Sunday, December 1, 2013

My Prayer for the 1st Sunday of Advent

Lord, it's a new day, a new week, a new month, and a new Christian year. As we begin once again the Advent season and begin once again our journey to and with Jesus through reliving the Story of his birth, life, death, and resurrection help us not just to go through the motions or go through these days on autopilot. Help us to make this a true new beginning that we may be lights in this often dark world.

Thank you for all new beginnings and for this particular new beginning. Help us to keep awake and keep alert to the many surprising and unexpected ways you'll come to us this year and always.

In Jesus' name. Amen.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Let’s Face It—We’re Not Cool. And That's a Good Thing

There’s a rather obscure movie from the late 1980’s called Better Off Dead. It stars John Cusack as an angst-filled teenager (weren’t all the teens in these ‘80’s teen comedies angst-filled?) who loses the girl of his dreams to a jock. In one scene the teen’s father, played by David Ogden Stiers (who is best known for his role as Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester, III on M*A*S*H) tries to talk to his son. He consults a teenage phrase book and attempts to speak his son’s “language”…It doesn’t go well. 

My suspicion is that when churches try to be hip and reach out to young people, this is how they seem to young people.  

Over the last thirty years or so churches (primarily in America) felt that they had to become increasingly hip to show how cool the faith is. They’ve added praise bands, screens, lighting systems, smoke machines, and therapeutic messages in an effort to attract young people. Pastors have given up vestments and started dressing as if they just came off a photo shoot for the newest J. Crew Catalogue. Some daring clergy even tried the skinny jeans look. I’ve known pastors for a long time; not many of us can pull off the skinny jeans anymore. (I never could). 

What is the result? Some 75-80% of young people raised in church leave the church as soon as they graduate high school. The fastest growing religious preference among young people is “None.” By and large young people aren’t atheists; they believe in God; it’s just that they purposely choose not to participate in a church. These young people are part of the millennial generation—born between 1984 and 2004.  

Clearly, hip doesn’t work. This is borne out in the book by millennial author Brett McCracken called Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. McCracken writes,“If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that ‘cool Christianity’ is a sustainable path forward, they are severely mistaken. As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don’t want cool as much as we want real.” 

Rachel Held Evans, another millennial writer/speaker, in her article “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church” says this: “Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates – edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving. 

“But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances. 

“In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular.” 

She sums up by this sobering statement: “We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.” 

Read that sentence again.  

Evans, as well as a growing number of millennials, if and when they get drawn back to church, find themselves increasingly drawn to liturgical/sacramental churches like Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Episcopal/Anglican churches. According to the latest Barna Research on the religious habits of Americans, 43% of millennials, when they decide to give church a try again, end up in liturgical/sacramental churches.  

Why? Precisely because they aren’t hip. 

Evans says, “Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being ‘cool,’ and we find that refreshingly authentic. 

“What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.” 

What does this mean for us as United Methodists? I would say we should be more Methodist. Or maybe better that we should be more Wesleyan. Overall, the United Methodist Church seems to have bought into the “Cool Church Syndrome” hook, line, and sinker. Increasingly we seem to think we have to be cool, hip, and edgy to win back “the young people.”  

But my suspicion is that we’re coming off looking and sounding like David Ogden Steirs’ character in Better Off Dead. We aren’t cool; we aren’t hip. And maybe that’s okay. 

We’ve forgotten that the United Methodist Church is a liturgical/sacramental church at heart. We’ve forgotten our founders, John and Charles Wesley, were Anglican priests (neither of which joined the Methodist Church; they stayed in the Church of England). We’ve forgotten Wesley’s insistence on “Constant Communion” and that weekly Eucharist was normal among Methodism. Wesley himself received daily Eucharist as often as he could. We’ve forgotten that Wesley went back to the early Church and adapted their practices for his day in 18th and 19th Century England and America. Wesley was Ancient Future.  

Is it a surprise to learn that the Methodist Movement began as a campus ministry among college students?  

Methodism was concerned about many of the issues that interested young people in Wesley’s day; and we can still be concerned about the issues young people face today. Instead of trying to show how cool we think we are, we could instead be an authentic community of Christ followers who try to live out a Gospel lifestyle every day. Remember young people aren’t leaving the church because they don’t find cool; they’re leaving because they don’t find Jesus. 

If nearly half of millennials are choosing liturgical/sacramental churches, why are we still experimenting with “cool/hipster” Christianity?  

Please note I’m not advocating we go back to the 1950’s-style traditional worship. I’m not talking about styles of music or instruments. We’ve got to get over this traditional vs. contemporary worship war and instead become indigenous—using music and instruments that reflect the wider culture around us—using both old and new songs—played in styles and on instruments where it all sounds new, or better reflects the culture around us.

I am saying we should be who we are—liturgical/sacramental/and missional. Not cool; not hip; but authentic. Not caught up in culture wars, but living in a third way—the way of the Kingdom of God.  

Archbishop Robert Duncan of the Anglican Church of North America (a new denomination that is having great success reaching millennials) said it best, “We offer the ancient treasures of the Christian faith in a highly accessible manner.” I’m glad our Anglican brothers and sisters are doing that; I strongly believe we United Methodists should do that too. That’s in our DNA. 

We need to stop trying to be what we’re not. We need to be authentic to who we are—liturgical/sacramental/missional—Wesleyan.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Decribing the Ancient-Future Path

For many years now, I've been enamored by the works of the late Robert Webber and his vision of Ancient-Future Faith. And for just as many years, I've found that not many people in my sphere of living have the same experience. In fact, most people I meet have never heard of it. Some, if not most, of my colleagues in ministry even wonder why we should be concerned about something like THAT? and then they go on delving deeper into so-called Contemporary worship and megachurch patterns of being the church.

Meanwhile, I have struggled, and I don't mean that as just a nice sounding verb.I have STRUGGLED with why in the world God allowed me to read Robert Webber in the first place, and why God allowed me to feel that "Aha" moment when I first discovered the concept of Ancient-Future, and why I was never, and likely given my denominational affiliation, will never be in an environment that will allow me the freedom to live this path out in my life and ministry. Most of all I struggled, and still struggle, with whether I still have "a place at the Table"--which has become my metaphor for naming the struggle--whether that Table is the United Methodist Church or indeed pastoral ministry itself.

And yet, the fire still burns. I am as passionate, if not more so, as I ever was for this way of following Jesus and of making "disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world." I still believe it is the way God is leading his Church, and probably has always led his Church; whether the Church at large is aware of this leading is another story.

And then I came across The Internet Monk ( I won't go into the history of this blog here; that's a story for another day. However, suffice it to say that often Chaplain Mike, who currently writes the blog following the death of the original Internet Monk, Michael Spencer, is often a kindred spirit. The blog is devoted to living a "Jesus-Shaped Spirituality" in a "Post-Evangelical Wilderness."That sounds like a goal worth going for.

On August 27, 2012, Chaplain Mike wrote a piece entitled, "Don't Misunderstand the Ancient-Future Path" which lifts up what, exactly, this way of being a follower of Jesus is, and maybe more importantly, what it is not. The article was another "Aha" moment for me.

So, if you're still wondering, or even care, what I've been talking about for the last ten or eleven years or so, and if you wonder what possible relevance this weird way of being a disciple of Jesus, a pastor, or a church could have, I invite you to follow the link to this wonderful blog entry.

And if you'd like to talk about it more, come back and we'll have a chat.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Going Broader and Deeper

A few months ago my spiritual director came up with a phrase to help me get a handle on what God was calling me to do--I was being called to "go broader and deeper into my own tradition [the Methodist Renewal led by John and Charles Wesley] within a community."

I've been trying to discern what that means practically. I'm diving in to John Wesley again (Right now through a resource called "Reconnecting: A Wesleyan Guide for the Renewal of Our Congregation" by Rob Weber, founding pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Shreveport, LA) as well as The Rule of St. Benedict (after all, the Benedictines really grasp the idea of community and live it out in practical, powerful ways--it's interesting how similar the Rule of St. Benedict is to the General Rules of the Methodist Societies by John Wesley).

John Wesley went back to the early Church and re imagined it for 18th and 19th Century England. He called it "Primitive Christianity". Today the phrase is "Ancient Future"--re imagining the early Church for 21st Century America.

My goal is to awaken the faithful, reach the lost, and make the church matter all anchored in the heart of a liturgical/sacramental faith. It can be argued that this is what John Wesley and the early Methodists did.

Most recently my spiritual director said that instead of thinking in a marketing/business model, (which is where most "church growth" strategies are based), I'm thinking in a Gospel model.
I'm just beginning to explore this, and I have no idea where it will lead, but I think I'm getting a better grasp on what God is doing.

My director encouraged me to keep watching and listening to the movement of the Holy Spirit and look for companions on the way.

She also encouraged me to be patient--not my strong suite.

At least I feel like I have a path to follow and a calling to pursue.

Here's to going broader and deeper!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Random Thoughts of a Post-Protestant on Martin Luther Day

When I was at Asbury Seminary, for one of my J-Terms (a between semester intensive course in the month of January) I took Theology of Martin Luther. I enjoyed the class and the readings; I distinctly remember sitting in the library reading something from one of the volumes of Luther's Works and laughing out loud. I don't remember what it was exactly, but Luther had a razor-sharp wit and was not afraid to use some vulgar imagery and mild profanity on occasion. He was often funnier than John Wesley (that wouldn't take much; Wesley wasn't known for his humor), and I briefly considered becoming a Lutheran. But Wesleyan theology won the day, and I'm a United Methodist. But I digress.

One morning I was at breakfast, and a Catholic priest, who was studying at nearby St. Meinrad's and who was taking an extension course at Asbury, asked if he could sit with me. He introduced himself as Father Mulcahey (I am not making this up). He told me about his missions class he was taking. And finally he asked me, "So, what are you taking?"

I became extremely self-conscious and quietly said, "Theology of Martin Luther."

He got a big smile on his face and said, "Really? You know Luther was right about a lot of things."

Suffice it to say I wasn't expecting this response from a Catholic priest.

But maybe I should have. After all, Luther was right about a lot of things. He never wanted to start a new church (neither did John Wesley, by the way). He never wanted to leave Roman Catholicism. He had some legitimate concerns about the medieval Catholic church of his day. And I have no doubt that God was working in the Protestant Reformation Luther started (even if God was not necessarily working in every aspect of the Protestant Reformation). My Catholic priest breakfast companion said so.

However, we are over 500 years out from the Protestant Reformation. The issues that fueled the Protestant Reformers are no longer issues in the Church today. The sad divisions that split Catholics and Protestants are being healed. Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have both done much to bring Catholics and Lutherans together (to say nothing of the way Pope Benedict has reached out to Anglicans). The newest Lutheran denomination (the North American Lutheran Church has openly embraced ecumenical relations with the Catholic church). Denominations, a sad outgrowth of the Protestant Reformation, are losing their importance at an ever-increasing rate especially among younger Christians.

There seems to be a new Reformation occurring now where, thanks to the Internet primarily, Christians--Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox--are discovering each other's resources and coming together for the cause of Christ.

Sure there are still those who are Protestant or Catholic who think that belonging to the other group is an automatic "Go to Hell" card--Do Not Pass Go! Do Not Collect $200.00! But those few who still think that are dinosaurs and will become increasingly irrelevant in the world as time goes by.

That being said, I wonder Does it still make sense to call ourselves Protestants any more? To be fair, United Methodists aren't strictly Protestant anyway. We're actually Anglo-Catholics with a pinch of Eastern Orthodoxy thrown in. Most United Methodists aren't aware of our Anglican heritage or the debt John Wesley's theology owes to Eastern Orthodoxy and the Desert Fathers and Mothers. But that's a gripe for another day.

What exactly are we protesting anyway? If anything we Non-Catholics are Post-Protestants these days. But it's not good to label ourselves by what we are beyond.

When I was at Ball State University in my undergraduate days I received my call to pastoral ministry largely through a Bible study group I led. Every Thursday night at 10:00 PM (we were college students, after all), a group of fifteen or more of us met in my dorm room to study the Bible together. We were United Methodists and Pentecostals and Baptists and Presbyterians and Catholics and non-denominational and just about every other "flavor" of the Body of Christ. And it didn't matter. We were just Christians, Apprentices of Jesus, who wanted to come together to learn what the Bible had to say.

Needless to say, I thought this was the way the Church should be. I still think that.

On this Martin Luther Day (February 18) I am grateful to Brother Martin of Erfurt (how's that sound?) for his courage and commitment to Jesus that caused him to challenge the structures and leadership of a Church that had lost its way at the time. I, and the Church at large, can still learn much from his brilliant mind. I still enjoy singing "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." And I can still laugh at his ribald humor and mild profanity.

But we're in a new day. And I am grateful to my Roman Catholic (and Orthodox) brothers and sisters who are on this same Journey to Jesus. I think daily we are getting closer to the day when we'll have the kind of Christian unity Jesus prayed for us to have. I am grateful to be a part of this New Reformation.

I'm thankful to be a Post-Protestant. I just wish we had a better name.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler!

As I was getting ready for preaching this Sunday's Gospel reading, John 2:1-11 where Jesus changes water into wine, I briefly thought of titling the sermon "Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler!" (Let The Good Times Roll!) I wanted to tie in the celebration of Carnival which is going on right now in many cultures. I decided to go a different route, but it maybe something I'll do at some point.

It may surprise some people that I encourage Christians to observe Carnival. I even signed a petition a few years ago to make Mardi Gras a national holiday. I think it would be fantastic for Christians and churches of all traditions to celebrate Carnival and especially Mardi Gras (without the drunkenness and depravity, of course).

Carnival has its roots in the Christian liturgical year. It begins on Epiphany and runs through Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday. It's called Fat Tuesday because households were supposed to use up all the fat in their pantries before Lent, hence the predominantly Lutheran tradition of hosting pancake suppers on Fat Tuesday.

There are parades nearly every day throughout the city. Groups who put on the parades are called krews.

 One of the common food items is the King Cake. This is a braided cake with white frosting and green, purple, and gold sugar sprinkles. It is first served on "Little Christmas" or "King's Day", other names for Epiphany. The King Cake is named after Jesus who was honored as a King by the Magi who visited him on Epiphany. In a traditional King Cake a tiny plastic baby figure is hidden within the cake. Whoever gets the piece with the baby inside has to buy the King Cake next week. We can only hope the baby is found before a bite is taken out of the cake. Originally people put a pea or a bean inside, and whoever found it would be king for the night.

The traditional colors of Carnival and Mardi Gras are green representing faith, purple representing justice, and gold representing power. Again all of these have their roots in the Christian faith. \

The traditional slogan of Carnival and Mardi Gras is "Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler!" This is French Creole for "Let the Good Times Roll!" Contrary to popular opinion Mardi Gras is only one day (Fat Tuesday); the whole season is called Carnival. It refers to the days of feasting and partying before the solemn days of Lent begin.

So why should Christians celebrate Carnival and Mardi Gras? It's true that there can be a sort of let down after Christmas. We tend to settle in for the cold dark days of winter before spring comes. Carnival puts an emphasis on Epiphany, which is too often overlooked by some Christians. It continues the celebration of Jesus' coming into the world. It can also prepare us for the seriousness of Lent.

What would it say to the world if Christians were known for celebrating and joy? Kids in the church can learn about Jesus as they make masks and costumes and take part in weekly parades and collect beads with the Carnival colors. Adults can see the Christian faith as a way to beat the winter blahs. Obviously, different traditions can be attached to the wearing, throwing, and collecting of beads than what exist in New Orleans. Different Sunday school classes could be designated as krews to host parades and parties celebrating that the King has come. Lessons can be designed around faith, justice, and God's power.

The ideas are almost endless for how we can observe Carnival and lead up to Mardi Gras when we can host community-wide pancake suppers inviting our friends and neighbors, or even better the poor and homeless who could use a party.

Carnival can be a way for the church to take our liturgy to the streets instead of just telling our Story to ourselves. How would it be if our churches were known as places of joy because Jesus has come?

Just as Jesus turned water into wine to keep the party going and to celebrate the in-breaking of the Kingdom and anticipate the Wedding Feast to come, we can all use Carnival and Mardi Gras to celebrate and Jesus and say to all who would listen "Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler!"

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Going Broader and Deeper

A few years ago I was in a Border's bookstore in Ft. Wayne, Indiana (that's how you know it was a few years ago). It was about a week after Easter, and it was one of the few times that the Eastern Orthodox Easter fell on the same day as the Western Easter.

I overheard one of the booksellers, a young man in his mid to late '20's, talking to his friends. They were talking about Easter--specifically why Orthodox Easter usually falls on a different date than Western Easter. Now I don't make it a habit to eavesdrop on private conversations, but when people, especially young people, talk about something related to Christianity, I want to hear what they are saying.

The bookseller was describing to his friends why he had just converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church. He described the three years of catechism (teaching about the faith) that led to his being baptized on Easter Sunday (this follows the pattern of the early Church around the third and fourth centuries). He went into passionate detail about the beauty of the Divine Liturgy (what the Eastern Orthodox call their worship), the icons, the symbolism, the fact that Eastern Orthodox Christians are immersed in a Story and a world that is beyond them, and he said he wanted Eastern Orthodox faith because he wanted to be drawn into something bigger than himself.

I have no idea of this young man's prior Christian experience, if any. I have no idea of his background. My guess is he was not raised in an Eastern Orthodox Church. Based on what he said, he had felt led to this particular branch of the Christian Church. He was passionate and quite articulate about his conversion of Orthodoxy.

I was thrilled.

Conventional wisdom, at least as it often comes to us from most corners of the Church Growth Movement, would tell us that a young, unchurched (don't you hate that word?!) man or woman can only be reached by "going contemporary." We are told that young people want upbeat music, video screens, a praise band, sermons that help them live the good life, clergy who wear khaki pants and either Polo shirts or Hawaiian shirts and who use the methodology of the self-help and motivational speakers on late night TV. Conventional wisdom says go hip or go home.

However, there is nothing hip or contemporary about Eastern Orthodox worship. The Divine Liturgy dates from around the 3rd Century, and it is unchanged from that time at all (except for portions of it being translated into English in America). In fact not only has it not changed, no one is allowed to change it. The Eastern Orthodox view is that the Liturgy is a gift from God to the Church, and the Church offers it back to God as an act of worship. It is not about changing with the times or becoming relevant or faddish or hip. It isn't about individual wants or desires. It's about the community called Church worshiping God and pointing to a reality bigger than the ends of our noses.

The desire of this young man is not isolated. I have a colleague in ministry whose two 20-something year-old daughters have both said they are contemplating leaving the United Methodist Church to become, get ready, either Episcopalians or Eastern Orthodox, for similar reasons the young bookseller became an Orthodox Christians. They said their friends are thinking of doing the same.

Years ago Robert Webber wrote a little book called Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, which has recently been revised by Lester Ruth, which details why many young people are leaving their mainline evangelical churches and becoming Episcopalians and Anglicans as well as Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox.

I am not interested in debating traditional vs. contemporary worship. In fact, I think we should abandon that kind of dualistic thinking and quit arguing over an issue that is missing the point. I am also not interested in developing liturgical and sacramental worship as a marketing strategy and/or church growth technique.

What I am interested in has been evolving in me and is now growing into a fire. I have been checking this out with my spiritual director and with other Christians whom I trust, and I will bring it up in my Covenant Group. I believe I am called to relate to God through the liturgy and the sacraments. But I believe more than that. I believe that there are others, especially young people, who are tired of the mega church, seeker sensitive, entertainment style worship and church setting and who want something more. I believe there are those who, like myself, are hungry for going both broader and deeper in their relationship to God through liturgy, sacraments, and genuine community. (My spiritual director helped me clarify that phrase--you gotta hand it to those Catholic nuns!).

I believe that the issue facing the Church in America is that it is a mile wide and an inch deep. People are rightly asking, "Is this all there is to church? Just getting pumped up once a week?"

I have investigated this calling and I'm checking it out with others, and I also believe I am called to offer the ancient treasures of the Christian faith in a highly accessible fashion within the context of the United Methodist Church. After all, this really amounts to what John and Charles Wesley did in their day. It's in our DNA. I love the United Methodist Church and especially Wesleyan theology.

Our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Church in North America "get this." This Ancient Future path is simply the way they go about being the Church. They are reaching people all across the country. There's no reason we United Methodists can't do the same. We are, after all, "kissing cousins" to the Anglican Church.

(I am not a fan of Pat Robertson, the 700 Club, or CBN, but CBN did run an excellent news story on the Anglican Church in North America detailing the very phenomenon I'm talking about.)

I don't know exactly what God is leading me to do with this call. I'm still in a process of discernment with my spiritual director and others. That it is a call from God is being confirmed by others. What I am called to do with it is still being worked out.

Is this the only way to do and be the Church? No, of course not. But it is the way that is burning in me and apparently in others. I'm finally saying yes to God, or in the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Here am I; send me."

I look forward to seeing what God will do next.