Jesus Fan-Fiction

“The grace of the Gospel… says to us, you are a sinner, a great, unholy sinner. Now come, as the sinner that you are, to your God who loves you. For God wants you as you are, not desiring anything from you– a sacrifice, a good deed– but rather desiring you alone….

God has come to you to make the sinner blessed. Rejoice! This message is liberation through truth. You cannot hide from God. The mask you wear in the presence of other people won’t get you anywhere in the presence of God. God wants to see you as you are, wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and to other Christians as if you were without sin. You are allowed to be a sinner. Thank God for that; God loves the sinner but hates the sin.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 108.

This summer at The Hub (our alternative worship service– 7 pm Sundays @ FUMC Charlotte!) we are starting a new sermon series on the B-list characters in the Bible. The second stringers, the gals and guys who don’t get much airtime. I wanted to call them the Best Supporting Actors and Actresses and do a big grand Oscars theme, but this idea didn’t get much traction, especially from the males in the room.

We talked a little bit at our most recent leadership team meeting about midrash– which one gentlemen aptly and hilariously described as “Bible fan-fiction”– how the Jewish rabbis had no hangups about adding to the text, about imagining and dreaming in communion with what’s written explicitly in the Scriptures.

When they encountered one of these characters who only gets a couple of lines of dialogue or are only mentioned in passing, the rabbis sometimes imagined a back-story for them, and a future, and motives, and emotions. If the Bible didn’t say whatever became of them, they dreamed up a long and happy life… or a horrible violent death, depending on their interpretation of the character.

We Christians today tend to have hangups about this sort of thing, but it didn’t bother the authors of the Midrash to imagine for Biblical characters various and diverse ways that the hand of God would shape the rest of their lives.

***

Bonhoeffer’s words above are a part of his chapter on the importance of confession in Christian community. He is telling his readers that the Christian community is a place to drop the act— it’s a place to say, “Hi, my name is Erin and I’m a sinner.” You drop the pretense, you take away the veil, and you expose your festering wounds to the holy air that swirls around the altar, around the body and blood of Christ.

It is there, in that place of deep vulnerability and trust, in community with fellow believers, that you can dare to dream up a healing.

It is in Christian community that your own midrash can begin to form: you can let your community’s hands bind up your wounds and let their prayers wash you clean, and you can also let their imaginations build for you a new future. They can, in the midrash tradition, dream for you a new life in God’s hands. A new future on Christ’s way, carrying Christ’s cross, covered in Christ’s blood. And this imagining is grace.

Bonhoeffer wrote, “Christ made the other Christian to be grace for us.”

 

We enter into the true Christian community in the hopes that it will be the sort of place where we can pour ourselves out in vulnerability and be offered grace in return. We say, “Hi, my name is Erin and I’m a sinner, a great, unholy sinner.” And we read together of a God who wants us as we are, who loves us despite hating our sin. And we dare to dream together of what a future with that God just might look like.

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On Being Young in Ministry

I used to really like John Mayer– you know, back before he was mostly famous for being in a Taylor Swift song. Two of my favorite lines of his were these, from “Waiting on the World to Change”:

It’s hard to be persistent
When you’re standing at a distance.

I think those words are so true.It’s hard to be persistent when you’re running toward a target that is– or seems to be– miles and miles off.

I have a bunch of friends who have run their first marathons this month, and I can’t imagine what it must feel like right around mile 3, realizing you have 23 miles left to go. 23 miles and 385 yards, to be exact.

How can you keep up your strength in the face of such a length?

***

In my second semester of seminary, I began a long battle: A battle against exegesis. As a first-year seminary student taking the most basic of Bible classes, I had no ability, no confidence, and no right to make claims on the Biblical text. I was, in the John Mayer reference, standing at a distance from knowledge, respectability, even simple ability at all!

Coming from a history background in undergrad, I believed that the more you quoted and cited sources the more you were believed. You can’t just write or preach something, I thought, unless someone super smart and reputable has suggested it before you.

I thought that the job of the novice exegete was to scour commentaries, find an argument that she agreed with, and extrapolate upon that– uniqueness or ingenuity would not be tolerated.

My very long-suffering New Testament preceptor sat me down as kindly as he could and said, “I don’t want to hear what Barth thinks about this. I’ve read it, and I know you’ve read it. Now, informed by that, I want to hear what you think.

***

It took me months and months to even begin to grasp this concept… this marriage of the ones who are nearer to the finish line, nearer to full knowledge, nearer to holiness, with those like myself who are just getting started, who are teetering a few inches past the starting line and thinking the gulf is too wide for us to have anything of value to offer… certainly not anything that will make it 26 miles, certainly not anything that will be respected, certainly not anything worth bothering anyone else with.

I don’t grasp this, still. How do you reconcile the wisdom of age with the freshness of youth? How do you recognize the youthful in the aged and the wisdom in the youth?
In other words (for I think these are all one and the same question):
How is it that God is all at once infant and 33, ageless and enfleshed, wrinkled and gray-whiskered and baby soft?

***

181019_169000009916762_1342716474_nThis new worship service that my friends have started is a mix of all kinds of beautiful flesh– old and young. We derive our ideas from old books, mentoring pastors, suggestions by laypeople, and even (surprisingly, to my old, militantly-quoting self) our own imaginations.

We, the old and the young, the male and the female, the churched and the unchurched and the quasi-churched, read liturgy from old dead saints, we read liturgy from fresh, revitalizing communities like Iona, and we read liturgies that I wrote yesterday. We sing songs that were written in the 18th century and we sing songs by people who tweet. We do ancient rituals like foot-washing and candle-lighting, and we do modern rituals like instragramming and starting the evening with an improv comedy sketch or a YouTube video.

Graffiti stained glass made out of words describing our grief

We are old and we are young.

We are alive and we are dying.

We are honest and we are terrified.

We are many and we are one.

We are lost and we are loved.

We are naive and we are wise.

We are stupid and we are broken.

We are found and we are aimless.

We believe and we ask for help for our unbelief.

***

How can I speak or write intelligently about the Bible, knowing that I only ever skimmed Barth’s Romans? How can I claim pastoral authority, when I’m only 24? How can I claim anything at all, when I know, my beloved friends and readers, that I am a sinner, the worst of the worst, broken beyond repair, failing beyond failure, suffering under the Pontius Pilates and thorns in my sides and apples eaten that I create for myself?

I am not arrogant. I have not a single thing in my diseased heart to boast in except the little flecks and specks of the body and blood of Christ that huddle there.

I do not believe myself to be holy, or wise, or a good pastor, or even a good friend, most of the time. I do not believe myself to be anything but empty: emptied for the Gospel’s sake. Emptied for the Kingdom’s sake. And believe me, I kicked and screamed and fought that emptying the whole way; I’m still kicking and screaming despite my best efforts, just like I bet you are. We all are.

It’s hard to be persistent when you’re standing at a distance– standing on that starting line covered in the shackles of your own inadequacies.

…And yet in the emptiness that succeeds all your efforts, in the emptiness that comes in when everything you ever believed in about yourself disintegrates… that is where the Spirit has room for dancing.

***

So yes, I’m at a distance. Yes, I find it hard to be persistent. There are days when I’d rather go be a veterinarian and endure the easier burden of having my dog-whispering skills questioned rather than having my faith, my call, my love of the LORD questioned. (And unfortunately, inexplicably, it is usually I myself who am doing the questioning!)

The marathon is long and I’m right at the beginning. I have no authority, no confidence, and certainly no right to speak about God, or Scripture, or Truth, or wisdom. You have no reason to listen to me, and I have no right to open my mouth or even look you in the eye. I am learning, and I am listening– to both the people God has placed in my life and the groans of my own spirit.

And I believe with all my heart that God is speaking through me… that God is using an ass to speak just as it once happened a long time ago, and it has never struck me as more of a privilege to consider myself an empty, stupid ass.

Doubting Thomas/Honest Thomas

This past Sunday my friends and I launched a new worship service here in Charlotte.  It was amazing– and God showed up major. Lots. (points for getting that subtle 30 Rock reference).

We had just over 40 people, mostly young adults, rocking out by lamp- and exposed bulb-light, in wingbacks and on pews, around tables and on couches. We had a candle-lighting area for private prayer, Eucharist, and a healing prayer station with anointing oil and a place to kneel. There was a spoken word/rapped prayer that riffed on the Our Father, and it was good.

There were tears, there was joy, there was laughter.  I was overwhelmed with the spirit/Spirit in that place. That, and stomach pain. I was nearly overwhelmed by a lot of intense, sharp stomach pain. But I whispered weakly to myself, like Mel Gibson’s character fighting through pain to do something heroic in every Mel Gibson movie ever made, “You can burst if you want, appendix; I’m having too much fun to care!” (It didn’t burst, my appendix is totally fine. My heroics, it turns out, are even less impressive than Mr. Gibson’s. Which is saying something.)

We sang songs about love, about hopelessness, about God’s grace. We sang about shaking the devil off your back.  I read from John 20 and preached on Thomas. Would you like to read my sermon?

The Hub- Gathering 1

The Hub- Gathering 1

A couple of thousand years ago, there was a man named Thomas. Very little is known about him, except that one day he met a man named Jesus and he followed Him. He appears by all accounts to have been a very brave man. He left his family, his home, his livelihood, and followed a total stranger. At one point in the stories, all his friends become afraid, because they realize this Jesus is going to get them all killed. Thomas is the one who says, “Let us go and die with Him.” The faith of Thomas is a witness to us. Oh, to have the faith of Thomas.

Now let me read to you the story Thomas is best known for. His friend, his Teacher, is dead; He’s been killed by the government days ago, and now all Thomas’s friends claim to have seen Jesus alive. This is the story of Thomas’s doubt. The story of his courage. The story of his brutal, heartbreaking honesty. The story of a man who would not sing of love unless he was sure it existed:

This comes from the gospel of John, in the new testament, chapter 20, verses 24 to 29.
“But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’” (NRSV)

Reprise of Paramore’s “The Only Exception.”

Our man Thomas has got a bad rap. Doubting Thomas, that’s what he’s called. Never mind that that’s not what the disciples ever called him, or what Jesus ever called him. Actually, they called him “the twin”; that’s what Thomas meant in their language. Yet we’re never told that he had a brother or a sister… Some people believe that they may have called him “the twin” because he looked a lot like Jesus… Maybe they were teasing him for looking like their teacher. Maybe they were teasing him for acting so much like their teacher.

In any case, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the disciples allowed Thomas’s doubt to define him.

You know, this service is aimed at “young adults,” that’s what we’ve put on the signs, although all are welcome. The thing about us young adults is that we’ve got a bad rap. I’ve read a lot of books on how to reach “milennials” and the things they say about us are sort of insulting: they say we’re fickle. We’re noncommittal. We’re flighty. We come and go and never settle and can’t be counted on.
Up to 1/3 of Americans consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious, and when you look just at young adults, that percentage skyrockets.

So I guess it’s sort of true that we’re flighty and noncommittal, isn’t it? We’re the generation that invented the “maybe” RSVP on facebook. A third of us transfer colleges at some point during undergrad. I did! 1 in 5 of us identify as having switched religions from that in which we were raised.

So that’s our bad rap.

But back to Thomas. Thomas gets 4 total speaking parts, all in the gospel of John. The first is the one I already told you about, when he says with great courage and conviction to his friends, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” No sign of doubt there!

The second comes after Jesus’s statement that He is going before us to prepare a place for us, and that we will follow. Thomas pipes up and says what probably everyone else was thinking, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Let me pause to ask you something: is this doubt? Or is this a question? If you ask me, it’s not doubt. Thomas doesn’t ask if that’s possible, or if Jesus can be trusted. Like Mary before him, he simply asks how. How can this be for I have no husband? How can we follow you? We want to we believe that we can, and we believe that we will, I’m just wondering how.

The last two times Thomas speaks are in the section I read to you. ”Unless I see the nail marks… I will not believe.” And what does Jesus do in response to this doubt? He extends His hands and invites Thomas to place his hand in the wound in His side, and Thomas exclaims, in the powerful last line we get from him, “My Lord and my God!”

It’s very important, this statement of Thomas’s: at first he calls Jesus his Lord, which isn’t very descriptive. Lord could be simply the title of a man of higher social status. Lord could be just another way of showing respect to a teacher. Lord could mean master, nothing more. But then Thomas calls Jesus, “God.”

Thomas was a Jew, and for a Jew the belief in one and only one God is as essential as breathing. You don’t just go around calling anyone a god. That’s pretty much the gist of commandments 1 through 3. To say these words could easily have gotten Thomas killed. To say these words could have gotten him considered damned by everyone he knew, his father and mother, his old friends, his old rabbi and everyone in his town.

But he says it anyway, because Thomas, I want to suggest, was not a doubter– or at least not for long. Thomas, ultimately, was very brave, and very faithful.

Let me tell you the story of one of Thomas’s friends, another of Jesus’ friends, named Judas. Funny enough, some historians say that Judas might have been Thomas’s middle name, so they had something in common… Judas, you might say, lost faith, he began to doubt. He doubted that Jesus was really God in a human body. He doubted that Jesus could actually save him from his own miserable, narcissistic, self-centered life. He doubted that his life could really change. So he sold Jesus out. He took a list of all the rules Jesus had ever broken, all the things Jesus had said that made him uncomfortable, those things he couldn’t believe, and sold the body of God to the highest bidder.

And he regretted it deeply. He was not smited. No fiery lightning bolt came down from heaven, no angel showed up to make him pay. His own heart betrayed him and showed him his guilt. The gospel of Matthew says that he was seized by regret.

I wonder if you have ever felt the spindly, cold fingers of regret slice through your soul? After all, every day we sell the body of Christ for nickels. When we choose gossip, or hate, or lust, over love. When we numb ourselves with movies or alcohol or flirting with strangers instead of filling that deep chasm in our hearts with the only thing that will truly satisfy.

Judas could not handle it. Matthew tells us that he committed suicide, that he went out on Good Friday, “early in the morning,” and that he hanged himself. It is of poetic importance that I tell you this would have been about the same time that Jesus was crucified. On a cross between two thieves, God was hung on nails and wood by sinners. In a field, alone, the doubter hung himself.

I tell you this story because I believe that it, like Thomas’s is a story of doubt. Here’s a question I heard recently about Judas that I want to put to you: What if Judas could have waited two more days before he hung himself?

What if Judas could have held on for Good Friday and Holy Saturday, what if he could have made it to Easter morning? What if he stood there with Thomas and expressed his doubts, his fears, his unbelief?

You see, the miracle of Thomas’s story is that Jesus does not have an unkind word to say to him. Jesus comes to him and says, “Look, feel, see- I am alive.” He does not mock him for his doubts, or make him say any hail Mary’s or do any pushups. He answers him. Exactly what Thomas said he needed– to see the nail marks and put his hand in Jesus’s side– is what Jesus offers him.

Judas didn’t stick around to ask for what he needed. For whatever reason– fear, or embarrassment, or bitterness that he couldn’t believe what all the other disciples seemed to believe so easily– he couldn’t be that honest with his friends, and he looked for the easy way out– just to get Jesus out of the picture.

Thomas, though, he was not afraid to speak his truth: “I am having trouble believing this stuff. I didn’t see it with my own eyes, and I don’t think I’ll be able to believe until I do.”

Honest Thomas. Oh, to have the authenticity of Thomas!

Here’s what it seems to me we can learn from Thomas: When his faith began to crumble, when he could no longer feel God walking beside him, or hear God speaking to him, he did not run. He did not leave. He did not take the easy way out and just go back home where it was comfortable and safe. The story finds him in the room with the disciples. He says, “I don’t believe right now,” and yet he stays.

And not only does he stay, he asks his brothers for exactly what he needs: “I need to see the wounds, to put my hands in them.” And I think it’s because of the faith it took to stay and the courage it took to be that honest that he was given what he asked for– Jesus’s wounded hands and feet and side.

Friends, if you have come here tonight with doubts, you are in good company. Thomas stands with you, because he has been there.

Brené brown says that faith without vulnerability and mystery is not faith at all. Faith is a risk, a risk that takes honesty and courage, like Thomas had. A risk that takes fear and trembling, like Thomas had. A risk that takes everything you have, like Thomas gave. We have created this space here tonight for you to get honest with God. What will you offer Him? What if your worst doubts are worth more than your most beautiful pretenses?

If you have come here in doubt and fear, know that we, too, stand with you and pray for you, because everyone here has been there. If you are looking at our prayer stations and especially at this meal prepared with trepidation, just know this: Jesus invites to the table everyone who earnestly seeks Him. Just as he invited the doubter Thomas to put his hand in His side, Jesus invites the doubters in this room, including you, including me, to put our hands on this broken body and, by it, believe.

Amen.

The Great Divide: How to Snare the Elusive “Young Adult”

There’s a lot of talk these days about the generational divides in America, particularly in the church.  As someone who is firmly a member of the Millennial/Gen Y/Hipster generation and who is also attempting to market a worship service to my comrades, I think it’s worth a gander at just what makes the generations have such different values.

To say that we have different values is, of course, not to say that any one generation is any better than any other (so stuff it with your “Greatest Generation” stuff, Tom Brokaw… just kidding, you’re a legend and a genius).  It’s just to say that we value things differently.  Our priorities are different.  The way we want to be treated is different.  The way to market to us, worship with us, and work with us is different.

So… Let’s start wildly generalizing and offending everyone!
(Please note: these are very, very broad generalizations. I fully acknowledge that they do not apply to every member of each age bracket.  These are simply broad strokes I’ve compiled to get some vague grasp on the differences between the generations.)

Baby Boomers (b. 46-64) believe that progress is the key to life.  

  • If you dream big enough, work hard enough, and do all the right things, there is nothing you can’t achieve, in their eyes.
    • This leads them to be very suspicious of things that defy the norm.
    • Tattoos, alternative music, dropping out of college to pursue an art career…. these are things that freak a Baby Boomer out, because they’re not the traditional progression of maturation and growth a typical middle-class American makes in life.
  • They have spent their life warding off disaster the best way they know how: by doing this life right, following the rules.
  • They want order, they want things the way they’ve been, and they want things they can conceptually manage.

Gen Xers (b. 65-75), on the other hand, want non-tradition.

  • Despite the prior generation’s cries for “the way it ought to be,” Gen Xers went out and got tattoos, listened to and made alternative music, and dropped out of college to pursue art careers.
  • But… this was in the 80s and 90s.  Now, 15-30 years later, many are disillusioned.
    • The tattoos are fading and sagging, the music they created as “alternative” is now largely mainstream, and their art careers crashed and burned just as badly as their first marriages.
  • So they’re wanderers at this point, feeling neglected and sold-out and disillusioned by the rejection and hopelessness the world has offered them
    • (Remember, it’s within their lifetime that things like AIDS and pollution became global, seemingly insurmountable issues).
  • This age group is very interested in alternative spiritualities and counter-cultural forms of leadership and living.
  • They want purpose and identity, and they’ll take it wherever they can get it.

Finally there’s me, us, Millennials (b. 76-94), about whom not much has been decided.

Please try to stifle your gasps as I let you know that there is little in the worship planning, church-planting, and evangelism books I’ve read that’s aimed at us, is about us, or even acknowledges our existence.
Most books talk about Seniors, Boomers, and Gen Xers, and then essentially say, “Of course, your ideal target audience should be Young Adults, but good luck finding them, much less getting them in your doors, much much less getting them to stick around, much much much less getting them involved.”

So… I’m going to talk a lot about them, in case anyone out there would like to know something or other about us.

Millennials are in a way an amalgam of those who’ve gone before them.

  • We are closer in goals and desires to the Gen Xers but are closer in worldview/perspective to the Boomers.
    • We see that the world sucks, but we don’t feel existential angst or despair; we believe in progress, to some extent, but not the kind of progress our parents and grandparents believed in and were let down by.
    • The difference is that we don’t trust the government or the “way” of the universe or even God to accomplish this progress. Rather…
  • We believe in ourselves and our power to make change.
    • We don’t feel helpless, we feel capable of helping.
    • We don’t feel overwhelmed by the problems of the world, we feel energized and mobilizedby them.
      • Think about the recent phenomena of micro-lending—did you know that a lot of these were started by people under the age of 30?
      • Young Adults see a problem and they fix it.

The young adult generation sees disaster– not just disaster on the horizon as previous generations saw, but disaster here, present, putting us in a recession, at war, in political turmoil in poverty, in danger of deadly diseases– and says, “What can I do?”

Our unique tastes— for example, the hipster fashion trend, our penchant for tattoos and big glasses, and our desire to push the boundaries when it comes to music and art and.. well, everything– are a reflection of our openness.

  • This is the generation that is campaigning most ardently for gay rights.
  • This is the generation that has traveled the most (for pleasure, not military service, anyway) by the time we’re 30.
  • This is the generation is the closest yet to being truly colorblind.

Look at me, I’m getting all gushy.  I think my generation is the bomb.  However, we also have our problems.

  • Sometimes we are so inclusive, or strive so hard to be unique, or affix ourselves so strongly to a political party or spiritual system, that we lose our individual identity.
  • We can be cliquish with those who are our particular brand of individual, unique, or–ironically– inclusive (need help understanding that last one? I’ve seen bands of hipsters ostracize someone for affirming the creative rights of Daughtry and Nickleback, while themselves affirming the creative rights of a certain persecuted Russian punk band whose name I can’t type here because I’m on my work computer :)  Google it if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)
  • Probably our biggest problem in my eyes, however, is that we are very, very, very, very, very, very finicky.  We’re like cats in that way.  We take a while to warm up to you, and even then, one wrong move and we bolt.
    • I’m thinking here particularly of institutions that want Millennials involved… say, the Church, for example (go figure!).  You can pitch something PERFECTLY for Millennials, and we still might not come, because of any number of things.
      • Use comic sans or papyrus on your flyer? We’re not coming.
      • Reference an old sitcom or movie that was before our time (and isn’t a cult classic) in your sermon?  We out.
      • Sing a song our Baby Boomer parents love to sing in their “Contemporary” worship service? We will run from the place screaming and never come back.

Obviously, I’m being facetious.

The biggest reason a young adult will leave, or never come to, an organization is if they don’t feel involved.  If they don’t feel like active, welcome participants in what is going on.  If they don’t feel like they have some ownership, some stake, in the success or failure of this endeavor.

So how do you get us on board?

How do you build something that we will come to? (Yes, most of us will get a Field of Dreams reference, so feel free to keep using that one if you’d like.)

I’ll tell you how: You show us a problem.  And you say, “How can we help you fix this problem?”  And then you build a ministry around it.

And if it’s alternative (which, let’s be honest, it’s the hipster generation, so you know it’ll be alternative), then the Gen Xers are likely to come.  And if it seems actually to be doing some good in this world and offering at the very least hope of doing good, then it will minister to the broken hearts of those Gen Xers.

And if it’s taking off and growing the church, then the Boomers might come… but they might not.  But they will offer their support, because they want to see the church progressing and growing and creating a space for itself among the new generation.

Friends, those among you who are considering starting an alternative worship service (or emerging, or millennial, or ancient/future, or apostolic, or taize, or ionic, or whatever you’re thinking of), please don’t leave the Young Adults out.  And note:

We won’t be snared by some pitch-perfect combination of marketing and stage design.  Rather, we will choose to become involved if it is a cause, a mission, a way of being that is unique, captivating, exciting, innovative, and most of all does some good for the community, for our hearts, and for the hearts that this world has broken.

The Dinosaur vs. The Very Hairy Monkey: Worship Renewal in the Postmodern World

You know that friend you had in college who was studying something positively useless, like ancient Sumerian or Art History or something?  And you thought, what contribution are you ever going to make to the advancement of modern society?  What is the point?

Sometimes I think we have a tendency to think subconsciously about ministry that way.  Sometimes it feels like we are curators in beautiful but crumbling museums, scurrying around and doing our best to preserve the glass-encased treasures, artifacts, and masterpieces.  People come in, they behold the beauty we proudly present, and then they leave, sometimes changed and sometimes unchanged.

Mona Lisa on display at the Lourve.  Image credit: Wikipedia

People still visit the Mona Lisa and David even though they’ve not changed in the slightest in centuries.  I’m going to visit Rome in a few weeks, and I’ve been told to expect hour-long waits to view the Sistine Chapel and the Coliseum, despite the fact that they’re just the same as they were in the pictures in my elementary school textbooks.

So, too, God has not changed in all these years.  So shouldn’t people continue to come to the houses of worship to visit?  …Or is that metaphor imperfect?  Of course it is.

God is unchanged, but that doesn’t mean the Church is unchanged.  God is unchanged, but that doesn’t mean that we are unchanged.  God is unchanged, but that doesn’t mean the way we worship, where we worship, what time we worship, and what worship involves is unchanged.

66% of Americans believe that the traditional Church is irrelevant.
Leith Anderson says, “The Church in America is dying for lack of change.” (1)
12 million people are active, and 30 million people are interested, in alternative spiritual systems. (2)

The use of this term, “alternative,” says they want something entirely unlike what is currently being offered.  They don’t want what we have traditionally served them; they want something new and fresh, sweet on the tongue.  They are looking, searching, seeking for something else.

Obviously we need to be open to change.

(Note: We needn’t throw out the traditional model; after all, if 66% think the traditional Church is irrelevant, then 34% apparently disagree.  But as of now, the proportions are wrong:  I don’t have specific numbers for this part, but I’d venture to say that 80% or more of our worship is aimed at the 34% right now.  We have to flip that on its head.)

If 66% of people think traditional church is irrelevant, let’s give them nontraditional church.

Because we are called to give them Church.
We’re not called to protect the old traditions.  We’re not called to stand in an ostensibly crumbling building and wait to be crushed by falling stones.  We’re not called to stand in a belltower and shout at passersby about the Good News they could find if only they’d come inside. Rather, we are called to offer God to people, wherever they are, whatever they like, whomever they love, whatever they look like, whatever type of music they prefer, however they dress, and whenever they’re awake.

If young adults are sleeping til noon on Sundays and staying up until 3AM, let’s give them a midnight worship service.  If prostitutes are hanging around the bad areas of town, let’s set up shop there.  If the bars and tattoo parlors are where people are hanging out, let’s bring the Church to hang out there, as well.

Because whenever the unchurched are awake, God’s there. And wherever the unchurched are hanging out, God’s there. And whatever the unchurched are doing, God’s there.  God is not just in the church building.  When are we going to get that through our thick skulls?

We have to change because the people God wants us to reach are not going to come to us, 99% of the time.  We’re going to have to go to them.

 

But there is great risk in change.  We could screw it all up.

Consider the recent news story of the Spanish fresco by artist Elias Garcia Martinez, over a century old.

Image credit: today.com via Centro De Estudios Borjanos via EPA

A classic painting was positively ruined by a restoration-gone-wrong.  The article cited above says this: The BBC Europe correspondent described the painting’s current state as resembling “a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic.”

As I prepare in my current appointment to begin an alternative worship service, I tremble with the fear that I will end up, not with Christ, but with a very hairy monkey in an ugly shirt.

But Exodus 17 gives me faith.

The people of Israel are thirsty, they’re desperate for water.  God tells Moses to go out into the middle of nowhere (the Rephidim, the Nowhere Place, where no one would expect water to be), and God promises to go before him, and that God will be there, standing on a rock.  And water, God promises, will flow out of that rock.

God’s people today are thirsty for God, they’re desperate for Church– even if they don’t know it. Alternative worship, the nontraditional Church, this is the wilderness of the Nowhere Place, this is where living water will flow out of hard places, dry places, broken places.  This is where God has already gone before us, leading the way, clearing the path, setting up roadsigns.  And God will be there, standing on the rock, if only we will lift our eyes and follow.

 

(1) Charles Arn, How to Start a New Service
(2) Mark Galli, Beyond Smells and Bells