Archive for April, 2016

Got Gates?

“I am the Gate. Anyone who goes through me will be cared for…I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.”—Jesus

“I don’t think we need bigger churches; the church needs more entry points.” –Rev. Julian DeShazier // J.Kwest, Senior Pastor of University Church in ChicagoEntrance-logo_ellipse-1024x381

Last Sunday we went to an unfamiliar church. We’ve worshiped there a few times in recent years when we visited a longtime friend. We arrived and headed for the sanctuary to meet our friend–but we couldn’t find our way. We’d entered the large older building from a different direction. A helpful person quickly noticed our disorientation and showed us the correct door. It’s one of those doors you can’t see until someone points it out, and then you can’t miss it.

Our home church has great signage and very clear entrances to the sanctuary. Its physical layout is mostly visitor-friendly.  But that historic old church (100+ years), our newer church (30 years), and  many thousands more share the same struggle with entry points. Can folks find their way into and around the building easily? Does our physical, program, and online presence offer sufficient accessible “entry points” for newcomers? Do the first humans those newcomers meet embody Jesus’ caring welcome to “more and better life”? Most churches today face a fundamental survival/mission issue: Is our church a closed club or an open community? Is church primarily for us, the “faithful”, or for “them”, the outsiders who don’t even know which end of a Bible is up?

Two recent experiences have stirred me to think anew about this ancient struggle (see Acts 11:1-18). The day before that church visit, Dianna and I attended a “Messy Church” workshop. “Messy Church” isn’t about how to keep the church cleaner, or even how to disappear that mountain of sacred junk in the desperately-overstuffed Holy of Holies closet. “Messy Church” is a British response to a drastic decline in worship attendance and church participation. It offers an informal, approximately monthly experience designed to be “church” without being churchy. While each “messy church” is customized for its own setting, every Messy Church includes

  • A relaxed welcome time with drinks and snacks
  • An activity-based learning time with Bible-based crafts, games, competitions, prayers, etc.
  • A short celebration that usually includes Bible story, song, and prayer
  • A sit-down meal for everyone.

Every Messy Church expresses the values of

  • Christ-centeredness—the spirit that underlies the entire two-hour experience.
  • Hospitality—“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7 NRSV)
  • Creativity—Making use of everyone’s God-given gifts in order to learn and discover new insights about each session’s theme.
  • Celebration—Short (15 min.) and interactive, usually including song, story, and prayer
  • All-age—Generations participate together and learn from one another; each generation’s needs are balanced and addressed in activities.

Messy Church is designed to reach folks on the margins who might never attend a traditional church. It provides an “entry point”, not necessarily into traditional Sunday-based church, but into a Christian community and into the journey of following Jesus together. Messy Church doesn’t speak to everyone. It speaks powerfully to some who aren’t being reached any other way.

That brings me to the second “trigger” for this piece. Recently I read a piece by Rev. Julian DeShazier, pastor of University Church on Chicago’s South Side. He says that historically rough community is even “more traumatic” these days…“—and the First Responders to that trauma are the churches he calls “the primary caregivers in the community”. [How’s that for a start on a mission statement!?] He’s clear that his traumatized neighbors need more than Sunday sermons. The difference-maker for them, he says, is “…art that speaks in the language of whatever public we serve; as an entry point, an invitation to experience something deeper”

The art that speaks to Julian DeShazier—also known as “J.Kwest”– and his Southside neighbors is Hip-hop. “If it weren’t for hip-hop”, he writes, “I wouldn’t be in the church, period. What I later heard from some great pastors, I first heard from some dope emcees and gifted songwriters whose songs are described by church folk as “indecent” and “improper” and “unorthodox”. They are, and I thank God for them, because those were my burning bushes…I ended up back in the church because the most popular rapper at school was in the cafeteria free-styling about God and told me about his church, and the youth pastor said I could perform too if I had a story to tell. Neither BreevEazie nor Rev. James preached a sermon. Their art invited me in.

“Art that speaks…the language…an entry point, an invitation to experience something deeper.”  What “entry points” suggest themselves to you? Hiphop;  country western; light-rock praise music; come-as-you-are all-age informality; Taize music; Quaker-style silence; elaborate structured liturgy with organ and robed choir and clergy;cowboy church; simple outdoor worship in a camp or park setting.

Careful listening, prayerful reflection, and creative dreaming will lead us toward the best solution for our particular setting. But you and I are the key “entry points”. We’re the “gates” through which others begin to discover Jesus, “the Gate for the sheep”. (John 10:6) Those “Messy Church” values—Christ-centered, hospitality, creativity, celebration, including all ages and stages—fit wherever God’s people gather. They’re signs of that “real and eternal, more and better life” that is God’s will for us and all people, and his gift to us in Christ.child-opening-gate-23111804

I hear our Risen Lord asking his church in all its manifestations today: “Got gates?” He cares far less than we think about how big our churches are. He cares far more than we know about how open we and our churches are.

Transformed NonConformists, the Creative Maladjusted, and the Spirit

For the secomakingdisciplestransformationnd year in a row I’m helping teach our church’s Confirmation class. Confirmation in the United Methodist Church (and some others) invites students in middle-school and above to take a deeper look at Christian faith. Ideally these young men and women will  “confirm” as their own the Christian faith they’ve learned from their families and their church. We’re about a month away from our church’s Confirmation celebration. On that great day, these youth will join twelve million other United Methodists in our mission “… to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. “ (2012 United Methodist Book of Discipline, Par. 120). They’ll share our mutual promise to support this mission with our “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness”. While this generation’s discipleship will reflect their God-given uniqueness and the times in which they live, they’ll also show a strong “family resemblance” to previous generations of the Christian community.

The world in which we live and serve as “disciples of Jesus Christ” hasn’t stood still during our four-month journey. It’s continued to change at a pace somewhere between breathless and chaotic. Much of that change runs counter to our vision of “the transformation of the world”. I wonder how well we’ve equipped our students for their/our transforming mission. Doing church “the way we’ve always done it” won’t work any better than it has for the last few decades. Our class is learning the Church’s traditions. One we often fail to teach is that God is “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5) and invites us to partner in that continuing process of God’s Spirit uses God’s people to tell the Christian story in new ways that touch peoples’ hearts and “make new” our ever-changing world.

Jim Wallis wrote recently about an inter-racial, ecumenical gathering on the 48th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination (April 5, 1968) at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Ebenezer is the church both Dr. King and his father served for many years. Wallis’ closing remarks that evening included some of Dr. King’s own words: “This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists … The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority… Human salvation lies in the hands of the creative maladjusted.” (Strength to Love)Transformed NonconformistDr. King described the post-Easter church perfectly! Jesus’ first followers formed a community of radical sharing. They welcomed the poor, the crippled, everyone their Jewish religious leaders had labeled “unclean”. Then Peter and Paul threw open the doors of the church to Gentiles—the most unclean of all! And that was just the beginning. These “transformed nonconformists” were out to change everything!  I would argue that the Spirit moves more often through out-liers than through the Establishment:

  • In 5th-Century Ireland pirates captured a Christian named Patrick. This “nonconforming minority” of one got to know his captors so well that he translated the story of Jesus into their own cultural expressions and eventually baptized many of them.
  • In Germany in 1517 a “creatively maladjusted” young monk challenged the massive Christian monopoly known as the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther’s boldness ignited a revolutionary transformation in the Church of Jesus Christ.
  • In early 18th-century England two seminarians invited fellow students to form an intentional community. These “Methodists”, as their critics called them, set out to live a more disciplined Christian life together. They embraced their new name. John Wesley wrote the words for the new movement, and his brother Charles wrote the music. John struggled for a while, but eventually experienced a personal transformation that focused and energized his ministry. The “nonconforming minority” called Methodists grew into today’s global Methodist movement that is millions strong.

The history of the Church is full of “nonconforming minorities” and “creatively maladjusted” communities like the Desert Fathers, the Mennonites, Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm, Howard Thurman and the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, Henri Nouwen and L’Arche Daybreak, Sojourners Community, Cecil Williams and Glide Memorial Church. Beyond these headliners, millions of very ordinary followers of Jesus share God’s transforming love in Christ each day in countless ways all over our planet.

Last fall I wrote about “Doing Jesus’ Laundry”.  Fifteen-year-old Caroline Gowan needed a community service project to complete requirements for a Girl Scout award. Caroline and her mother regularly made their own laundry detergent, and donated some to their church’s food  pantry. Clients welcomed it because it saved them some money, but they still spent up to $20-30 every time they went to a laundromat. Caroline thought, prayed, studied—and formed a plan. She arranged to use a local laundromat one afternoon a month. She enlisted her church’s help with donations of money, supplies, and volunteers. She spread the word as widely as she knew how. Last June “Loads of Love” began washing clothes and sharing God’s love in Bonaire, GA. They come in with dirty laundry,” Caroline says, “and leave with a renewed spirit and clean clothes…I feel like not only am I doing something for the people around me and that I am doing something for people I don’t even know, but that I’m doing something for the Lord. I am doing Jesus’ laundry!”

A few daysJesus Laundry ago I heard from Caroline’s mother! She’d seen my post. Caroline had received her Girl Scout Gold Award. “Loads of Love” continues “doing Jesus’ laundry” in Bonaire, GA and many other communities. Last Friday,” Michelle said, “27 volunteers from her family joined [Caroline] to serve the people in this community in honor of our grandmother and her legacy of service. Cousins came from all over the state and we had a family reunion at the laundromat. We began the night with $250 in quarters and when we left, we had done dozens of loads and had $315 in the box. There is no way to explain it other than ‘loaves and fishes math’. One thing she knows; God wants her to continue this ministry”. 

Thank God for “transformed nonconformists” like Paul, Peter, Patrick, Caroline Gowan, and all the rest! Thousands of youth are in Confirmation classes like ours this Spring. May the Spirit form them into “transformed nonconformists” serving our God who “makes all things new”!

KNOW YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF

EchoPark_Lake_Birds

One day this week our youngest grandchildren (Lucas, 5-1/2, and Amelia, almost 4) took Dianna and me to Sunset Park. We didn’t know that’s where we were headed when we started out. Small people have a way of “redirecting” the big people who think they’re in charge. Geese winter at this park’s sizable lake. Huge flocks of ducks call it home year-round. Some people even claim they catch fish.

The lake and the surrounding shoreline were teeming with waterfowl–and pigeons. They expected, sometimes demanded, that their visitors pay the price of admission—FOOD! But we had nothing to offer. We’d set out without knowing our destination. But we were standing near a couple with two boys about Lucas and Amelia’s ages and a younger girl. They’d come well-prepared with scraps of bread. We watched those boys toss bread to the ducks, geese, and pigeons for a couple of minutes. Their dad soon noticed that Lucas and Amelia wanted to be more than spectators. He asked his oldest son, who was holding the bread bag, to share.  All the children shared the bread, the birds stuffed themselves chowed down, and a great time was had by all.

Finally we returned Lucas and Amelia to their parents and made our way home through rush-hour traffic. We moved into the left-turn lane at an intersection teeming with nearly as many cars as hungry birds at the lake. Our green arrow came on—and nobody moved. Then cars began leaving the turn lane. We wound up sitting at the red light next to the reason for the delay. The first car in the left-turn lane sat with flashers blinking, engine not running, and the driver on the phone looking very flustered.  Nobody was doing anything to help her. We went through the intersection, worked our way back, and decided to park and offer assistance.

The stranded driver agreed to let us push her–maually!–out of the intersection. Her car was very nice—and very heavy! Just as we ran out of “push”, two young women joined us. When the four of us couldn’t get all that steel up the driveway and off the street, a very fit young man helped make the final push. The driver had a safe place to wait for help and the rest of us went on our way.

Now here’s the rest of the story: The family we met at the lake was African American. Race didn’t matter as they shared their bread with Lucas and Amelia. Race didn’t matter as we enjoyed being outdoors together watching those birds. The driver of that stalled car was African American. So were the two young women who helped us push her stalled car. The “muscle” who helped us make the last push was White. Race was irrelevant as we worked together to solve a problem.

I believe our experience suggests a way to build bridges in our culture. Someone took a first step—that family shared their bread; Dianna and I offered to help the stranded motorist. Others joined in. Our shared experience—feeding the birds, watching children be children, pushing a car out of a busy intersection into a safe place—transcended, just for a moment, cultural barriers. Such shared experiences can become building blocks for deeper relationships.

Somewhere in this discussion we who follow Jesus remember his words we call the Great Commandment: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ And…’You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39 NRSV) Most of our “social justice” initiatives have roots here and/or in the teachings of Old Testament prophets. But our efforts to address large systemic issues often become abstract and impersonal. I’m more intensely motivated to work for change when I know people who are experiencing injustice and will benefit personally from the change we seek.

What if we heard that Great Commandment say …”know your neighbor as yourself”? (See Luke 10:25-37 for Jesus’ definition of “neighbor”.) We can’t know personally all our 7 billion neighbors on this planet. But we can cultivate relationships that expand our knowledge of neighbors. We  can begin putting faces on black, white, brown, liberal, conservative, senior, boomer, millennial, Jew, Muslim, etc. The more we do that, the more those stereotypes disintegrate. Nobody I know is adequately described by labels, stereotypes, or social role labels. Our creative God has made us unique individuals. We discover the rich wonder of that creativity as we learn to “know our neighbor as ourselves”.

Before we were taken to the park, I’d been reading Jim Wallis’ book America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. While the book addresses a complex and divisive cultural issue, it flows out of Wallis’ experience growing up in Detroit. On his first job he worked with a young black man named Butch. They became friends and learned a lot about their very different lives. One day Butch invited Jim home for dinner. During the evening Butch’s mom described the negative experiences all the men in her family—her father, her brothers, her husband, and her sons– had had with Detroit police. “’I tell all my children,’” she said, “’if you are ever lost and can’t find your way back home, and you see a policeman, quickly duck behind a building or down a stairwell. When the policeman is gone, come out and find your own way back home.’ As Butch’s mother said that to me, my own mother’s words [and mine and many of yours as well] rang in my head…’If you are ever lost and can’t find your way home, look for a policeman. The policeman is your friend. He will take care of you and bring you safely home.’”

“Love—and know– your neighbor as yourself.” I don’t know precisely the way from here to there. I do know it’s long, complex, and challenging. I know Buddhists say, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Let’s take those first steps! We are Easter people. We serve a God who says, “I am about to do something brand new” (Isaiah 43:19 MSG); “Look! I’m making everything new.” (Revelation 21:5 MSG)

I expect these beginnings will happen first at a minew beginningscro-level, in neighborhood, community, congregational, less formal settings. Watch for them. Join in as you’re led.Let us become the new beginning for which we work and
pray!


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