truth is that being human means being an asshole.

Now: I have friends whom I love and respect who are going to argue this point in the comments…which I will not respond to. 🙂 I’m not opposed to alternate points of view on this, but I see evidence for Total Depravity every day of my life, and it is this truth that forms my understanding of what membership is and should be.

Friedrich Schleiermacher said that the Church is where we come into contact with the “influencing spirit of Christ.” The Holy Spirit compels us to be drawn together to share with others in the experience we have had of utter and total dependency on God. It is with this community, with these people, that we begin to more fully experience the Risen Christ and be conformed to the image of that Christ. All the practices of “being Church with and for one another” should change every aspect of our lives. Being people who embody the Missio Dei should be a matter of course.

And, yet, we have morphed our understanding of what a congregation is into a social service organization with a weekly pep rally for its contributors. Do not misunderstand: I believe the people of the church should regularly band together to care for the “widow, orphan, and stranger” but I’m not convinced that the organization called the “congregation” should be the central, organizing force of that.

What I am advocating is something similar to what the Church of the Saviorbegan almost 70 years ago.

[The] desire for intimacy and accountability among members of the church is what led the community to break into smaller congregations rather than try to grow larger as a single church. It has also led to the formation of small groups called “mission groups”, made up of 2 to 15 members gathered around a shared sense of vocation or God’s calling.

Read through the linked Wikipedia article on CoS. You will see that they are living something radically different than what you and I normally experience. However, more and more, I hear from disaffected Christians and non-Christians alike that they would “do church” in a heartbeat if church were about serving one another and the world rather than cash.

There’s an ad campaign that used to say “Membership has its privileges.” In the Christian Church I believe that the only privilege we should be afforded is the privilege of serving others.

I’d probably join that.

*I would give credit to the friend who originally said this, but I’m not sure how s/he would feel about that. 🙂