Why We’re Leaving Church

Brian McLaren wrote this piece on his Patheos blog. It was published a couple of weeks ago, though I just happened upon it yesterday via a link from Greg Garrett, a former professor of mine.

This hits right on the nerve of where my previous post on Church and the “Nones” came from.

I won’t comment too much on it here, as I think the original (and it’s not too long!) is worth reading in full. The main – and really only claim – he makes is that [institutional] Christianity has become expert at building walls, instead of opening arms to welcome.

This is what one of the audience members told McLaren:

We’re still followers of Christ, but we’re not attending church any more. We can’t find a church that doesn’t load a bunch of extra baggage on us. We tried, but they all had this long list of people we had to be against. It’s just not worth it.

Christianity is now better known for the ways it excludes people, for the messages it sends followers and potential followers that we must hate and reject others. The very heart of the message of Christ is grace and forgiveness, but for lots of reasons that is not the character of Christianity.  And that is heartbreaking.

morning prayer, 10.28.12

By faith, not by sight, O God, you have called us to a life of service, not for ourselves, but for others.

By faith, not by sight, O God, you have called us to a life of discipleship in Christ, not in the ever-fleeting pursuit of the next best thing.

By faith, not by sight, O God, you have called us to a life of understanding and compassion, not of mud-slinging and judgment.

By faith, not by sight, O God, you have called us to a life of cooperation and sacrifice, not of keeping score and one-up-manship.

By faith, not by sight, O God, you have called us to a life of reconciliation, not of division and splintering.

By faith, not by sight, O God, you have called us to the waters of baptism, not for an easy life or even a sinless life, but a life transformed through radical hope and radical grace.

 

As we hear the splash of the baptismal waters today, God, may we look to our own baptisms – some many years ago, others perhaps more recent, others still look to those waters with curiosity.  May we remember our decisions to choose life in your Son. May we be reminded of the baptismal waters daily as we seek constant renewal.  We know that discipleship is not easy; but may your presence never be far from our conscience.

These are harried times, O God. The culture around us encourages panic, fear, and hate. We are confronted with so many different versions of the truth; throughout our days it feels easier to choose apathy, ignorance, or even anger instead of patience, forbearance and wisdom.  May our words and our thoughts ever seek your will and your way. May our actions model your love and kindness.

It is tempting, O God, to believe that we may earn our way into your favor. With each good deed, or good word we may fancy ourselves ever closer to you. We know that all this does, though, is teach us to compare – leaving us feeling superior when we do well, and guilty and ashamed when we come up short.  May our words, thoughts and actions be always and only motivated to love because you loved us, and to love others as you love them.

We celebrate together for the good news and the joys that we share. We come to you burdened with concerns for those sick, unemployed, alone or scared. Show us how to be your presence to those who need it.

By faith, not by sight, O God, you call us to new life in the rhythms of your Spirit, not in the routines of this world. Make us new again today.

 

We pray all this with your Son, who taught us, Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day or daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For yours is the Kingdom and, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

on missing

This week, I’ve been missing my grandma Anne. It’s now been just over a year since her body gave out and her soul, as she so joyfully believed, embraced Jesus. When my sister and I sat at her bedside in the hospital, doing our best to talk through the machines and tubes and our own tears, we made her promise to say hi to our Grandpa Frank. Her voice as strong as I heard it at all in those last days, she promised she would, “But I’m going to see Jesus first.

On Wednesday I drove out to the country with about 14 members of First Baptist’s Greatest Generation to join a couple for lunch in their farmhouse. As I sat and listened to them tell stories, and ask questions, and laugh, and remember, I felt a sting of grief I hadn’t felt in months. I wanted my Grandma Anne to meet these women.  She would like them; she would enjoy this kind of company. She would be so happy to know that these men and women were church to me. And I think she would be so delighted and proud to think of me ministering among them.

What spending time talking with, learning from, and laughing with men and women who remind me so much of my own grandparents is how many stories and tidbits that I won’t

Ladies Love to Lunch

get to hear from her. The ordinariness of her own experience are the gems that I won’t get to hear her share.  I wrote this post a few months ago about Grandma. The pang of grief is as much about the memories as they flit in and out of my consciousness, as it is about grieving the richness of her life that I did not yet know.

One of the things that my dad brought to Lawrence from Louisville some weeks back was a collection of binders that Grandma Anne put together for my 16th birthday. She had saved so many letters from before I was born and throughout those sixteen years – from my mom, my dad, from my own childhood pen. It’s humbling to think about all the years-long care and thoughtfulness that went into curating these pages of my own story through others’ lenses.

She and Grandpa Frank wrote this in a letter in the first pages:

So many memories, Meredith, and we love them all. This book contains only a sampling of the times we shared, and a sampling of the special events in your life which your Mom and Dad shared with us.

You’ve grown into such a beautiful young lady: talented, intelligent, sensitive, all qualities which will carry you far as you continue to mature, grow, and pursue your goals and dreams.  Please do dream. Without dreams, life can get mundane. Always reach higher than you can even imagine reaching – only then will life be fulfilling and challenging. …

Our blessings and best wishes are with you as you continue to mature and become the woman God wants you to become. Continue to enjoy good jokes and laugh. Continue to love people which will bring you joy. Always allow people to love you – that will bring you many friends. Always seek to make a contribution to friends and family – this will bring fulfillment.

I had to include this because this might be one of the few photographic evidences that Grandpa did, in fact, know how to smile

I’m sure I read her words years ago, but only now are they beginning to sink in. And how much I think she would just squeal (though, of course, proper southern ladies like herself do not squeal) with joy for and with me at how right she was.

If You Give a People a King

“If You Give a People a King”
First Baptist Church, Lawrence, Kansas
21 October 2012

If you give a mouse a cookie, as the story goes, your whole day will be ruined.

If you give a mouse a cookie, you’ll have to give him milk, and a bed, and paper and pen for a drawing, you’ll have to find nail trimmers so the mouse can cut his hair. He’ll make a mess trying to clean your house. And at the end of the day, you’ll be exhausted and have fed a mouse two cookies and two glasses of milk.

This treasured childhood book is a classic example of the worst case scenario game.

Do you know this game?

I know this game well.  By rules of rhetoric, it is a game alternatively known as slippery slope thinking.

If I wake up in the morning with a slight tickle in the back of my throat. Still lying in bed, upon consulting WebMD on my phone, I spin out the scenario that I have strep throat, which will turn into some rare and barely-treatable infection, which means I will lose my ability to speak altogether and I will be dead by dinner.

When I was in school, every semester had many of these moments. The papers would pile up, exams would fall on the same day, feeding mine and my fellow students’ conspiracy theories, and there would be my job to go to. It was never going to get done, I would be convinced. I would not be able to finish all these assignments. I would get bad grades on the assignments. I would fail my classes for the semester. I would have to drop out of school. I would have to move back home with my parents, but what if they kicked me out? My sense of insurmountable circumstances left me with the inevitable fate of being hungry, cold and homeless.

We’ve been following along the story of Israel as it parallels the story of the Last Great Prophet-Leader, Samuel. To recap: Samuel grew up in the temple and heard God’s voice calling him distinctly as he lay in bed. He grew up to lead an increasingly-restless Israel. They came to him, unsatisfied with their own situation and jealous of the other nations. They did not ask, they demanded a King. Samuel’s response – and God’s response through Samuel – is not exactly what the people had hoped to hear. It seems that we have come to a point in our story where all the associated characters are, in many ways, playing out the worst-case scenario game.

The Israelites are insisting on a King.  “If we don’t have a King,” they claim, “then we will be a sub-par nation. Other nations will be victorious over us. It will be the end of Israel.”

Meanwhile Samuel, consulting with God, warns them of all the awful, horrible things that will happen if they turn their backs on the Judges and Prophets God has ordained in order to follow a King. If they have a King, then the King will take the Israelites’ possessions, he will take their sons to battle, he will take their land and their harvest; their daughters and their wives. A king will take everything they have and the Israelites will be sorry.

As we all know the people didn’t listen. They countered with a resounding No, and a reinforced insistence that Samuel and God grant them a King. In the chapters between last week’s reading and this week’s, we learn that Saul has been chosen as Israel’s first King. By many accounts, Saul is the one that God chooses to be the King over God’s own people. So while we begin the story with slippery-slope, worst case scenario reports of impending doom all centered on the if’s-and-then’s of having a King, Samuel’s speech seems to indicate that maybe no one was exactly dead-on in their cataclysmic assessment.

Samuel’s farewell address is significant as it marks a distinct transition in the life of Israel. The people have been granted a King, and Samuel acknowledges his retirement with a speech in five movements.

First, he seeks exoneration. Samuel exerts his lack of corruption, reminding God’s people that he has done what they asked him to do. He reminds the Israelites that his leadership has played little-to-no direct role in their request for a King. He has not taken advantage of them. He has not taken anyone’s ox or donkey. He hasn’t defrauded or oppressed anyone. He has refused to accept bribes. He has been a good guy.  Samuel asks the assembly gathered to correct him if his assertions are false. They do not disagree with him. They acknowledge that he has not defrauded or oppressed or robbed them of anything.

Second, Samuel reminds the people of God’s faithfulness and their own wandering loyalties by recounting the story of God delivering the people. Samuel reminds the assembly that God is a God of Exodus – throughout their own story the people have cried out and God heard their cries and delivered them. This time, though, Israel has changed the pattern. Instead of crying out and waiting for God’s deliverance, for God’s own timing, they upended the order of things by demanding what they have determined as the correct course of action – they demand that their deliverance ought to look like other nations: they need to be governed like other tribes, other peoples. They need a King.

Samuel continues to frame Israel’s story by God’s’ own faithfulness: God could have rejected them. God could have responded to the people’s rejection of God’s lordship by rejecting the people. But God doesn’t. Rather, God acknowledges their request and grants them a King. In this new future, though, to be sure, God will remain God. The people will remain in covenant with Yahweh. They will now be a covenantal monarchy.  Samuel re-members the people into their own covenantal relationship with God by offering a litany of conditionals. “If,” he says, “you will fear The Lord and serve God and obey God’s voice, and not rebel against the commandment of The Lord…” “If,” he continues, “both you and the king who reigns over you will follow The Lord your God…”  If they do all these things, THEN “all will be well.”

The conditionals continue with familiar covenantal warnings: “If,” Samuel warns, “you will not obey the voice of The Lord, but rebel against God’s own commandment, THEN,” Samuel asserts, “the hand of The Lord will be against you and your King.”

It is likely that the Israelites are quite familiar with these conditions of the covenant.  What is notable is the inclusion of the King. This is God’s way of reminding the people that, okay, fine, they can have their King, since conformity in this way seems so important to them. But lest they think they are getting away with something, God remains LORD over all of them. The King must also obey the word of God, or else he will cause the nation of Israel to fall into God’s judgment. But if the King is faithful and obedient, then Israel will be well in God’s eyes.

The third movement of Samuel’s speech is a sign to the people. He asks, “Is it not wheat harvest today?” My guess is the people answered affirmatively but also fearfully of what might be coming next.  Samuel offers a sign to them that serves as a sign of both God’s Lordship, but also the people’s sinfulness.  The sign Israel observes is a thunderstorm amidst the wheat harvest.

Now, I am certainly no farmer, but my guess is that while rain is a welcome thing to help nourish crops, I do know that thunderstorms can be destructive and wheat can be a delicate crop, so while rain would be good, a strong thunderstorm might be a tipping point. This sign-giving, particularly at the hands of Samuel, the old prophet, and in his farewell address certainly seems to demonstrate with flair the ultimate sham that is Israel’s request of a King.

Walter Brueggemann explains it this way: “The relentless rhetoric of [Samuel’s speech] has rendered the king genuinely irrelevant to the life of Israel.” Samuel’s show of power through the thunderstorm substantiates the earlier theological claims regarding the covenant. “The king can matter in the life of Israel only by being obedient. The king has no other special role.” Ultimate authority remains with God, the covenant and the Torah established generations ago.[1]

The fourth movement indicates the Israelites’ response to Samuel’s reminder, the covenantal conditionals, and the sign. The assembly gathered confess their sin before The Lord and request Intercession from Samuel: “Pray for your servants to The Lord your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins by asking for a king.”

The final movement of his speech concludes with a pastoral tone, and reassurance from both Samuel and God. Samuel reassures the people that God is still in particular covenantal relationship with them. God will remain faithful to that covenant. Nothing they can do will cause God to turn and reject God’s own people – calling to mind the original promise in Genesis 9: God sets the rainbow in the sky as a reminder to God’s own self: “I establish my covenant with you…I set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”[2] It is a reminder of the covenant that gets made and renewed and remembered throughout Israel’s story.

Secondly, Samuel assures Israel that he will be faithful to Israel – because he cares for the nation and because he is one of them. He promises to remain faithful to them in prayer.  His final words call Israel back into fidelity to God. They have their king now, but that is no excuse to forget to whom their utmost loyalties belong. They are God’s and God is theirs. God will not forget. Forbid it not that Israel will forget.

At the end of the speech, and at the end of the day, it seems what is done is done. Is having a King preferable to the “Old-Way”? It seems a qualified no. While at first it is clear that the choice initially is about rejecting the way God has been leading the Israelites, we know from what happens later, that even some of Israel’s kings were Godly men, who spoke with, followed and loved God from the core of who they were. Though were also some of the most disappointing leaders Israel had known.

Here Samuel is getting the last word in.  And his final words in his last words are the most encouraging. This speech – this farewell address – is not so much about getting vengeance on the people, or even asserting who was right and who was wrong.  Rather it is a grand reminder of identity – he reminds the people of who God is. Samuel reminds the Israelites who they are, and Samuel finally assures them that he has not forgotten his own identity as their prophet, leader and intercessor.

The story we have of Samuel’s leadership, the people’s rejection, and his faithfulness both to God and to the people, is ultimately a story of the painfulness of transitions. Here the people have chosen an alternate reality.  And though it is not God’s way of doing things, God allows them their new way. The Israelite people got caught up in the possibility of change and conformity – but were distracted. Samuel himself felt personally caught up in this change because he interpreted the monarchical wish as a rejection of his leadership.

Though I may err on the side of turning this story into a fairy-tale, perhaps the moral of this story of transition is that an affirmation of old values can embrace new forms and realities. God’s insistence on remaining steadfast in his faithfulness and deliverance of the people illustrates that our moral reality can endure despite our changing institutions and social structures.

The story of Israel, as paralleled by the story of Samuel is that all futures belong to God.

The story of Israel’s demand for a King, and God’s own faithfulness through that is a call to us to remember our covenantal relationship with God. God’s faithfulness continues to be the point of the entire biblical story. Even as Paul assures the church in Rome: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.”[3]

Israel was fearful. They were caught up in a game of worst-case scenarios and slippery-slope logic as they looked to a future. While they assumed that a new form of government – the most modern form of governance – would be an easy fix-it, Samuel’s words, remind the people that fear is a poor motivator and comparison is the thief of joy and faithfulness.

These days, I’m falling prey to the temptation of cynicism, and to the easy narratives of the Worst-Case Scenario.  And it’s fairly understandable – campaign ads, presidential and vice presidential debates spin out the unseemly and frightening future if the other guy wins.  If you believe both sides, no matter who wins, we are all going to wind up without any kind of retirement; we’ll be working for pennies, speaking another language. None of our marriages or family relationships will survive the next presidency. Crime rates, teenage pregnancy rates and gun violence rates will skyrocket. This is our impending and inevitable future, yes?

The reality is, when we are able to hear the chatter for what it is, we know it’s just chatter. But it’s so easy to believe that our eternal hope is wrapped up in our current political realities. Don’t get me wrong – I certainly believe that political conversation, structures and systems are important things to understand, to participate in, and to discuss.  But none of them represents the totality of God’s kingdom.

In the midst of our own temptation to play into the worst-case-scenario, we likely also need to review and renew our own loyalties.  Are we looking at our own situations through lenses of fear, personal interest or comparison? Or do we seek faithfulness and loyalty to the covenantal identity to which God has called us first?

The warning and reminder of Samuel are as real and relevant now as they were at the onset of Israel’s monarchy: “Those in our own time who are troubled by changes that threaten valued faith perspectives are right to call for care, lest we reject the reign of God for the sake of our own constructions of reality. But equal care must be exercised that we do not fail to discern what God is doing new in our midst and mindlessly hold on to the old and familiar.”[4] We can choose to focus on the temporal future that shifts with every political term, or we can embrace the reality of God’s faithfulness, remembering that all futures are God’s futures. God has been present in steadfast love behind, and is already present with and ahead of us. May we walk alongside in faithfulness.


[1] First and Second Samuel: Interpretation Commentary, 95

[2] Genesis 9.9, 13

[3] Romans 8.28

[4] NIB Commentary, 1064

sunday funday?

I used to not understand why my dad would return my Sunday phone calls on Monday because he never turned the sound back on after Sunday worship.

I used to not understand why my dad couldn’t stay awake after lunch on Sunday.

I used to not understand why neither of my parents actually made dinner (or even wanted to order dinner) on Sunday nights.

 

I get it now. 

 

Sundays are so full. Sundays are so busy.

Sundays are so good.

Let’s Panic about Church!

Maybe you heard about or read about the study that came out.  We are becoming a less religious nation.  Or at least we are by certain definitions.  According to the Pew Forum, some 1/3 of persons under the age of 30 (A category into which I no longer fit, which is weird. I digress.) no longer self-report with any religious affiliation. This category is alternatively called the “Nones.” (Which can also get tricky in spoken language. Nones. Nuns. Very different meaning. Very similar sound.)

There seems to be a panicked response on the part of religious persons and institutions to “fix” the problem.  This panic is nothing new, but does seem to resurface with quick and intense fervor with each new study and statistic.

If you are invested at all or connected to religious institutions you are likely familiar with this tone of panic.  The chorus is that everything must change or we all die. Okay, maybe not quite so cataclysmic. But close, yes?

As someone who often feels much closer to the margins of traditional religious life than my job title would suggest, it can be quite uncomfortable to sit and listen to the verse and chorus of Panic-Change-Panic-Change. I have read the reports, and I know that I am, statistically an outlier, but I also feel a deep streak of empathy of those who articulate disillusionment with institutions, infighting, judgment and exclusion. I get the disenchantment with religious structures and systems, which purport to love God and love Jesus, but are fixated on questions of gender, race and sexual equality.  Particularly when the conversation dwells on the first two categories, the rest of culture rightfully dismisses religious institutions as antiquated, old-fashioned and irrelevant.

Part of the frustration I face when I hear people speak about the decline of “religiosity” (and I’ll refrain from dissecting that as an imperfect and insufficient adjective), is that it often is a grand exercise in missing the point.  The gut-level reaction of “Okay, let’s change!” is often more about providing something different in style, rather than a willingness to evaluate thoughtfully and intentionally our substance to spend time listening, wondering, and opening ourselves to deep critique.  Why is it that institutions are failing to meet and understand contemporary forms of spiritual questions and expression? 

I don’t have all the answers. I do have sensitivities that resonate often times more with feelings of alienation than with belonging; and I’m part of the institution. I’m ordained clergy, on a church staff of an evangelical/mainline (depending on who’s doing the labeling) denomination.  Here are some thoughts:

  1. Stop moving forward cloaked in nostalgia. Often when we talk about the past, we talk about the by-gone days of old when everything was amazing, shading the present in dimness, and the future even bleaker. The problem with nostalgia is that it never tells the full story. Carol Howard Merritt once tweeted something to the effect of “The power of nostalgia is so great that even the Hebrew people longed to return to slavery under Pharaoh.” In addition to our rose-colored remembrances, the other problem with dwelling so much in the past is that so many of us were not there.  Often these kinds of stories draw lines – if you weren’t there in the good old days, if you didn’t participate, then you can’t possibly understand; then maybe you aren’t really part of us. Personally speaking, this can be especially difficult to lead when you can’t participate in such a formative narrative.
  2. That said, we should not stop telling stories. We can live in the present, and dream of the future, while remembering and telling stories of our past. I love sitting with members of my church, of all ages, and hearing how they found the congregation, where they grew up, the things they love about church, the things that they have problems with.  We can share the stories of the past, to remind us of who we are.  We can be honest about the rough parts, the scary parts, as much as we rejoice in the treasured memories.
  3. We need to include our target demographics. And, please, let’s stop referring to real people as target demographics. As I so often find myself straddling two statistical worlds – the world of church belonging in the traditional sense, and the world of my own generation, with its accessory of skepticism and seeming ‘worldliness’ – I feel invested in the institution, but ignored by many of its constituent parts.  I realize this is a dangerous blanket generalization to make, but it is frustrating to attend meetings, conferences, roundtables, and hear airtime given to wanting to be inclusive, welcoming, wanting to change to represent and invite a greater diversity of participation – but then not to see anyone my age, anyone who represents much theological diversity, and even sometimes to not really hear, with much equity, from women. Instead of talking at or talking about your target demographic, include them – listen to them, let them lead.  If you are really interested in including a diversity of voices, then do so.
  4. When you talk of change, ask yourself if you really mean it. Nothing is more frustrating or feels more antiquated than to hear institutional voices talk about needing to change to keep young people interested, and then realize that translates, almost exclusively, to electric guitars, drum sets, and praise choruses.  I love – and I know I am not alone – hymns, piano, organ, choir. I don’t love all the hymns in our hymnal, but simply changing style does not translate to thoughtful, intentional change in substance.  If I may dare speak for other people around my age, what strikes me as much more significant is worship, conversation, preaching, music, church that feels authentic, welcoming, and affirming.  Instead of asking, “How do we entertain?” We should be asking question like, “How do we invite the full and total reality of what it means to be human into our worship and the life of the church?” “How are we responding to the questions of the world with the fullness of the hope and peace of Christ?”  “Are we truly being welcoming to our neighbors? Do we know our neighbors?” “If we want new members, are we going to be willing to bring them so fully into our fold that they may shape and guide our very identity?”
  5. Focus on building relationships of inclusion, not just building numbers. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

These are just some thoughts as I’ve reflected on my own vocation, my age and gender, and where I fit in in the reality of what the statistics represent. I am not a church planter (sometimes – okay a lot of the time – I question if what we need are new churches at all), but I am a minister, a person of faith, and a person with lots and lots of questions. I have a heart to see the church remain not just relevant but a vital source of life and hope for a changing world.

Morning Prayer, October 14

Creating and Ever-Present God –

Sometimes it feels tempting to give into the grey skies and forget. Our forgetful hearts feel the deluge of doubt and anxiety. Our forgetful spirits remain clouded by the pessimism of the now.

We have our minds fixed on moving targets – shifting up and down and back and forth with each passing poll, headline, mood or cold front. Call us back to you; fix our eyes and our spirits on you – the unchanging and eternal God.

We come this morning in many ways weary. Our schedules have stretched us thin, our worries have exhausted our bodies, and our own expectations have reminded us of our all-too-human reality of brokenness.  In our weariness, O God, grant us rest, grant us contentment, and grant us strength to press on. In our busy-ness, grant us the wisdom to know what we must do, and the courage to say no.

Others of us come this day with your joy on our lips, and your dance in each step. Remind us, this day, to seek out others who need comforting, who need a breath of fresh air.

Others of us come to this place filled with gratitude and gladness. May we write our thank you on our very palms that we not forget your steadfastness and your grace.

You have created us and called us to be transformed. The work of transformation is not easy. We would so often, if we are really honest, rather conform to the world around us – it is familiar, even in its mad dash for success. We know the rules of the world. As you have spoken to your prophets, continue to speak among us, transform us daily that we may live out the one faith as you abide with all your people around the world.

God for all your children around the world, we offer thanks and ask your abiding presence be felt. For all those who are doing the challenging work of building your Kingdom in this room, in this city, in this nation, and to all the ends of the earth, we rejoice and ask for hope and courage.

We ask all these things in the name of your Son.