Saturday, March 25, 2006

Planting, watering, watching it grow... hands are still shaking a little bit. I just got back from my first attempt at riding a bike in about 15 years. I got it because I want to drive less and even try riding it the 4 miles to school. But let me tell you, it was scary! At least that first few minutes. It did come back a little easier than I thought, but I still have a long way to go before I'll be comfortable on a busy road.

Anyway, that has nothing to do with my primary reason for writing today. I spent the morning, with J and about 10 other people, workshopping a church plant. All Saints' is planting a "mission station" (diocesan language - ugh) called Thad's (named after one of the apostles who I think is in only one of the apostle lists). I think it's going to be kind of emergy- in the good sense, not the brand sense.

Good mission statement: To bring the love of Jesus to the lives of people in positive, practical, and transformative ways. Some good values, although I'm already nit-picking on one of them: "We are building the kingdom, not a church." See, I don't think we can build the kingdom, only God can do that. As I said in an earlier post, we can enact, embody, proclaim it - we can even reveal it and point to it - but we can't bring it or build it or make it come. That's God's work. That's what the parables of the sowers are all about.

Jimmy, the priest, agrees and asked me to come up with something better. That's what I get for giving my opinion! Here are some of my ideas:
"We're not building a church, we're sowing a kingdom that God will grow"
"We're building the Church not a church"
"We are embodying the kingdom in the world" (purposely leaving out the negative sentiment)
"We're joining a movement that reveals God's kingdom"

What do you think?

There are just so many things to say about this process. I'm really thrilled to be part of it. I hope, if I am good enough, they will let me plan the liturgies. I want to put together some of this knowledge I'm getting with real practice. And I want to prove once and for all that liturgy is a) not a turn-off and b) a great way to connect to God for anybody. You think I can prove that? Ha ha.

I just don't want this thing to turn into Mosaic (oddly enough, my post about that church was circulated amongst this group, before they met me, without them knowing I wrote it! Weird). I don't know what exactly should set us apart from other types of "churches" (it's too hard not to use that word) in our worship. Maybe nothing - maybe our worship is exactly like other Episcopal churches but it's what we do the other six days that will distinguish us. But then again, I think this group wants to get a little funky and creative, like playing Bob Marley and Allison Kraus and meeting in a jazz club. So I think I could be challenged in exciting ways to keep the old and try out something new with it. Karen Ward uses the attic metaphor: finding grandma's pearls and grandpa's fedora and wearing it with your punk shirt and ripped jeans. You're honoring the old but you're doing something new with it.

I don't know - can I do that? I love the liturgy so much. I really don't think I can compromise it. But maybe that's just what they need - someone who will be a stickler for the tradition and the theology behind our very well-written liturgical resources. No reason we can't set the creed to a beat, right?

The question I wrestle with constantly is How do we distinguish our worship service from a U2 concert? Because I believe the latter is a legitimate worship experience. But is it church? I don't think it is. I am not sure it's even "Christian" worship, although it is about God (so's a lot of stuff - primarily from other religions - that I and the practitioners wouldn't call "Christian" either). If we are just offering cool music and a friendly vibe every week, what are we doing that is different from any club? If we are just helping people, even saying "Jesus loves you" while doing it, what is different from any charity?

Well, that's the mission, isn't it? To do something that brings the love of Jesus into the lives of people in positive, practical, transformative ways. And that's not usually found in clubs. Maybe moreso in charities, especially faith-based ones. I just feel like our liturgy (and here I mean the basic ordo that the church has done pretty much for 2000 years) must remain in order for it to be Christian worship, in order for it to be transformative, in order for it to be worth attending. J always says, people who've never been to church aren't looking for another rock concert - that always fails. When we try to please people by not being ourselves, it fails. And people want to go somewhere authentic - and even ritualistic - like the Buddhist monastery or the Russian Orthodox Church or the Hindu Temple or even Shabbat dinner. Oh, why do we always feel this ridiculous need to be relevant?!

J and I talked about this the whole way home. We talked about how to reach out to people and how to get the people there that we personally really want there. We talked about being lost (wandering, looking for meaning) and being saved/found (finding the meaning of life lies in God's kingdom which is already everywhere in the world and joining God's work by embodying it). All of our conversation was deeply informed by our theology of mission - our ideas about God's way of working with people and with the world. And it didn't quite match up to what the rest of the group had been thinking (they'd already met once without us there to cause trouble!).

A group working on Adult Formation presented this idea: "Adult formation and bible study should not be too much about issues of theology such as issues like Christ's atonement for our sins, etc." One reason the group gave for this is that theological issues are too abstract and Thad's wants to be about practical everyday life. That's a fair point, and may have some truth to it. But all your beliefs (especially your beliefs about God) affect your practical everyday actions, so theological issues are actually quite important.

The group also suggested we downplay theology in our teaching. They said issues like the Trinity "put people off". This goes to the heart of what everyone kept talking about throughout today's meeting. We keep reiterating that we want Thad's to be "welcoming" and "comfortable" to everyone. Now, this sounds like a good idea, but it might not be possible or even desirable.

The idea of the Trinity putting people off is simply not true. J teaches at public universities and most of his students are "post-Christian" and "unchurched" or whatever. They don't know anything about Christianity. But they are really interested in theology. They know phrases like "the Trinity" and "Christ's atonement for our sins," but they have absolutely no idea what these phrases mean - and they want to know. They think theological issues are fascinating as long as they are explored in safe and non-dogmatic way that is open to questioning. This is a big difference between younger generations and the Baby boomer types who created many of the megachurches that were set up to not look or feel anything like church.

Young people are actually not put off by theology and liturgy and stained-glass windows and other traditional things. They think learning about traditional Christianity is fascinating in the same way we think learning about traditional Buddhism or Hinduism is fascinating.

So anyway, J said to me, "You know what would be a really cool adult education class at a church? A class titled 'So what the fuck is the Trinity, anyway?'" Then we remembered that Jimmy had apologized for slipping "the S word" at the last Thad's meeting. This took us back to the topic of being welcoming and comfortable. We would never use the F word in church because that might offend people ....

But here's J's take on that: So what? What's so bad about offending people? Using the F word would offend some people, but to other people it would actually signal to them that this is a safe place. That may sound weird to a lot of you. But I will tell you, when my priests swear in front of me, it tells me they are not uptight. When they drink and listen to popular music and have tattoos or whatever, (unless it's an act to be "relevant") I think, wow, this person is like me. This person is not like what I think a Christian is like (having been duly informed of stereotypical Christians by movies, TV, and fundamentalist preachers). This person is not like my mom or neighbor or the TV pastor who are holier-than-thou - this person is real. And yes, I can get all that from my priest saying "Shit."

I put it like this. Any church that is comfortable for Pat Robertson (or really many evangelicals) would automatically be uncomfortable for a lot of other people. It is the latter group that we're trying to reach, right? Those who hate what they call hypocritical (and we call "not perfect just forgiven") Christians, who wouldn't go near a church because they'd be told to dress, talk, behave differently. There are churches that do great work for those who are comfortable in Christianese. But I don't think we need another church reaching that demographic. I think we need to reach the sick, not those who are well.

You can't possibly make everyone comfortable. And if you try you will only succeed in making a "McDonald's Church" that is mass marketable but also bland and unappetizing. Of course, if we make Thad's a sushi restaurant, then a lot of people will be "put off" by the raw fish, but we will be able to attract people who would never go to McDonald's.

Anyway, none of this is meant to argue for swearing in church or for ignoring practical life in favor of abstract theology. I mean only to suggest that we need to think more about the concept of welcoming people. First we need to remember that different people are welcomed in incompatible ways. And second we need to think more about what kind of people we want to welcome and how we can do that.

I told him that maybe the real way to set up this church is to just focus on one person: one friend who it is so important to me that she know God that I would do anything to show God to her. And then I make this place a place she'd want to visit, a place she would find welcoming. Maybe if we all did that, we'd succeed where so many other plants (esp emergent) have failed - we'd actually reach some people outside the church, instead of just the over-churched or those Christians looking for something hip.

This is kind of like riding that bike, if I may get all conclusioney on you. It's really scary at first but something holds you up. It's something that I put into my muscles and bones a long time ago. That's what the liturgy does. It enters our body in a sticky way that makes us more like God, unconsciously forming us into God-like people. How? By our ingesting God week after week, both literally in the Eucharist and figuratively in the story that the liturgy tells. I believe if we rely on these rituals that we know will connect us to God - because that's exactly what they were designed (I'd say inspired) to do - then we don't have to be scared because they will carry us safely through this new experience. Whether we're planting a church, or forgiving a hurt, or reconciling with our parents, or fighting for justice, or seeking God's will, or simply answering the question, "How can you believe, knowing what you do about [the Bible, the world, etc]?", this formation through our liturgical practice will connect us to divine power, giving us the words and the will and the way.

And next thing we know, we'll be riding fast, wind in our hair (heart pumping, white-knuckled grip)...well it still may take a little while to feel safe. But we're relying on a lot better than our own muscle memory. We're relying on God to grow the plant - and the kingdom. That's a relief.

How fun is this stuff, huh???!!!

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