27 March 2008

What I Really Think: #9 - A Caution (With a Geeky Coding Analogy)

A gent named Preston commented on my recent post about church community size, and he really got me thinking. (Thanks, Preston - seriously.) His concern, if I'm reading him correctly, is that he's seen the exact opposite of my claims regarding church community size and rank-and-file participation in ministry. In Preston's experience (again, if I'm hearing him), in smaller churches, the one pastor or clergyperson in charge typically does everything, and opportunities for other folks to get involved are limited. But once a church reaches sufficient size and critical mass to have (and need) a variety of programs, the pastor necessarily needs to delegate authority, and there are many more opportunities for folks to get involved in ministry. And Preston, you're absolutely right.

But wait (I thought, when I read Preston's comment), I know that's true of a lot of small churches, but in the case of the community I'm a part of, we don't even have a single person in charge, nor do we have anyone designated as "clergy". The closest we come is a leadership team of three with equal "authority" (i.e., not much), and just about everybody in the community rotates into various leadership roles when their gifts, passions, and schedules allow. Although I've written about questioning the role of "pastor" (and especially "senior pastor") in this same series, I guess I had sort of forgotten how important that is in conjunction with my claims about small community size and participation in ministry - and also about the fact that very few people do church like we do in that respect. And that got me thinking.

OK, time for the promised geeky coding analogy. (In my day job, I write code. I am haxx0r. No, not really. But nor am I n00b. Anyway....)

Maybe five or six years ago, I started reading about a programming methodology called eXtreme Programming (XP - no relation to Windows). What Preston's thoughts made me realize is that, among other interesting parallels, one of the things that XP has in common with the way communities like ours do church is the following: "the practices must support each other". Not just the people, but the practices.

XP and other agile programming methodologies blew people's minds when they were being developed in the 90's, because they advocated practices that just seemed bizarre and unworkable - like pair programming and collective code ownership and on-site customers as part of the development team. And people said, "well, clearly we can't change to all of those whacked-out practices at once, but let's try one or two." And lo, their suspicions were confirmed: alone, in the context of not changing the rest of the development process, without the support of the other practices, adopting one or two of the practices was a total disaster.

The practices must support each other. Take a traditional church, and just try changing one or two things to make it more like what we do, and I bet you're in for a world of hurt. It's only when these "practices" are taken together - small congregation, no lay/clergy divide, distributed leadership, "open source" church, no big expenses (building, etc.), no concept of membership, "centered-set" permeable community borders yet a big emphasis on relationship in community, a postmodern, humble, generous approach to doctrine and practice, etc., etc. - that they have a good chance of working. As a mentor of ours has said in a slightly different context, everything must change. Or, you're probably gonna wish you changed nothing.

My point is certainly not that one must do everything exactly like we do it at Common Table for church to work - or even for "emerging" church to work. XP is only one of many very workable agile software development methodologies - they have much in common, but their practices differ. But one thing they all have in common is that their practices must support each other. Start with a very different methodology, and adopt only one or two practices from XP or Scrum or whatever, and you'll find out right quickly that that was a terrible idea.

So my fear, and my caution, is that taking a similar approach with "emerging church" practices - starting with a traditional church, and experimentally adopting one or two or even a handful of "good ideas" from the emerging conversation - is probably not going to get you very far. Worse yet, the results could be disastrous for you, your congregation, and all manner of innocent bystanders.

Must everything change? Honestly, I'm not sure. But I do believe that in any workable system, the practices must support each other, or the whole thing is likely to come crashing down around our ears - or (perhaps worse) to succeed...in becoming something we'd never have hoped for. And not in that serendipitous, good sort of way.

So...if God is calling you to be bold, then be bold. But if you're not sure, then keep praying, and in the mean time, caution might be advisable. I guess it's possible to dabble in revolution, but I'm not sure it's possible to do so very productively.

26 March 2008

What I Really Think: #8 - Gender and the Church

I thought about skipping this topic, and then I thought about making a really short post on it. Something to the effect of, "In my experience, women typically make better church leaders than men. So, for God's sake, stay the hell out of their way." But I realized that I have just a bit more to say than that.

I'm not kidding about my brief statement. Most (certainly not all) of the most amazing church leaders I've known have been women. And while I can understand why some sincere Christians conclude that scripture forbids women from being church leaders, I think the biblical case for that position is weak, for reasons similar to the ones that make lead me to conclude that there's no compelling scriptural case for the sinfulness of gay sex. (See here.) So given that they're so damn good at it, and given that I don't know any good reason to stand in their way, I anticipate and celebrate a future in which the Church is mightily transformed, for the better, by the leadership of women.

But of course, it's not that simple. A lot of mainline folks I know seem pretty smug about the "fact" that their denominations have "solved" this issue - unlike those backward evangelicals - but women leaders are still a small minority in the mainline, and female senior pastors even more so. (Much more so). And of course, judicatory-level or denomination-wide female leaders are even rarer. And the inroads that women have made have done little, so far, to transform a very traditionally "male", very "corporate executive" model of church organization and leadership culture in the mainline churches.

However, thank God, we are now blessed with a great many female church leaders - especially in the mainline - who have either overcome "women can't lead" enculturation, or actually grew up free of that bullshit. Thank God for these women! But they (along with us fat and privileged Y-chromosome types, of course) need to recognize that inviting the participation of women who did grow up with that shite is probably not as easy as shouting, "Door's open! C'mon in!"

By the same token, though, we clueless males (and those women who are currently leading) need a lot of help from emerging evangelical women leaders (who grew up being taught that such a thing could not be) in teaching us how to widen the conversation . We need specific help in specific instances (not just general advice), 'cause if you wait to see if we figure it out, we'll almost certainly futz it up. Then there's not much to do about it but gripe. (The verb I almost used was "bitch". If it were me doing the bitching, I'd have written "bitch". But in this instance I chose a different verb. This is called "cultural sensitivity".) ;-)

I guess in summary, I'm excited and hopeful about the ways the Spirit will move in the Church through the leadership of gifted women. But we shouldn't fool ourselves that we're there already. To facilitate this blessing, we need to help each other, we need to extend each other grace, and we need to try not to piss each other off. In that respect, I hope this post has not been counterproductive. :-D

25 March 2008

What I Really Think: #7 - Church Community Size

So here's the deal: In previous posts, I admitted that I'm sure there are some individuals and communities for whom the traditional pastor role is a good fit, and I opined that denominational hierarchies are no more obsolete than public libraries. Along similar lines, I am willing to allow that there are probably good reasons for certain church communities to grow to more than, say, 75-100 active members (including children).

However, I must admit that I have trouble thinking of any.

'Cause this is the rub: I can't think of anything that a single church community can do which a network of communities working together can't do (though admittedly, such networks would probably move more slowly in many cases). On the other hand, I can think of a bunch of thorny issues that begin to arise when communities get so big that anonymity is possible - which probably happens when they approach 50 or 70 adults; fewer if the leadership responsibility is concentrated in one or two individuals. Once anonymity is possible, the church ceases to be a community of followers of Jesus.

Let me unpack that statement, because it is, admittedly, a bit extreme.

First of all, I believe very strongly in radical welcome as a core component of the gospel. I neither believe, nor desire, that every person who becomes a part of a church fellowship considers herself a "follower of Jesus". I think a test of any kind - doctrinal or practical - as a barrier to belonging within a church community is nothing short of a betrayal of the radical openness of Jesus. So I don't believe that only "followers of Jesus" should be allowed to join a church - but I do believe that anyone joining such a community should have no doubt about what kind of group it is. It's a community of people trying to follow Jesus together. But here's what it's not:
  • It's not a community where relationship is optional. It's OK to be an introvert. It's OK to hang back and take relationship at your own pace. But once it's possible to simply fall through the cracks - to neither know or be known and for no-one to realize that - it's not a community. It's more like a neighborhood - or a housing development. There are , no doubt, communities within the neighborhood - groups of people who share real relationship with each other - but the only thing shared by the entire group is not relationship, but mere proximity. Just like in the average housing development in the US today.
  • It's not community where following Jesus is optional. It's OK to be just starting on the way. It's OK to not be sure you want to be on that way at all. But it should be clear to everyone that following Jesus is what the community is about. It's not a group with a dual track: one group of people who try to be disciples, and a second group who choose the second, perfectly acceptable alternate track: simply show up once a week and pay for services provided by the first group. Oh, I know that every church says it's about discipleship. But practical reality speaks way louder than words, and the fact is that in communities large enough for folks to "slip through the cracks", it's blatantly obvious to all involved that the "just show up and consume" option is a perfectly valid one, 'cause folks can see plenty of people all around them choosing that option and sticking with it year after year.
So - and this is a serious question - why "church growth"? Why don't communities divide into networked smaller communities when they become so large that they are, de facto, no longer a community any more anyway? I can think of some practical reasons:
  • "Church growth" is what it's all about, right? Everybody knows that. The first thing everybody wants to know about a church plant is how it's growing. I think it's a bit of a prestige thing for many church leaders. Obviously it's better to be in charge of a big community than a small one.
  • Lots of people seem to think that individual church communities ought to own buildings and shit. And that leaders ought to be able to make a full living and support their families solely from church salaries. There's nothing inherently wrong with those things, but when they are accepted as "givens", they do obligate the community to have enough size (and enough income) to support such major expenses.
  • Finally, where would we get enough leaders to help cultivate all these little communities? Lots of people assume that church leaders need to have seminary degrees and ordination to the clergy. How would the systems that regulate those things keep up with demand? The idea of raising up leaders from within the community - folks who are gifted with leadership-oriented spiritual gifts, and who are already doing the work of leadership - is a radical one, I admit.
As you might have guessed, I don't buy into any of those assumptions. Big numbers, single-community church buildings, full-time paid staff, MDivs, and clerical collars are not bad things. But to assume (as most people seem to) that they are universally desirable and necessary is a mistake, in my opinion. A mistake that can turn communities of Jesus-followers into housing developments made up of a mixture of disciples and consumers. Kind of like the neighborhoods many of us probably live in. Is it any wonder that so many of our neighbors can't imagine what difference the church could possibly make in their lives?

24 March 2008

What I Really Think: #6 - Paid Ministry

I think this one will be the briefest one yet. This is mostly cross-posted from Anglimergent.

IMHO, there's absolutely nothing wrong with getting paid for church work. Let me get that out of the way up front. Some of my best friends either are currently, or have been in the past, paid for their roles within the Church. I wouldn't rule out taking money for "ministry" work. But speaking for myself, I would never, ever bank my family's home, food budget, education, future, etc. solely on a church paycheck. I would/will always have "secular" sources of income, between my wife and myself, that can get us by. This is for one simple reason.

What happens when God is calling me to do or say something that could get me fired?

I have many friends and acquaintances in the "emergent" conversation to whom this has happened. There's even a semi-official Emergent Village euphemism for it: "I got resigned." I met a lot of folks at last year's Emergent Village Gathering who "got resigned", and many of them had been working for "liberal" mainline churches - not just fundamentalist/evangelical ones.

I'm completely certain that this moment comes for a great many professional clergy, and that most of them decide that the better part of valor is to keep their big mouth shut (or continue acting only in the conventional/acceptable manor). And I'm not for a moment judging them for that - they have families that depend on them! But personally, I will never, ever put myself or my family in that position - I'll always be a tentmaker.

Next on the docket: Church Community Size.

Easter 2008

Yesterday was Easter
We didn't go to church
My family aren't church people
And besides
It's hard for Dad to travel
Not because of the cancer
In his head
But because of the steroids
Drugs they gave him
To keep his symptoms at bay
Drugs that make him
Too weak to stand up without help

We didn't go to church
But we did participate in a liturgy
A ceremony called holiday dinner
With ham, and dinner rolls, and pie
With Mom and Dad, Sean and Anna, Tina and me
Around the table
I said grace
And rambled on too long
As I do
Which earned me a "Get on with it"
Gesture from Dad
Which in turn made me think
How much I love him

Our liturgical color was pink
Pink like Mom's Easter table cloth
And placemats
Pink like glazed ham
Like Peeps and jelly beans
Pink like Tina's shoulders
And my forehead
After weeding on Saturday
We all sat at the table
Even though it's easier for Dad
To sit on the stool at the bar
Where he can stand up on his own

After dinner, we drove back home
As Tina napped, I thought
And prayed
And I searched and asked
For new life
I asked God for some resurrection trajectory
When things seemed to be going
The other way
I asked God to teach me to pray
And to show me what to pray for
I asked God to put words in my mouth
Because I didn't know the words myself

So this thought came to me:
You, God, you have such...
And the next word, I thought,
Was supposed to be "power"
But that wasn't the word
The word that came instead
Was "joy"
God, you have such joy...
Joy to share with all of us
Joy that looks like sunlight after winter
Joy that sounds like children's laughter
Joy like the weight of a newborn baby boy
Joy that feels like a friend's embrace

You have pain, too
And so do we
You share in our suffering
And sometimes we share in yours
Sometimes we watch the people we love
Wither and become less
We watch our loved ones, pillars of strength
Become weak
We watch our beloved, who have lived lives of caring
Become those in need of care
We watch like Mary and John
At the foot of the Cross

But your joy is real too
I know this
I know it
Knowing this, I know also
I need to orient my life now
I need to create the conditions
For accessing that joy
And if I access it
I need to pray
Pray for the courage and wisdom
So share it with those I love
Pray for the discernment
To know how to bless

I know it won't look like joy
(Or maybe it will,
Like laughter 'round the dinner table
Like laughter at Tina's frizzy hair
Curled and enlarged by Mom's long-dormant
Beauty culture skills)
Maybe it won't look like joy,
But I know (I know) that your joy is real

19 March 2008

Do not meddle in the affairs of freegans, for they are subtle, and quick to make off with your discarded organic free-range chickens

I'm back on the Dive Team! (Junior Varsity, natch - if you missed the sad tale of my previous attempt at dumpster diving, you can read it right here.) I went out this evening with a different mentor (plus a fellow n00b), and we successfully rescued a whole bunch of fresh strawberries, maybe ten loaves of assorted sliced bread, some ground beef, shaved beef, sausages, and eggs, and a henhouse worth of organic free-range chickens from their landfill-rotting destiny. Nummy!

New Mentor taught us padawans much about the subtle (and subtlety is key!) art of suburban gleaning. Her dive-fu is strong.

Of course, none of us are really freegans. We all still eat food that someone valued enough to make us pay money for. But now that I've completed my first successful mission, I'm beginning to feel the pride that comes from legitimate street cred.

Yeah, I eat garbage. Picked it m'self, yo. :-D

18 March 2008

DBB on Obama's pastor and the Black American preaching tradition

Check out this powerful essay by Diana Butler Bass on the current media flap over Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Diana looks at Wright's words from the point of view of the long history of radical, prophetic African-American preaching, and concludes that they are offensive:

But the attack on Rev. Wright...demonstrates the level of misunderstanding that still divides white and black Christians in the United States. Many white people find the traditions of African-American preaching offensive, especially when it comes to politics.

I know because I am one of those white people.

And that's the point. Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable - and we comfortable white people might benefit from shutting up and listening. Not for the first time in the history of this nation. And for God's sake, can we give up on the implication that a church member must obviously agree with every word preached from the pulpit at his place of worship?

Yes, as Jan admits in the post I just linked, the company we keep matters. So now we know that Obama, a Black practicing Christian, keeps company with a Black preacher who is squarely in the grand tradition of no-punches-pulled African-American prophetic rhetoric in this country.

Shock horror.

HT for the DBB: EC

17 March 2008

What I Really Think: #5 - Homosexuality and the Church

I'll try to keep this one brief too. I'm not a Biblical literalist. That said, many sincere Christians find in the Bible a clear basis for concluding that gay sex is sinful - and I'm willing to concede that they could be right. I don't think that's a crystal clear conclusion based on the evidence of Scripture, but I can understand why sincere Christians come to that conclusion. Why don't I think it's clear? Well, here's some of my thinking on using scripture to decide this sort of thing:
  • There are a handful of references to gay sex in the Bible, all of them negative.
  • There are somewhat more than a handful of references to gluttony in the Bible, nearly all of them negative. (I say "nearly" because I seem to remember that Jesus was accused of that vice, but it was maybe just sour grapes on the part of repressed Pharisees or Sadducees or whatnot.) Some of the consequences of gluttony were quite grim - I think of the Israelites in the desert gorging themselves on manna and quail - much to their detriment.
  • There are way more than a handful of references to slavery in the Bible, almost none of them particularly negative about the institution itself.
  • There are one hell of a lot of references to greedy neglect of the poor and marginalized in the Bible. It's always condemned in the strongest possible terms. Sometimes Jesus even seems to be saying that being rich, in itself, can be a terrible thing.
What can we conclude about moral prescriptions from a careful study of facts like these? Not bloody much, if you ask me. Life is more complicated than easy moral prescriptions, the Bible is not a rule book, and (as my friend Tim recently reminded me), proof-texting is for weenies. So I don't know for sure if God disapproves of gay sex. It's possible. But I don't think so. I know I go against the tide of 2000 years of church tradition (and Jewish tradition before that), but for most of that time those dudes thought slavery was A-OK too. Bible doesn't really say otherwise. I happen to think they were wrong, though.

But let's say, for the sake of argument, that gay sex is, indeed, sinful. And let's say, too, that we agree (for the sake of argument) that the Bible is a good place to find out what's sinful and what's OK with God. I'm now standing, rhetorically, on roughly the same ground as a lot of people who then conclude that openly gay folks, in loving relationships, must be excluded from church leadership.

In my opinion, that's crap. Please refer back to the bulleted list above. Even conceding the point that gay sex might be sinful, I personally refuse to condone excluding gay folks from church leadership until such time as we are prepared to also exclude fat people. And rich people. (Want to know if you're rich? Click here.) And since that keeps me out of church leadership on two counts, I guess then I'll shut the hell up. But until then, I'll share the following not-so-humble offer with anyone who thinks that the handful of Biblical references to the sinfulness of gay sex is sufficient ground to slam doors in the faces of gay followers of Jesus: you show me a church leader who's free of unrepented sin, and I'll show you a big, fat liar.

The church is made of up, and led by, broken sinners. Broken sinners who are trying to follow where Jesus leads us, together. That's who God calls, 'cause there ain't anybody else to choose from. Excluding gay folks from church because of their "sin" is, in my opinion, a radical betrayal of this reality and of Jesus' example of welcoming all to his table - especially "sinners". I think Jesus calls us to that same radical welcome.

Sin is real, but it's up to God to judge and the Spirit to convict us and work change in our hearts. If you feel convicted to share with your gay brother or sister your concern over what you see as their sin, then I'm not going to tell you that's wrong. But I hope you're as ready to talk to me about the error of my gluttony and greed. We all need accountability from our fellow believers, and we all need their radical welcome too. And we really, really need to get over ourselves and realize that we're all - gay, straight, or otherwise - in the same boat.

What I Really Think: #4 - What the Church Is For

I was originally shooting for brevity with this series, and I really blew it with the last two posts. But I think I'll do a better job this time, because my thoughts on this topic are really pretty straightforward. This topic being, "What the Church Is For".

I think this one's easy (to say, not to do). The Church is for the people who aren't already a part of it. That's what the Church is for. Sure, the Church is also for God. But all people were made to love God - that doesn't make the Church special. And of course, our identity as sold-out followers of Jesus and lovers of the God of love carries with it some natural side-effects. Chief among these is that we will love one another within the church (John 13:34-35). That just flows from who we are as followers of Jesus. It's meant to be our hallmark, our calling-card, that by which we are known. So of course we'll love each other and take care of each other (and not vilify each other over doctrinal disagreements) - right? That's just a given, right? It's who we are. But it's not what we're for.

It seems to me that the combined weight of the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, plus the rest of Jesus' ministry, (ought to) put the church on a powerful trajectory outward, to love, serve, bless, and share the good news with our neighbors. Being an agent of reconciliation. This, IMHO, is what the Church is for. (Some people call this being "missional".)

So, supposing for the moment that you think I have a point, I ask you: does the way you spend your time, as an individual disciple and with whatever Christian communities you may be a part of, reflect this outward trajectory? Whom do you spend more time and energy loving, serving, blessing, and sharing good news with: the people the church is actually for, or the people who are already part of this Body (and who, not-so-coincidentally, you can count on to reward you with friendship, love, and support of all kinds - maybe even financial)?

Yeah. Me too.

16 March 2008

What I Really Think: #3 - Church Hierarchies

This post will follow, in some ways, on the last post about pastors, which generated some great discussion. Thanks for that! OK, here we go: church hierarchies.

People talk a lot about a cultural shift from the "modern" to the "postmodern". I think this is a real thing - I've observed lots of evidence in the lives and behaviors of myself and folks I know that is consistent with much of what's been written about this shift. Lots of different characteristics have been mentioned as part of this, including a re-emphasis on the community (not just the individual), intuition (not just reason), spirit (not just matter), the organic (not just the mechanistic), common ground (not just left/right and other traditional divisions), etc. Also, significantly, a skepticism toward modernistic dualism which renders all the dichotomies I just listed rather beside the point, as well as a humility regarding our ability to know, understand, and control as much as we used to think we could, and a bold willingness to deconstruct what we used to think we simply knew.

I resonate with all of that stuff, but I also note that much of it isn't really anything new. It's stuff that hasn't been at the forefront of Western culture for a few hundred years, and it's great to welcome it back. But much of the "postmodern" seems to me to be a re-appreciation of pre-modern facets of our culture, and a synthesis of those with the undeniable benefits of modern-age innovations (rational philosophy, the scientific method, individual human value, etc.). This is all great stuff - no doubt! - but it's not entirely new.

But I'll tell you something that is entirely new. It's this little thing right here:

==> a hyperlink <==

Dude. I'm serious. This changes everything.

It doesn't just change the way we organize information on the internet. It changes the way we think. It didn't start with the Web, of course - toward the end of the modern age, a whole bunch of new inventions started changing the way people think about relationships. The telegraph, the telephone, air travel, the internet, cell phones: all of these have conspired to make (relatively) easy what was once damn near impossible: to create and maintain human relationships across boundaries. Time was, hierarchical organizations (governments, businesses, denominations, parishes) and the boundaries they naturally create were just how humans organized themselves. At least in Western culture, as far as I know, this has pretty much always been the case.

Within the Church, most of us were sorted and categorized by our position within denominational hierarchies: denomination, province, judicatory, synod, archdiocese, presbytery, diocese, parish, etc. These hierarchies (like the parallel ones in business and government) provided the infrastructure for relationships - relationships within the parish were facilitated by the pastor; relationships between pastors in different towns (if such existed) were facilitated by the bishop or the presbytery or the like; and so on. Accountability, generally speaking, flowed down from above, as did spiritual support. It still works this way in much of the Church, of course.

But let's think for a moment about a parallel to the organization of church polity: the organization of information. The world of denominational hierarchies is like a brick-and-mortar library. Every book has a place, and is near other books that are similarly shelved. But a book can't be shelved simultaneously in "do-it-yourself" and "animal husbandry", even though it's about how to make useful devices for facilitating livestock breeding. And a paper book on horse breeding can't link directly to another book on equine anatomy and physiology.

On the Web, of course, it's completely different. You don't have to pick one category. With tags and search engines and complex webs of links, information can be found in whatever collection of categories make sense. Further, you can link to anything. You don't need permission - you don't even need help. It's easy.

In my opinion, the church that is emerging - the church that will be most welcoming to postmodern people - is like the Web. Folks know, today, that you don't need to pick one category. They know that relationships and friendships and partnerships can easily cross denominational boundaries, and that these boundary-ignoring relationships can just as easily become far more important than the boundary-defined ones within the denomination. They know that there's really no need for someone above them in a hierarchy to provide accountability and support, because they can get both of those from their horizontal networks of friends across the breadth of the Body.

A friend of mine (not mentioning any names, but Tim knows who he is) identifies this with American individualism, but I disagree. Rugged individualism was a big part of American culture long before anybody was really trying non-hierarchical networks of human organization, and those of us who prefer horizontal peer networks are (in my experience) really not trying to avoid community or accountability. To the contrary, community is hugely important to us, as is accountability - we just don't feel comfortable entrusting our accountability to one person (our "boss" in a hierarchy) who is not similarly accountable to us. We'd rather have a network of peers charged with our accountability - and we with theirs.

This is not to say that I think denominations are obsolete. I don't think libraries are obsolete. (I have friends who would kill me if I thought otherwise!) But I would note that when the Web came along, libraries didn't ignore it, nor did they allow access to it only via the Dewey Decimal System. Instead, just about every library these days has become a portal to the Web, allowing visitors to access it freely. They actually became a wonderful gift to a great many folks who might not otherwise have a way to access to wealth of information on the Web.

So I do think that, to the extent that denominational hierarchies attempt to exercise control over emerging expressions of faith, or ignore those expressions, they are, if you'll pardon the expression, pissing into the wind. And the control thing is a big problem, because "control" - maintaining some kind of uniformity - is one of the major reasons that such hierarchies exist. If these attempts at control were ever helpful, I think their utility is at an end. Can you look at the state of the Church today, and tell me that all the hierarchical control in the world has been effective in ensuring orthodoxy, or promoting the unity of the Body, or preventing people from doing whatever the hell they feel God (or their own desires) is calling them to? Control is the business of Caesar, and Pilate, and Constantine, but it was never the business of Jesus. Vertical control structures might have been necessary once (I'm not sure), but that time is done. We have hyperlinks now.

So I say this to denominational hierarchies: don't go away, but do let go. Let go of your perceived need to control emerging expressions of faith within you. If something seems "out of control", stop thinking you need to do something about it. Maybe it's out of control like Pentecost, or like the spread of the Gospel in the first century, or like St. Patrick's evangelism of the Irish. Maybe what you really need to do is pay attention, and fan the flames.

Or, just keep on doing what you've been doing, and become what libraries (so far) did not: obsolete.

15 March 2008

What I Really Think: #2 - Pastors

OK, this is post #2 in this series. So, you know the drill. No hemming or hawing, dammit. Here we go.

I spent a little time with that great concordance in the intarwebs, Bible Gateway, and confirmed my suspicion. In most translations, the only occurrence of the word "pastor" in Scripture is Ephesians 4:11. Let me quote it for you in (brief) context:
1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8 This is why it [a] says:
"When he ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people." [b]

9 (What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions [c]? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

In Ephesians 4, "pastor" is one spiritual gift among many, mentioned in a list of such gifts, in the context of verse 7: "to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it." Other lists of spiritual gifts can be found elsewhere in the New Testament, and one popular (and IMHO helpful) course in vocational discernment lists no fewer than 19 spiritual gifts gleaned directly from the pages of the NT.

So I ask you: what scriptural basis is there for the fact that nearly every freaking church on the face of the planet has one or more "pastors", who are in charge of the church and (de facto) everything that goes on in it? Why have folks who are expected (de facto) to have all of these gifts in at least enough measure to have authority over all activity in each sphere? Why (most of all) does nearly every church have one person, the "Senior Pastor" or "Rector" or whatnot, who has ultimate authority in the community? If we are to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21) and love one another (John 13:34-35), then why does a single someone need to be "in charge"?

Ah, because co-leadership doesn't work. That's what I hear, anyway. It's contrary to my experience and the experience of others, but lots of people who have never tried it know very well that it doesn't work.

I don't think that there's anything inherently wrong with the role of "pastor" as it's become almost universally expressed in the Church. I have no doubt that there are some people who really are so broadly gifted that the role is an ideal one for them, vocationally. I have no doubt that there are some communities, in some cultural contexts, who are ideally led by a person in that role. But I honestly find it flippin' bizarre that this role has become as universal as it is, given some major drawbacks of this arrangement:

  • Having "clergy" - i.e., a class of people who are the designated church leaders and professional Christians - by implication defines the rest of us as not church leaders. This makes it damn hard to do more than pay lip service to the idea of the "priesthood of all believers" - which is a big reason, IMHO, why most churches don't do more than pay lip-service to that 100% scriptural idea. I went back to the Bible Gateway and searched for "priest". This one's harder, so correct me if I'm wrong - but I'm pretty sure that every occurrence of that word prior to Hebrews refers to the Jewish temple priesthood, or possibly to pagan priests. Hebrews talks a lot about priesthood - almost always in relation to Jesus as high priest; the other occasions refer to Melchizedek. Then, finally, there are a handful of references to priesthood in 1 Peter and Revelation, which seem to be the only mentions of Christian priesthood (apart from Christ himself) in Scripture - and all of them refer to the priesthood of all Christians. The Bible seem pretty darn clear on this issue, and my own experience confirms (to my satisfaction, anyway) that all followers of Jesus are gifted by the Spirit, blessed with God-given passions, and called to different forms of ministry and mission. So why do we create two classes of disciples?
  • So the existence of "clergy" can allow those who aren't clergy feel like they're off the hook - like they've got somebody else who will do the work of following Jesus (worshiping God, serving neighbors, preaching the gospel, etc.) for them. But what about the clergy themselves? It's been my experience that an awful lot of "pastors" are run ragged by the demands of the rather artificial and extrabiblical role we've constructed for them to inhabit. Part of it has to do with gifting: few people are actually blessed (or saddled) with all the leadership-oriented gifts to the extent that we expect "pastors" to be gifted. (To me, this is not unexpected - Ephesians 5 and other passages indicate that these gifts are given variously to various people, not all to one.) So pastors have to "fake it" in areas where they're not as gifted, which is inherently draining. Part of it is just workload: if one person has to be in charge of everything in a community of any size, how can that not be exhausting? Most larger churches "deal with this" by hiring various associates and assistants and whatnot. Good luck with that. You've spread the exhaustion among a handful of clergy - and maybe a bunch of lay ministers who really "get it" and choose to actively follow Jesus even though it's obviously optional for lay people. (And a huge percentage of the work all these ministers do, typically, is enabling and maintaining programs for the nominal majority, who can see that it's perfectly OK just to show up occasionally and maybe chip in a bit for the high-quality spiritual services they receive.) I know very few clergy who aren't madly overworked. It seems to me that actually expecting to take advantage of the gifts of all community members would take a lot of load off of these over-stressed clergycritters.
So why aren't there more lay-led churches? Why maintain the two-tier class system of lay and clergy? I know of a bunch of reasons, but all of them seem to have to do with the past (historical happenstance) and the present (current clergy need their professional positions and pensions to support their families and pay off their student loans). But what about the future? Are there good reasons to maintain this system on anything remotely approaching the near-universal scale we have now? It's a serious question; if you think there are good reasons, then give me a serious answer, k?

13 March 2008

What I Really Think: #1 - The Word of God

OK. This may be the first in a series in which I attempt to present, in distinctly unCroghanesque fashion, some (potentially controversial?) opinions that I've formed, which I feel secure enough about to present relatively unvarnished, without a lot of qualifying words wrapped around them. That doesn't mean I'm not open to debate or correction or accountability regarding them - quite the contrary - I'm just not going to make you wade through a lot of parenthetical hemming and hawing in order to get to the bits you might want to disagree with. Er - apart from this paragraph, that is. After this, no more hemming and hawing.

So without further disclaimer, here's #1: The Word of God.

I think that Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, God's Son, is the Word of God. (See the first chapter of John.) I think that if we call the Bible the Word of God, and mean by that statement that it has authority approaching that of Jesus himself, then we flirt with a very bad kind of idolatry.

I think that Jesus is the best hermeneutic for interpreting Scripture. In other words, I think that the Old Testament and the rest of the New Testament must be interpreted first and foremost in light of the words and actions of Jesus in the Gospels.

That doesn't mean I think we can lay one jot or tittle of those books aside. The Bible, to me, is our primary witness to the Word of God, Jesus Christ (as well as God the Creator and the Holy Spirit) and that it's inspired by God throughout. I think it's incumbent upon every Christian to wrestle with Scripture and listen deeply for what God is telling us through every sentence - even the hard bits. (Though that message may not always be the surface-level literal meaning of the text.)

I hope and pray that followers of Jesus will be immersed in Scripture every day - but that we will not make of it a graven (or printed or pixel-lit) image. I'm pretty sure God isn't fond of those. I read that in the Bible.

HT: A certain bald wise guy, who got me thinking about this this past weekend when he blew though town, encouraging us to change everything.

If I keep this up, further installments of "What I Really Think" might address topics like, "Pastors", "Church Hierarchies", "What the Church is For", and even "Homosexuality and the Church". Stay tuned, tune out, or talk back. It's all OK by me!

08 March 2008

My church is famous (redux)

The Common Table was mentioned in an article in the Metro section of today's Washington Post. The bit about us is well-reported and includes a nice quote from my friend Deanna. (Note that this makes three of my friends who have been quoted in the Post in the last few weeks. Famous friends, baby. Famous friends. Now I just have to figure out how to ride their coattails, whatever that means.) Our friends at Casa Chirilagua, a Christian neo-monastic community near DC, were also featured in the article.

On top of that, several of us Commoners had the privilege of helping out with one of the worship services for the Interfaith Peace Witness this weekend, and also the Washington, DC stop on Brian McLaren's Everything Must Change / Deep Shift tour. Some of us did a ton of work for these things, but others (such as myself) were mainly temp assistant roadies for the band for both of these events, our friends The Cobalt Season. TCS will also be our guests for Common Table's worship service tomorrow morning at Jammin' Java in Vienna, which will be most awesomely nifty! So please come on by, especially if you happen to a reporter. ;-)

04 March 2008

Tony rox

Here's Tony Jones on the question of being "born again" (HT: The Emergent Village Blog; Tony's being interviewed by a critical pastor named John):
John: Ok, when were you born again?
Tony: But when did I really take on the Lordship of Jesus Christ?
John: Yes that’s… (indistinct)
Tony: You know what? Today, this morning.
John: This morning…every day. Daily.
Tony: Absolutely.
John: Daily, every day. And that’s what you gotta do.
Tony: That’s right.
John: Romans chapter 12.
Tony: That’s not a copout either I’m not like saying that to…“scramble your eggs” in your words, like really truly, I can’t look back on one day and go “that was the day that I took on the Lordship of Jesus Christ in my life.” I can’t. It is an ongoing battle… (indistinct)
John: Is it a daily…
Tony: But for me John, listen, for me it’s a daily…DAILY. I wonder if this whole thing’s a total crock. DAILY. I think, “Is there really a God? Is my whole life based on a hoax?” Every day I make a decision to go one day more. I mean really. I really… I’m agnostic in that sense, in that I…every day I don’t know.
John: I’m sorry.
Tony: No, no I think it’s beautiful. I think it’s a way to live as an intellectually honest person, because God is not a provable commodity. All the evidence in the world does not prove God. It ultimately depends on faith. As the Bible makes ABUNDANTLY clear.
Wow, what a great, honest, true answer (IMHO).

You might want to check out the complete video on the EV blog.

03 March 2008

On being an artist

I don't usually think of myself as an artist. With effort, I can be an OK writer, but in general I think my gifts lie outside what most people tend to think of as artistic endeavors.

However, sometimes I think I'm capable of elevating hypocrisy to the level of a rare masterpiece. I've been known to create works of symmetrical, even recursive hypocrisy. It's very beautiful, if you have the eye to appreciate it.

Absolutely true story: This past Saturday, 1 March. These thoughts go through my head:

"Hmm. There's a pretty good chance, I hear, that a reporter from the Washington Post is going to be at church tomorrow morning. And I'm scheduled to be up front, leading content [sort of like a sermon, only (in my case) with a whole lot more um's and ah's] and celebrating the Eucharist.

"I don't think I should shave.

"I don't want her to think that I'm concerned about appearances."

01 March 2008

Holy shit

I feel like I really ought to reference this, a) because it's horrifying, and b) to balance the tongue-lashing I gave the Episcopal Church (TEC) and its Presiding Bishop a couple of posts back. Please read this article from Episcopal Cafe about Peter Akinola, the African Anglican archbishop who's been encouraging, enabling, and overseeing a lot of the conservative breakaways from TEC, particularly in Northern Virginia. Obviously more facts need to come out about this, but it seems there's some serious reason to believe (based on Akinola's own statements) that he's been supporting malignantly evil anti-Muslim violence in his native Nigeria. I hope the breakaway folks are paying attention, and praying hard about whether they really want to throw in with this man.

And I hope the rest of the Communion is paying attention too. Just because he's got big numbers of followers does not mean that this asshole is the future of the Anglican Communion, and allowing him to influence worldwide Anglican policy the way he apparently does seems to indicate that Anglican Communion leadership is one mother of an oxymoron.