Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Worship Just Might Save the UMC [Real Food 03]

Today we finish our series on moving together into the future as the United Methodist Church. We've looked at what won't help us, discussed the problems we're facing, de-bunked the idea of "saving" the Church, and now we look forward. Two weeks ago, we focused outward in mission. Last week, we focused inward on spiritual formation. This week, we focus "upward", so to speak: on God. First, let me begin by reminding us that God really isn't "up" in the sense that God is not always far above us, far removed from our lives. God is with us always, wherever we are, and in the person of the Holy Spirit, dwells within us. But I say we are focusing upward because in worship, we become aware of a transcendent Reality that is greater than ourselves.

There are lots of reasons to worship, but one that is important for the purpose of this discussion is that worship is usually the first environment in which new folks encounter our church. It's likely all that others will experience of who we are. Different churches do worship in different ways. And we have noted that using a particular worship style is not a silver bullet for our problems. So what are the traits that our worship services can embody that might help us as we open ourselves to the future? I propose three:

Excellent worship is invitational. Worship that is invitational easily welcomes folks who come in and draws them into the life of the church.  Newcomers find a clear blueprint of the service and easy access to hymnals and Bibles to follow along (or a professionally done, well-executed PowerPoint) to lead them through the service. But being invitational doesn't just mean being user-friendly. Regular attenders are invited to become more committed in their spiritual lives and church involvement. And everyone who comes is drawn into the presence of God.

Another element of excellent worship is that it's done genuinely and from the heart. The service is not contrived and participants don't seem like they're putting on a show. The church represents itself as itself, and folks are genuinely friendly and welcoming. Members neither tackle newcomers with enthusiasm not put them on the spot or in a situation in which they feel scrutinized or pressured. At Harvard-Epworth, we ask those who are present for the first time to introduce themselves, but we do not require it, and we use language that makes it a low-pressure exercise.

One reason why I think this trait is so important as we move into the future is that members of my generation can smell fake a mile away, as this blogger illustrates well in her Letter the The Church From My Generation. We can tell when folks are putting on a show or trying to show us a certain persona in hopes we will accept them. Let me reassure you that people my age are not coming to church so we can judge you; actually, we're hoping you won't judge us! We're not looking for perfect. We're just looking for who you really are. When I discussed the Church's credibility problem, I noticed the differences between what the Church teaches and what its leaders do. Friends, you don't help matters if you act differently just to try to impress people! After all the trainings borrowed from mega-churches in which we are told do to this or that in order to attract people and get them to come back, this can be hard to believe. But seriously, be yourself.

The last attribute of excellent worship is the it is beautiful. Beauty naturally draws people into God's presence because it emulates God's perfect beauty. Beautiful worship is a small foretaste of the Divine on what would otherwise be an ordinary day. And it doesn't have to be a big production: beauty is often found in simplicity. Worship, when done well, can be beautiful regardless of the worship style used.

This guy makes a case that traditional churches should stick to traditional worship. His argument is that it takes a lot of resources and talent to do contemporary worship well, and half-baked, poorly executed attempts at it distract worshipers. Rather than transport worshipers into God's presence, services of any type that are not done well actually make folks so uncomfortable that they can't worship. I've been in many a service like this, and I have to say I agree. Think of how awkward it would be if a pastor of a laid-back, contemporary service attempted a traditional service without the gravitas and liturgical background to execute it well. Whatever the worship style used, it should be done well. Even if I go to a church that has a different worship style than what I prefer, if worship is done well, I can appreciate it.

Whether worship is casual or formal, traditional or contemporary, simple or ornate, it can be done well with a little forethought and attention to detail. Notice the deportment of those who are in front of the congregation. Do they stand up straight and move with purpose and intention? If they are reading something, are they using good vocal inflection and pace? Do the parts of worship flow together well, or do the transition moments seem disjointed? A little attention to how the parts of the service are introduced and carried out can make a lot of difference in the quality of a worship service.

Whatever the qualities of the service and faith community, worship can be excellent in any congregation. If it's invitational, genuine, and beautiful, your church's worship service will attract new folks. And it will help you to keep your own Christian life in perspective as you go out to do God's mission in the world.

So there you have it: how to save the UMC (well, not really). In case you haven't noticed, my prescription for fixing the Church is BEING the Church. As long as we do what we're here to do, and try our best to thoughtfully grapple with the issues of being the Church in this new society, we will survive. Better than that, we will survive- eventually. There may be a difficult road ahead of us, but we know that Christ is on that road with us every step of the way, and we are on this road together as a people of God. Church, it's gonna be OK. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Focusing on Spritiual Formation Just Might Save the UMC [Real Food 02]

Last week, we looked at mission as one thing we can do to "save" the UMC: that is, to help us weather the cultural storm in which we find ourselves and come out on the other side having been Christ for the world. But while mission is life-giving by invigorating our Christian life and imparting it with meaning, it can also be physically or emotionally tiring. Each month before I help lead our sandwich ministry among my homeless neighbors, I "charge up" emotionally and spiritually. I prepare my heart to meet whomever I will met, however I will meet them, and wherever they are in life. This usually involves reflection, an inner re-orientation toward others, and an awareness of things in the environment that might be affecting my street-dwelling neighbors on that particular day. Often I do something quiet and reflective before I go out. Likewise, folks who go on work trips must prepare themselves mentally and physically, and take care not to strain themselves at the beginning of the trip so that they can complete the work they went to do.

The types of preparation for ministry I just described are more specific to a certain situation or event. What about weekly mission participation? How does one prepare for that? One way to prepare, or charge up, to be in mission is to practice regular spiritual formation. 

 Everybody raised in the church knows that if you "read your Bible, pray every day, then you'll grow, grow, grow" but if you don't, you'll "shrink, shrink, shrink". But many of us did not grow up reading the Bible each day or even (gasp!) each week, even in Sunday School. How does one establish a spiritual practice or set of spiritual practices? Well, first we can look at some different types of spiritual practices. There are diverse ways to connect with God in our everyday lives. I would say that anything that helps you re-center, reflect, and pray counts as a spiritual practice. All spiritual practices employ mindfulness, which is being aware of your surroundings and focusing only on what you are doing right then (not writing a mental grocery list or planning your errands). Mindfulness helps you to slow down, focus on the present, and reflect. Here are some spiritual practices you might want to try:
  • Walking in nature: many people feel closer to God when they take walks or spend time in nature. You can find a guide to being mindful on using nature walks here, which can help you use thm as a spiritual practice.
  • Yoga, Zumba, or whatever physical activity helps you center and clear your mind
  • Prayer: practicing silence, using breath prayers, walking a labyrinth, or using prayer beads
  • Fasting: this practice is not for everyone, especially when it comes to fasting from food. You may need a fast from online media or even social networks if you realize they are taking up too much time and energy in your life or if disturbing news is upsetting you.
  • Lectio Divina: this is the practice of praying the Bible and is a very useful way of listening to the Holy Spirit. You can find an online Lectio Divina guide here.
  • Devotional reading: try to pick reading that is deep rather than wide, and is time-tested. Here are some suggestions:
  • Singing: this practice requires mindful breathing and focus on the text being sung. If this practice works for you, try going to CUMC's Taize service or joining the Chancel Choir.
The more you know yourself, the better able you will be to select spiritual practices that work for you. For instance, I'm not a huge fan of the woods, and I have trouble sitting still, so nature walks and sitting in silence might be things that would frustrate me rather than help me. My good friend, Joy, loves to hike, so nature walks would be a good practice for her.  I also don't do well when I haven't eaten, so fasting from food is a bad idea for me. Labyrinths and singing do help me focus, though, and fasting from social media can be helpful if I'm feeling a sensory overload. Which practices you choose to use depend on your temperament and interests. If you're a young person who's still getting to know yourself, you might try many different practices to see what works for you. If it helps you re-connect with God, great. If not, don't feel guilty about letting it go.

Lectio Divina and devotional reading can work for lots of different folks, and I highly recommend both practices. If you are interested in them, you might want to have a conversation with Pastor Jane, who specializes in prayer. She has extensive knowledge of Christian devotional literature and can help you find a book that works for you.

Two more spiritual practices used by Protestants are Fellowship and Learning. As Methodists, we come from a heritage of people who love to learn, and who love to get together and have a good meal! While we can't have a potluck every week, Sunday School combines fellowship and learning for many people. If you aren't involved in a Sunday School class, I encourage you to try it. If your Sunday School class could be diving deeper into the Bible or devotional literature, suggest it. The more you engage in learning our Good Book and spiritual tradition, the more your faith will be transformed. Sometimes it can take a lot of effort, but it's worth the time and energy because ultimately it feed our souls and results in a beautiful new creation inside us.

Spiritual practices are, in my opinion, the counter-balance to mission in the Christian life. One is focused outward and one is focused inward. Both are necessary for a balanced and healthy spiritual life. When you include both in your life of faith, and you strike the right balance between the two, I think you'll find the peace that passes understanding.

Moreover, Churches full of spiritually healthy people will transform the UMC. When folks get to know us, they will be able to sense a deep spirituality within us. That trait is attractive to a lot of people, especially in our time of manic busyness and competition for achievement. There's a lot of empty striving in our culture now, and many people feel anxious and even alienated. When they meet someone with deep spirituality, they can sense groundedness and peace, which is the antidote to today's malaise. Part of transforming the world as Christians can be showing folks a new way of being that is Spirit-centered instead of achievement-centered.

So we've looked at focusing out and in, but what about up? To focus upward, toward the Divine, we go to worship. In worship, we focus on God for the sake of focusing on God. That is the element of "saving" the Church that we will examine next week. Come back next time for the last installment in our series: worship!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Focusing on Mission Might Just Save the UMC [Real Food 01]

In the first part of this series, I used diet pseudo-food to represent food that isn't real food- it's full of chemicals and doesn't satisfy us. What should I use for real food? I found this image by doing an image search for "Catholic Worker Farm". I think it fits. :) In case you are wondering about the Catholic Worker Movement and what a Catholic Worker Farm is, you can read an interesting article, "Taking Root", about the movement's history and what the farms are doing today.

I begin with this image because Catholic Workers devote their lives to mission. Last week we talked about things we can do to adapt to changes in our society and attitudes in our culture that are reducing the number of people who come to worship and participate in our ministries. I have argued that we need to stop talking and start doing. Where do we start? Mission!

The UMC has never really stopped doing mission. Our United Methodist Women and the General Board of Global Ministries have steadfastly been in mission for a long time- UMW members have been doing mission since 1869! But in recent years, movements that focus on spiritual formation and church growth (which sometimes have been less about mission and more about marketing) have shifted the emphasis in the way ordinary Christians practice their faith on a day-to-day basis. Now is the time to re-commit to practicing mission. I say "practicing mission" because I believe mission is a spiritual practice and it's a part of what it means to be Christian- to "practice" our faith.

What is mission, anyway? As Christians, we have been sent into the world to do Christ's mission in it: "Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ " (John 20:21). I think it's no mistake that Jesus sent us into mission right after he said, "Peace be with you". Mission is the work of bringing about God's peaceable reign on earth: the Kingdom of God. When the angels announced the birth of Jesus, they proclaimed "Peace on earth and goodwill to all people". That initial Gospel proclamation is what we continue today when we do mission. The Greek word for Gospel is euangelion, which you may recognize as the root of evangelism. Euangelion means "Good News". When the New Testament uses euangelion as a verb, it is directly translated as "be Good Newsing". When Jesus traveled through the countryside doing acts of mercy, with his disciples in tow, he was Good Newsing. Thus mission is the doing of Christ-likeness in the world, and the Christians are a people who are sent in mission. "As a fire is meant for burning, so the Church is meant for mission", writes Ruth Duck (The Faith We Sing 2237). If we are not in mission, we are missing the point of the Christian life!

As Jesus Christ was Good Newsing, so we also must be Good Newsing. What does that look like? According to Dr. Dana Robert, our church missiologist, there are five different models of mission in the United Methodist Church. Every local church employs each of these models at different times. Which one we should use at any given time depends on the context and the needs of individuals in the present situation. They are:

1. Hospitality: not just coffee hour and offering a bulletin- this is a radical welcome to those who are different from us (the "Other").
2. Christian Presence: simply being present with others without necessarily speaking the name of Christ. Stephen Ministers are a good example of this model of mission.
3. Evangelism: speaking the Gospel of Christ*
4. Ecumenism: building relationships with Christians outside our denomination and with people who practice different religions*
5. Serving with the poor: volunteering at food banks, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, ect.

*In the last 50 or 60 years or so, the manner in which Christians have used the evangelism model has been "hard sell"- in other words, rather loud and pushy and sometimes insensitive. Lots of folks in the general population have stories of times they felt Christianity was shoved down their throats. Certain Christian denominations have also been intolerant of other Christians with different theologies and of non-Christians, and have said very exclusionary things to them. Local church members should bear these things in mind when selecting models of mission and how to go about using them. 

That said, I believe local UM churches can regain trust and respect in their small corners of the world by concentrating more of their time, effort, and money in the area of mission. The more church members are out in the world showing compassion, the more people will get to know them and see what we're really about. And the more time we spend practicing acts of compassion, the more we will be transformed into the likeness of Christ. Compassion is a common thread throughout the Gospels, and it is present in every model of mission.

Hospitality, Christian Presence, and Service are the models that are most readily visible to those who are not already part of our local churches. For instance, my church here in Cambridge houses a shelter for homeless youth ages 14-24 in our basement. This is a radical act of hospitality that often stretches our resources and our patience, but people outside the church who hear about the shelter instantly know what kind of people we are.

Serving with the poor can often be a powerful witness to others in our communities. I say "serving with" because those who are poor should not be disempowered (and sometimes objectified) by having ministry done to them. Christians ought to engage in ministry with them, as this UM website illustrates so well. Friends and fellow blogger Jeremy explains that doing ministry with others- whoever they are- is not about us. It's about encountering Christ in the Other: the person at the shelter, the person in the breadline, the person at the abortion clinic. We are not here to judge them or to give them something from our high and lofty place of privilege. We are here to acknowledge our privilege, do what we can, and be open to meeting Christ in that encounter. I meet Christ each month on the street in Cambridge when I take part in the Outdoor Church's sandwich ministry. As Jeremy said so well: an Incarnational ministry allows other people to be Jesus to us.

The more we focus on being compassionate people in the lives of those around us, the more we will become compassionate and the less we will focus on the minutae of day-to-day management of the church. My friend Tom, who is the Director of the Outdoor Church, walked into our church one day and said to me, "I love gritty urban churches! A gritty building means the money is being spent on mission." In that sense, I'm proud to be part of a gritty urban church, and I think more churches should be gritty. We need to invent the Gritty Rural Church and the Gritty Suburban Church. The less churches focus on trappings like the building, committee meetings ad nauseum, and intra-church drama, the more their members can focus on doing ministry in the community. Of course, committee meetings and building stewardship are important (not so sure about the drama...), but it should not absorb the whole of the church's energies.

Churches that are struggling may find a mission inventory helpful. Take a look at the ways your church is using its building and its funds. What percent is being spent on maintaining the church building and intra-church fellowship vs. outreach and spiritual formation? Another Pastor Jeremy over at Dirty Ministry offers a really interesting model for evaluating one's church building use here, and it even includes a ready-to-use Excel spreadsheet (my inner Type-A just made a squee)! The way your building and funds are used can tell you a lot about where your church's time and energy is being spent. Once you have a good idea of that, you can think about ways to give more in the area of mission and less in the area of maintenance. Start with what's simple and intuitive and build your mission activities from there. If your church isn't ready to do this as a whole yet, you can start doing more mission on your own.

So to re-cap:
  • Being in mission is what the Church is here to do!
  • Doing mission makes us more Christ-like and increases our faith; it ultimately gives us life.
  • When others see us in mission, they can better understand who we are as persons/ as a People.
  • Evaluating how your church can do more mission can be a straightforward, intuitive process.
  • You can start any time- just do it!
Of course, doing mission takes a certain amount of emotional and physical energy. We're already busy people with full lives and not enough sleep. How are we going to add mission to the mix? The logistics of making time for mission vary for each person, but I can tell you how to gain the energy necessary: spiritual formation and inspired worship. In the ideal Christian life, all three of these things should be balanced so that one is not lopsided, majoring in one or two and not doing anything in the other area(s). How do we go about participating more fully in spiritual formation? The discussion continues next week!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Interlude, Part 2: Whither the Local Church?

In our series so far, we've been examining some of the perceptions throughout the Methodist Connexion (John Wesley's spelling) that the UMC is dying, and some of the things some people think will "save" it. Some people follow church fads and think that the newest thing to come down the pike, whatever it is, will save the Church. Others think that if we can just change our worship style or get everyone in the Church to change a certain attitude or ideology, that will save the Church. In the past three posts, I have argued that these things will not save the Church. They are actually false proxies: something we choose to measure or focus on instead of the things that are actually ailing the Church. I have argued that we have a credibility problem in the Church, and it's something we in the UMC have had some control over, but a lot of it is out of our control.

The other thing that is ailing the UMC today is something also out of our control: a demographics shift. Even in 2013, unfortunately, 11:00 on Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week. Folks tend to go to church with people who are most like them. The United Methodist Church has been a middle-class church, which was great for us in eras in which the middle class grew and flourished. But in the last 40 years, the middle class has shrunk dramatically and its earning power has diminished. For a summary of this trend, watch this YouTube video of a TED talk on the issue (it's 6:30 min. but worth it):

Lots of folks have blamed the UMC's own members for its decline in membership, citing a "failure of discipleship", and its next-of-kin, failure of evangelism. Those on the conservative end of the ideology/ theology spectrum blame it on failure to be faithful to our Wesleyan roots and orthodox Christian beliefs. Those on liberal end of the spectrum blame it on failure to be welcoming to others. Whatever the reason, the rhetoric has been one of failure: "We haven't done X, therefore this bad thing has happened to us." One day in seminary, my Hebrew Bible professor pointed out that this is the same thing that the Israelites did when they were taken prisoner by the Babylonians: "We haven't worshiped Yahweh exclusively, we have sinned, and that is why we have to live in exile." I was so used to this rhetoric that I was very surprised when my professor named this line of thought as blaming the victim! There's another term for it, which is my parents' phrase of choice when ecclesiastical higher-ups blame church folk for problems they did not create: "beating the sheep".

But this is not necessarily a problem with us (though we not-yet-perfected Christians, we can always use a little perfecting). These problems have happened in our society. There are no longer very many middle class people left to come to our churches. Our young people are giving up religion altogether because of our credibility problem. What can we do about our demographic problem and about our credibility problem? I think we can do two things:

1. Let compassionate actions speak louder than our words. This should be our response to the credibility problem. In order to convince people that we are good folk who love Jesus and love others, and not merely wolves in sheep's clothing, we must show them rather than tell them. This means, as I mentioned last time, we need to shut our mouths on certain topics. At the same time, we must open our arms and roll up our sleeves. 

2. Build ministries that cross social borders. What do we do when we are a church of mainly older, white, middle class people who suddenly find that folks like us are becoming fewer and fewer? We must reach out to those who are not middle class, white, and our own age! To build our church again, we must do inter-generational ministry, cross-cultural/ interracial ministry, and ministry with those who are poor and homeless.

Friends, it's time to stop blaming ourselves and start doing ministry. Our Church is not dying. I think the rhetoric of death is an alarmist tone used by some to force through a particular change or result. What is happening to our Church is that it is changing rapidly, which is bound to happen, because our society is changing rapidly. The Church has always been a conservative organization in that it seeks to continue what has been done in the past. This is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it does mean that our organizational culture is one that does not adapt to change well. This puts us in a precarious position, because our environment demands change, but we do not change quickly or easily. The two things that I have named as a way forward will not be easy to do. They will be scary. But they are necessary to do in order to adapt to our surroundings.

The Church only needs to be saved in the sense that we all need salvation through Jesus Christ. Whatever happens in the future, the Church will survive. God will see to that. It is not our responsibility to "save" the Church; leave that to God. But how will we survive? Who will we be when the dust settles? Will we serve anyone in the process, and will their lives be transformed because of meeting us?

Hard conversations will be the bread and butter of our denomination in the coming years. If we can have the courage to face the hard questions and difficult decisions together, I believe that we can come through this crisis and we can be better for it. What the local church can do during this time is act compassionately and build ministries across social borders: in other words, simply BE the Church. How can we go about this? Tune in next week for the rest of our series!