Archive for the ‘church is not an industry’ Category
Sermons built on questions only inflame the faithful
It’s the philosopher’s job to ask uncomfortable questions. They don’t take ideology as a given. They question ideology—that is forever the philosophical task. Some philosophers reading this would say “Yes, and what do you mean by ‘pastor’ and who/what is ‘God’”? That’s fair and a reasonable line of questioning. Certainly worth examining.
But say a philosopher has satisfied herself there is a God. And say that philosopher has a commitment to the God revealed in the Bible (yes there are such people). Can she pastor others? Can he serve as a shepherd? Can she speak sermons that have questions rather than answers?
No. At least not to our typical congregations. People come to church for comfort and to be told they are going the right direction. To offer the food of questions is to deny parishioners the happy holy feeling they paid for when the offering plate passed by.
But honestly, can a pastor be anything less than a philosopher? Because the claims of Jesus (to start there, for instance) are so wildly outlandish as to call into question the threads of daily existence. For instance, this notion of turning the other cheek to the one who just slapped you—it’s completely nutty stuff. Unless it is actually meant to be worked out in daily life. Unless it says something crazy deep about each and every interaction we have. To treat Jesus’ words as ideology only—as some exalted religious state—and to not examine them further in the crucible of daily life is step forward with 75% of your brain shut off.
And that’s no good. That’s no way to live.
It’s also true that most philosophers don’t abide the preacher’s art of packaging things in tidy simple packages that are easily understood. Questions don’t often fit those boxes: they bump against corners and lids with their labored back story and brief histories of how others have asked them. That’s tedious stuff that rarely fits into three alliterative points.
Which is not to say philosophers should not pay attention to packing their thoughts so they become mind-ready. They should and many do. But philosophers mostly cannot escape the orbit of the questions themselves.
I think philosophers don’t make good pastors. But I hope to stumble on such a being at some point in my existence.
What’s on the other side of imperial Christianity?
How do you think of church? Many readers of this blog find the church experience painful and reductive: at best irrelevant. At worst, dangerous agitprop. Other readers soar. I’ve been on both sides and I prefer soaring.
Church is an institution forged from a less-than-stable amalgam: people and Other. People are the weak link. But people can also surprise.
On several occasions I have written critically about church (like here and here and here and here plus about a dozen other places on this blog—just type “church” in to the Search bar to the right). For me lately, most churches resemble all the other CEO-driven marketing machines in our culture. But this marketing machine sits at the local level pulling in spectator-consumers to fund the local brand.
Yes that sounds cynical.
But just read through the New Testament and compare the multi-voiced organizations that sprung up with any of the big box affairs we love in this country. Those small communities in the text were chock full of the risen Christ and were spinning changed participants out (and back in and out and in. And out). Notice that growing spectators was not their goal and participation in shaping the organization and experience was expected.
But this book makes me less cynical: The Naked Anabaptist. Tracing a history back to the sixteenth century dissenters (who died for taking Jesus seriously, often at the hands of reformers), the book gives a fresh take on our waning years of Christendom (that is, the curious intertwining of culture, power and religion that started with Constantine in the 4th century establishing Christianity as the state religion and continued to today, give or take).
Many lament the loss of cultural power of Christianity in the U.S.
My reading of the gospels puts the poor and weak and needy at the center of what Jesus intended. His was/is an ethic markedly different from the mandates we pursue that force a top-down approach. And The Naked Anabaptist hints at what the church could look like if it were not a univocal marketing machine. Murray’s seven core convictions lay out a compelling picture. And it is not a picture with one pastor/president/CEO at the top. The book probably gives more shortcuts to Anabaptist thinking that some Anabaptists would be comfortable with, but it is thought-provoking and vision-building.
Woodland Hills in Saint Paul, Minnesota is considering joining the ranks of Anabaptists. The church came to the conclusion after realizing the kinship they had with the doctrines. But I wonder: can a mega-church be a multi-voiced church?
Messaging that Walks Then Talks
I’m not a Roman Catholic sort of guy, still I find myself drawn to the early descriptions of this tango-driven, Argentinian man-for-the-poor Pope. His actions—catching a crowded mini-van to dinner, hoisting his luggage while paying his hotel bill, crowding into elevators and stairways with everyone else—illustrate some new thing. This new thing looks closer to people and sympathetic rather than distant, academic (in the fusty, out-of-touch sense) and authority-driven. The Roman Catholic Church remains an immense hierarchy with all sorts of problems, but this new thing looks positive.
I like that he wants the organization to get back to evangelism. That seems like he is peering into the right well, looking back at the roots. If he had asked me about repositioning the church (still waiting for the call), I could point in no better direction.
Of course, all sorts of bad, coercive, manipulative, openly evil things have been done under the guise of evangelism. But at its best—and it gets hard to strip away the muck accumulated over centuries—Christ’s message of redemption carried by people who are themselves changed, is transformative.
So. Bravo for pointing back to the roots, Pope Francis.
How we pursue power over others
I watched The Master because I was interested in Scientology. I’m not sure how much I learned about Scientology from The Master, but I did see an able portrayal of glib salesmanship and a nifty, nimble made-up religion. And I did see one writer who found a way to sell lots of books, despite the ethical chasm of painting fiction as reality. I did see people who bought in because it fit the way they wanted to see the world. It’s a dark picture and moody. And depressing.
I also just finished Jesus Land, by Julia Scheeres which shows a similar nifty, nimble made-up religion (this one a sad, dark aberration from Christianity). Scheeres’ memoir chronicles growing up in the 70s with abusive, hypocritical parents and power-mad religionists.
There’s nothing like seeing things through the eyes of the resident teenager to unfurl the hypocrisy in a family. You want to hate the parents for their push for outward form even as they undermined their kid’s confidence and ability with ridiculous rules and expectations. And beatings. And micromanagement. And withholding of affection.
As someone who knows that dark side of Christianity is truly an aberration and not at all the entire story, I am so sorry Ms. Scheeres and others had that experience. And I am equally sorry those experiences sent them running the other way. I certainly understand why.
Many of my friends and likely many reading this will disagree, but I encourage anyone to read through Scheeres’ portrayal of a life where texts and disciplines are wrenched out of context and used as dark and potent weapons. The book is useful if for nothing else than to examine our own habits of turning powerful positive messages to gain power over others.
Both Jesus Land and The Master revolve around made-up religions that are nimble in that they change to suit whatever the leader needs to accomplish. In The Master, Lancaster Dodd is literally writing his new religion as we watch and changing it as he goes. People notice this. He doesn’t care. But his principles are both abusive and entirely without moorings. In Jesus Land, the parents and leaders pick and choose quotes from the Bible to make their point and exert power over the teens. Again—they are blind to having lost the integrity of the message and the ancient moorings that would help them. I can think of half a dozen organizations started in the 70’s that cherry picked Bible passages to make their own aberration of Christianity. At the time, few of us thought to say, “Hey. Stop that.”
Some reading this will say: “But isn’t that the whole point of religion: to make up a set of rules so as to gain power over others?” I appreciate this perceptive comment and it does seem to be true, except that those ancient moorings and understandings can serve to curb the excesses of our current “isms” (whether fundamentalism, evangelicalism, Christian nationalism or whatever). There remains something much, much deeper to explore.
Jesus Land is worth reading, though not at all easy. The Master left me wishing for less.
I am, maybe, the ultimate Protestant, the man at the end of the Protestant road, for as I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temple into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here.
Well, you can read and see what you think.
(Jayber Crow, Chapter 29)
What’s The Impact of One Life?
Different people stand out at different times in your life. Ken Kellenberg was one of those stand-out people for me, at a specific time when I was making all sorts of life choices. Ken died last Sunday.
I met Ken in college. He was the founder of a free-form church on the edge of the University of Wisconsin—Madison campus. Faith Community Church was just beginning to shape-shift and every Sunday looked different from the previous. Some days the gathering was raucous. Some days quiet. Some days a theme bubbled up through the words and prayers and thoughts shared. But every week was unscripted and very different from the previous week. There was no formula.
Every week was unforgettable—and quite possibly poisoned me for the many feeble prescriptive gatherings I’ve been part of since.
Ken and I met a few times toward the end of my undergrad days and he offered advice about jobs and faith and relationships. Ken also performed the ceremony that united Mrs. Kirkistan and I in marriage (Behold: 27+ years ago).
Once Mrs. Kirkistan and I we were passing through London on the way to or from somewhere and stopped to talk with Ken and Natalie. They were characteristically open about reservations with the particular organization with which they were working. I had some experience with the organization so we had a rich and memorable conversation.
It was Ken’s openness that retained my attention. The sharing of doubts and questions, the refusal to set out a formula. The desire to be present in the relationship and situation and to listen and to pray—these are things I learned from Ken.
Over at Men of Hope they are talking about people who have influenced them. I hope they don’t wait until their influencer has died to consider the full story.
Ken, I wish I could have said good-bye.
You’ve meant a lot, friend.
Conversations to engage a generation of questioners
There’s a telling line in the recent story of Rob Bell in The New Yorker (“The Hell-Raiser”), where the author Kelefa Sanneh conjectured that in writing “Love Wins,” Bell was “dreaming of a world a world without arguments—as if the right book, written the right way, would persuade Christians to stop firing Bible verses at each other and start working to build Heaven on earth.” (60) Conjecture about what others are dreaming is often problematic. But Sanneh, like the rest of us, take our cues from what others say and write, which is standard operating procedure for human communication events. Conjecture is always fair game for conversation.
There’s a lot the author gets right in the article and there are a few places with loaded language and mashed-up history. For instance, the notion that the “church matured” (60) out of the notion of Hell as a physical place is too loose a summary to really work. Debates about interpretation rage today, from all quarters.
Sanneh’s focus on how a preacher became a questioner among a people who do not respond generously to larger questions makes for interesting reading. These are my people and I confess that I too have responded without generosity too many times. And yet these larger questions are exactly the conversational fuel that can help move forward this often awkward project called the church. Especially because the generations behind me are increasingly wed to questions rather than dogmatic answers.
Much of what Bell wrote resonates with me. In particular, I’m smitten by this notion that people can talk—even about very deeply held things—without demonizing or judging each other. The notion reminds me of those noble people who early in the history of the church were in conversation with the inveterate letter writer. They eagerly heard what he had to say then examined it on their own to decide whether it was true or not. I imagine them discussing with authoritative texts and possibly disagreeing, but maintaining their relationships.
Bell has done us a great service by voicing these questions, even though the penalties for him have been high.
Image Credit: The New Yorker
Good for biking. Not good for marriage. Not good for collaboration.
We’ve spent the last five or six years coasting in a church. From the very beginning, we looked for places and situations where we could use our gifts and talents, where we could put our shoulder to the work and help the vision move forward. But in the end we just couldn’t break into the right spot where usefulness meets need meets a bigger-picture purpose. Now as we look for a people with whom we can fully engage, I realize I was coasting far longer than I ever meant to.
Except for biking, coasting is not a good place to exist. Just passively taking things in and waiting for stuff to happen is no way to attend any job, any relationship, any organization. Coasting in a marriage smells like doom. Coasting in life is no plan at all.
There are hopeful signs: last time we looked for a church, we just wanted to escape the groupthink of evangelical Republicanism. We achieved that. In the meantime we did a lot of good sorting out of this notion of church, how it is an awkward marriage of human structure and something completely Other. Something Other with far bigger plans than policing morality (though we do need help with this) or weekly showcasing a few people’s talents or developing sentimental religious feelings.
The hopeful thing I’m starting to observe is that people of faith are exhibiting behavior that makes me think a relationship with God looks like good work and fair treatment of others in the workplace. The hopeful thing is seeing people with a generous devotion to God that looks like pleasure with other people. This hopeful thing looks a pursuit of chesed rather than amassing more stuff or more fame or attention.
I’ve met people like this recently. People who are not coasting. That makes me hopeful.
I doubt it would look like church.
There might be preaching, but no pulpit. And no audience. If God showed up, the preacher might be the unknown worker silently speaking with deeds, deep inside a process, attending every detail. The example of some human serving in a hidden way that was not meant to be seen.
If God showed up, someone might float an idea in a meeting, an idea that was not politically motivated or meant to show how smart they were. Just an idea to help the group move forward.
If God showed up, all the gossipy chatter might be silenced—all that vindictive, energy-sapping talk about so-and-so that goes on all day every day.
If God showed up, maybe we’d see why we worked there in the first place. And maybe we’d decide this job costs way more than it pays. And we’d quit.
If God showed up today, what would your work look like?
There is only conviction and thinking and prayer and conversation.
I’m reminded of the paradoxes of the old culture wars. A couple decades ago when politics were just as heated and dialogue just as rare, Mrs. Kirkistan and I lived in a rough section of South Minneapolis. People of faith in our community—I’ll call them Christians—routinely voted “for” Democrats. Given the particular demographic quirks of the area, it was easy to understand why those candidates did better. For a variety of reasons (economic, housing, vision, spiritual) we ended up moving miles away. We eventually found ourselves at a large suburban church where the assumption was that everyone voted “for” Republicans. Mind you, much of this was never said aloud. It was all just assumed.
After all, Republicans were anti-abortion and that’s where God hangs out—right?
After all, Democrats cared for the poor and that’s where God hangs out—right?
The danger of litmus-test thinking is that it promises some clear, unassailable answer: the candidate is this or the candidate isn’t this. Case closed.
I argue that leadership is and always has been about more than one thing. There is no litmus test because the human condition is complex and society and culture are exponentially complex. And while I’m certain God is all about creating life, the Creator is also bent on sustaining life, so listening to the poor, the widow and the orphan take up a lot of column-inches in our common, ancient text. But even those are not litmus-like tests, because which party will actually do those things best?
I’m hoping the faith communities around the country will have conversations that help their members vote not according to some mandate from a culture-wars war-room, but instead according their growing convictions from dealing with texts, from conversation and from prayer.
It’s time the church led by being counter-culture.
Image via thisisn’thappiness