Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Why Church Planting Matters

Jim, left and my partner, Daniel, right.

As First Christian plans its future, a constant among the plans is to leave some money aside for to plant new churches. Both the Senior Pastor and I have made this a priority in what ever decisions are made.

That has been met with some resistance. One person wondered why we weren't spending some of the money on mission. Others have thought the same thing. (It's funny that people all of the sudden care about mission when it comes to using money for church planting.) I'm always a bit angry at the resistance to planting churches. As someone whose position involves mission, I get wanting to support mission, but church planting is part of that mission.

Of course, I have a strong belief in planting new churches, because I planted one. Yes, it failed but it also made a difference in the life of one man, my dear friend Jim.

Jim came from a Catholic and Anglican background, but because he was gay, he never felt welcomed in those churches. When Community of Grace came online, he was able to reconnect with God in a way that continues today.

I don't know if Jim would have come back to the church if it was an existing church. But because there was a new church that welcomed him regardless of his sexuality, he could come on in and meet Jesus.

I know that at First part of the resistance is that many of churches planted by the congregation have since closed. But just because a congregation is no longer in existence that doesn't mean that planting it was in vain. Countless people were able to learn the stories of old, feast at the table, make a baptismal covenant and meet Christ. That matters.

I wonder at times if part of the resistance to new planting new churches comes from what has happened to mainline Protestant churches over the last 50 years. Walter Russell Mead writes that as the fundamentalists/evangelicals split from the modernists in the early 20th century, it was the modernists that ended up much poorer:
In a sense, the mainline churches today suffer because they never took stock of the costs of modernism in quite the same way that evangelicals came to terms with some of the shortcomings and one-sided characteristics of the fundamentalist movement. Beginning really with Billy Graham’s pilgrimage, for two generations evangelicals have been working to free themselves of cultural detritus (culturally determined views on race and on the place of women in society, for example) while holding on to the vital principles of the fundamentalist core — doctrines like original sin, the atonement, and a strong belief that God, however mysteriously, acts in history.

The heirs of the modernists, I fear, have not really had this ‘second stage’ movement. If anything, the most noticeable trend in many mainline denominations has been to go farther down the road of the modernists. Reinhold Niebuhr, a figure who in many ways came closer than any other to the kind of review and renewal that mainline Protestantism needs, would be politically and theologically isolated in the mainline churches today. His stance suggested a rigorous and critical approach to the limits of liberal theology, but that side of his legacy has been largely ignored.

Niebuhr in a sense has had no heirs. His effort to synthesize the core vision of historic Protestantism with a contemporary sensibility did not capture the imagination of subsequent generations of mainline church leaders. The mainline churches seemed to feel that little of value was really lost when the fundamentalists left. The modernists won the fight with the fundamentalists, after all. They ended up with the big buildings, the prestigious and academically well respected theological schools, the patronage of the social elite, the bully pulpits that commanded attention and respect, the control of the denominational machinery. Why look for anything more?

In truth, the split impoverished the mainline churches as much as it did the fundamentalists. Modernity in religion became progressively unglued from the foundations of Protestant faith; the mainline churches lacked the kind of compelling, burning message of faith that would have kept new generations of educated, thoughtful believers engaged in the church. For too many mainline congregations, faith faded into a habit, and the habit faded away.

While many people in the mainline churches continue to live rich and intense spiritual lives, the mainline churches as a group seem to have lost both the urge and the ability to communicate a message of urgency about the need to people to, as the old spirituals put it, “get right with God.” They have lost the ability to make the Christian life and a Christian commitment the vital center of community and family life — even for many of their own members.

Mainline churches have always been good when it comes to social justice, but when it comes to what drives us, the passion of Christian committment, well, not so much. I think part of the reason there seems to be little urgency when it came to church planting is because it seems so old fashioned. We mainliners don't want to look like those fundamentalists, trying to shove their faith down people's throats.

And of course, please have done that. But our approach hasn't been a whole lot better. At times it seems like we have no passion, that we are going through the motions.

This isn't what I'm used to. I grew up in the African American church and I can tell you that they had a lot of passion. And yet, that bothers white mainline Protestants. Yes, the will try to enjoy a black church service, but the urgency, the passion is just not there.

I came accross this post a few weeks ago by Presbyterian pastor John Vest explaining his experience at Presbyterian Youth Triennium:
For the most part, I really enjoyed Triennium. I found a lot of it very inspiring and energizing. I enjoyed meeting and reconnecting with youth ministry friends. It was a great opportunity for me to feel the pulse of Presbyterian youth ministry around the country. Yet, some of it just didn’t connect for me. Though I approached this experience with an open heart and an open mind, I have to say that some of it was just not my cup of tea—and it wasn’t always a great fit for the youth I brought from Chicago.

Part of this is a cultural thing that I think is more regional than anything else. By and large, Chicago Presbyterians are not accustomed to this kind of flashy, semi-evangelical youth conference. I think this is why we have (in my opinion) a hard time putting on Presbytery youth conferences back home: we use this same model but it doesn’t connect with the youth group experiences of most of our churches.

But part of it is also a theological difference, or at least a difference of emphasis—which is probably connected to these regional cultural differences as well. Our kids have not had a lot of exposure to youth that wear Christian t-shirts, listen to Christian music, and “talk the talk” of (semi-)evangelical youth culture. They were a little weirded out by all the screaming and shouting about Jesus. In general, the constant emphasis on Jesus in worship, music, and small groups was more than they are used to.

As a recovering Southern Baptist who used to very much inhabit this culture and who left it for many good reasons, it was all a little more than I was interested in as well. I was most troubled by the music during daily worship. The rock band was excellent. And overall, worship was very creative and was quite inclusive and in some (sometimes subtle) ways progressive. But the music and the music leaders used pretty much exclusively male language to talk about God. Most of the songs were more christocentric than theocentric, and usually really christocentric. There was a whole lot of what I began thinking of as “Jesus, bloody Jesus”: a high christology that was almost exclusively informed by a theology of bloody, sacrificial atonement. This kind of christology was so thick that when Tony Campolo preached about a radical, earthy Jesus (you know, the one we read about in the synoptic gospels) during our final worship service, it almost seemed to me like a different Jesus than the one we had been singing about all week. (You can guess which Jesus I found more compelling.)

All of this stirred within me thoughts I have been having for a while about what I think is an idolatrous attitude toward the worship of Jesus in most circles of the church today. I’ll write more about this later, but here is the tension I felt at Triennium: there seems to be a huge disconnect between the Jewish peasant that preached humility, servanthood, and a paradoxical embrace of power through weakness and 5000 youth in an auditorium using flashy rock music, t-shirts, and signs to worship and exalt a Christ that reigns in power and is somehow involved in every aspect of creation. Would Jesus point to himself in this way, or would he instead point us to God? This, of course, is a sticky question of christology, a question I fully intend to return to. But for now, I have to confess that this kind of Jesus worship just doesn’t seem to me like the kind of thing Jesus lived and died for. If Jesus wanted this kind of worship, he could have asked for it while he was with us.

Now, I get and appreciate the "earthy Jesus" he is talking about. I think it is incredibly important to understand the life of Jesus, not just his death.

But I also understand the "Jesus, bloody Jesus" as well. The life of Jesus tells us how we should live. But it is the death of Jesus that allows us to follow Jesus. Following the earthy, Jewish peasant is something we can do, kinda like I can choose to become a vegetarian. Both are good, but they aren't necessarily passionate. But there's a reason the crucifixion and death of Jesus is called "The Passion." There was emotion involved. It affected people, it changed them. It still does today.

In the African American church, we sing songs that talk a lot about blood, the blood of Jesus. It might seem goulish, but we realize that it was this blood that saved us, that saved us all to be servants to each other. I don't know, but maybe the experience of slavery made us less squeamish about blood and make Christ seem more urgent.

So, what does this little theological trip have to do with church planting? Well, if Jesus is just the earthy prophet, then I don't really see the need to plant churches. Hell, I don't even need a church. I can just give money to an agency and spend time at a soup kitchen. But if Jesus is the One who came and lived among us, cared for the poor, healed the sick, made the blind see and also died for us and rose up to defeat the powers of death, well that sounds a lot more exciting, doesn't it? Kinda like you want to be in church.

Church planting matters because Jesus matters. Jesus changes lives. He brought my friend Jim back to a church. Jesus matters. Let's plant churches.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Children of the Heavenly Father

Yesterday at church, we had a service of lamentation. Two years prior, on August 29, 2008, First Christian Church sold its building the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The congregation, which had went from the owning a building that was completed in 1954, to now being tenants. The hope of the service was to help people grieve that loss and also be able to move forward as a church into a new future in a new location.

The sanctuary was done up with sackcloth and ashes. I was asked to do what I usually do when I'm not preaching, that is to give the invocation. I knew that this had to be something different than the usual invocation. As I was thinking about what to do, an idea struck me to read the words to a hymn. It's a hymn that I didn't grow up with, but I've become familiar with it because I dated two Lutheran men of Swedish heritage. I think I remember my friend and former boyfriend Erik talking about the song, and I know that my partner Daniel definitely knew the song. The song is "Children of the Heavenly Father." Daniel's family has had that hymn sung at weddings (including our own) and at funerals (including the death of his mother several years ago). It seemed to be song that one sang to remind people that God is with them all the time. The history of the song is that the writer Carolina Sandell-Berg was the daughter of a Lutheran minister. She saw her father fall off and boat and drown to his death. Out of the sadness of that tragedy came this song. It's a song of mourning, but also of assurance.

I was going to read the words, but something said these words needed to be sung. So, I did something I don't usually do: sing alone, in public. I don't think I have that good of a voice to be singing solo, but I did. I think in the time of sadness and apprehension of the future, it's good to be reminded that God is with us and we are there for each other.

This is what Garrison Keillor had to say about singing this song:

Garrison Keillor: “I once sang the bass line of Children of the Heavenly Father in a room with about three thousand Lutherans in it; and when we finished, we all had tears in our eyes, partly from the promise that God will not forsake us, partly from the proximity of all those lovely voices. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other.”


You can read the lyrics by clicking on the link.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Gift of Failure

[caption id="attachment_8" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="A pic of me from my Community of Grace days, circa 2006."][/caption]

It's been a few years since I ended the ministry of Community of Grace Christian Church.  For those not in the know, I helped launch a new church back in 2004.  It had a shaky start, and then pretty much went downhill from there.  Long story short, it was a failed church start.   By 2007, I was tired and frustrated.  I decided it was time to let this failing ministry die.

The resulting weeks and months after the closing were pretty had for me.  I felt anger and shame.  Most of all, I felt that I had failed.

As I look back over the last few years, I've started to see that maybe there was some good that came out of failure.  Knowing what not to do as a church, has really helped me in my current call.

In our society, we like to say that failure is not an option.  But the fact is, we do fail.  Sometimes we are not going to hit the mark.  Sometimes we will miss it by a country mile.  But the fact is, sometimes we will fail.

And when  we do fail, we then feel the shame of falling short.  But we try to cover up our shame and want to blame others.  We don't want people to see us hurt, to see our pain.  Church can be a cold place and if people see our hurt, it can be like blood in the water to some in the pews.

The funny thing is that Jesus knew failure as well.  Good Friday is the day that God failed.  Yes, I know this was the thing that gave us freedom, but it was also a crushing blow.  Here was Jesus trying to preach and heal and in the end, he gets crucified like common thief.  He was supposed to be the guy who would bring salvation and he couldn't even save himself.

In the end, Jesus understands when we fail.  God is right there with us.  I don't know if it gets rid of the shame, but it sure makes it damn easier.  And it makes those Easter moments all the more sweeter.

So, I'm thankful that I failed.

...though, I don't want to make a habit of it. :)

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Post Where I Say Hello

This is my first post on my new blog, A Pastor Named Questor.  For five years, I did my religious blogging over at Oscar the Pastor.  Then in 2008, I was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, a form of autism and started blogging about autism as well.  After a while, it seemed that Oscar had outlived its usefulness, so I decided to start a new blog that incorporated talking about faith, talking about being gay and African American and about being on the spectrum.

And the result is this new blog.

So, what's with the name and the sharp-dressed robot in the header?  Well both come from my love of science-fiction television and being autistic.  Questor was the name of an android that was the subject of a movie called the Questor Tapes.  It was developed by Gene Roddenberry, the same guy that created Star Trek.  The movie was supposed to be the start of a new series, but it never turned out that way.  Throughout the movie Questor is learning what it means to be human.  He has a friend that is trying to help him learn the ropes. Questor is also someone that observes what's going on in life.

In some way, I've identified with androids and robots.  I'm constantly having to learn how the rest of the world operates and it can leave me at times confused about things.  And like Questor, as well as Roddenberry's other android, Data I do a lot of observation on what is going on.  In many ways, I'm still trying to figure out how humans operate and how to make my way in the world.

Which makes being an Associate Pastor really fascinating.

So, sit back and enjoy!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Why Should the Devil Have All The Good Music?

Over at Scot McKnight's blog is a guest post about Contemporary Christian music. It's an interesting read, as are some of the responses. During my high school and college years in the 80s and early 90s, I listened to a lot of Christian music. As I got older, I started heading more towards secular music. These days, I will ocassionally stop over at iTunes to see what's happening in the Christian and Gospel catagory. To be honest, not much.

Now, this is not one of those post by a mainline Protestant that rips on anything that is evangelical. It's just that a lot of the stuff I try to listen to at times isn't that good. Now, this could be a sign of age. There is a lot of secular pop and rock that I don't care for, either. As a guy in his 40s, you always think the stuff of your youth is better.

For me, probably some of the best Christian music is from the late 80s, when artists like Amy Grant and Russ Taff were writing some great music that was deeply personal and confessional in nature. I still think Amy Grant's Lead Me On, which came out in 1988, was one of her best albums every. The late Rich Mullins also put out some great music during that era. Steve Taylor was able to tackle such issues as racism and abortion on his new wave albums. And Charlie Peacock? Just excellent, pure crafted pop that was lyrically raw and honest.

So what about today's stuff? I don't know. I listen to some of it, but it tends to all sound the same. Now, I can say that also about a lot of secular stuff as well. Maybe, it is age, but I kinda miss the old music that seemed to have some passion and originality. It all seems kinda manufactured.

I think this guy who commented said it best:
I grew up in a typical evangelical family. Secular music was not listened too, especially in my pre- and early teen years. So people like dc Talk ,Audio Adrenaline, and pretty much anything on a WoW album were my main music sources. As I got older the restraints on my music were lessened over time. Which was great because I love music. I love it so much that I decided to go to school for it.

I go to to a liberal arts university, even though my hopes are to be a music pastor. The stuff I have learned has completely put music in a new perspective for me. It has opened my eyes to how amazing music can be. However, now I am saddened by how crappy Christian music has become. There are so many possibilities for music and Christian music uses only .0002% of those possibilities. I really don't listen to any christian music besides worship music. So I decided to hop on iTunes and find some good new Christian music...I literally looked for almost 2 hours to find a band that didn't sound like a previous one. Their unfortunately was no musician that had an ounce of originality.

Every band that are christians, that in my opinion I deem as good, aren't signed to a christian label. I think Hillsong United stuff rocks out more and is more original than the crap that is being put out by Christian bands and they're technically a worship band. I don't want to be completely cynical because I believe there is hope. I want Christians to go deeper than what others are doing.

I believe God gave us art to express who we are as individuals and who were in Christ. Christian musicians rarely tap into that.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Anne Rice and Christianity

It's been a few days since author Anne Rice made her big statement on Facebook about how she was quitting Christianity.  She basically says she can't deal with some of the so-called "antis:"

I quit being a Christian. I'm out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of ...Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen .

There have been positive reviews of Rice's reasons for leaving the faith, with some (like Doug Pagitt and Brian McLaren even saying that they had thought of leaving the faith at one point or another for the very same reasons.

I don't want to make light of Rice's concerns. There have been a lot of people that have been hurt by Christians. The Church has done a lot of bad things in the name of Christ.

And yet, I keep thinking that Rice's reasons for leaving Christianity are pretty superficial. As Rod Dreher has noted:

I'm sorry, but this is weak, and makes me wonder what really happened. Surely a woman of her age and experience cannot possibly believe that the entirety of Christianity, current and past, can be reduced to the cultural politics of the United States of America in the 21st century. Does she really know no liberal Christians? Has she never picked up a copy of Commonweal? Does she really think that if she asked a Christian on the streets of Nairobi or Tegucigalpa what they, as Christians, thought of Nancy Pelosi, they would have the slightest idea what she was talking about? And Christianity, anti-science? Good grief. Has she not noticed that Catholic Church, to which she did belong until yesterday, has affirmed evolution, and embraces science? How can a woman of her putative sophistication really think that Christianity is nothing more than a section of the Republican Party at prayer?

To be clear, I (of all people!) do not wish to judge harshly people who have lost their faith. But to lose it over something as groundless and as trivial as the reasons she's given? Please. And if she's determined not to join a quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious group, she'd better stay away from religion, from politics, from, well, humanity. Because that's how we are.

Rice makes the claim that the church is filled with people who are quarrelsome, divisive and bigoted. All true. But the fact is, it has been from the beginning.

In the gospels, Jesus leaves his ministry to his disciples. Now, the disciples were not the cream of the crop. I mean, if I were Jesus, I would not consider handing over the ministry to these idiots. Let's take Peter for example. Peter was basically bigoted against anyone that wasn't Jewish and God basically had to hit him over the head to tell him to go and minister to a Gentile.

God might have made a mistake in handing over the ministry of Christ to flawed humans, but that is what happened. For two millenia, we have had churches taking care of the poor and going on crusades. We have had them bless slavery and work to abolish it. The good and the bad live together.

The church is not perfect and if we expect perfection, we can expect to be sorely dissapointed.

I can't look into Ms. Rice's mind, but I wonder if she was expecting a perfect church were there was no homophobia or where everyone is pro-choice. And what really makes me mad is that she seems to not notice that there are liberal Christians out there, let along gay Christians.

As a gay man and an African American, I have every right to want to leave Christianity. The church has not always been kind to gays or to blacks. That said, I stay in the church because I believe in a God that loves me because of who I am and because I have met Christians who have shown their love of me regardless of me being gay or being black.

But then, my faith is bigger than someone's position on stem cell research or abortion. I want to be in Christian fellowship with someone, even someone I might disagree with on issues, because that person is a sister or brother in Christ; and I will pray with them regardless of where they stand in the culture wars.

I think Erik Kain is on the right track when he says:

Rice left her Vampire novels behind her when she returned to Catholicism and wrote a pair of fictional biographies of Christ. Then, in 2008, she wrote a memoir – Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession – explaining her return to her faith after years of spiritual wandering. Now, just a couple years later, she’s so troubled by the sexual abuse scandals in the Church – scandals which aren’t exactly new or post-2008 at any rate – that she can no longer believe in Christ? She’s so troubled by the anti-gay elements in Christianity that she can no longer believe that Jesus Christ is her savior? She should talk to all the gay Christians out there.

This just seems horribly superficial to me. I suppose it’s possible that Rice never really understood her faith to begin with. I suppose when politics and the culture war become everything – including how we’re received in our various social scenes – then God really does become little more than a piece of clothing, worn for a bit until it goes out of fashion, then easily discarded.

My faith in Christ, my reasons to go to church and work with my sisters in brothers, is about trying to live out the Christian faith the best way I can: in service to others, learning to love the stranger, learning to love the enemy, learning to forgive and living in God's grace. Faith isn't about adherance to a checklist, but it is a relationship with God and each other.

There will be folks who will want to keep my out of the church for being gay. They can try, but they can't take away my faith. It's too bad Ms. Rice allowed hers to be taken away so easily.