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Does Member Language Make Sense for the Church?

While I was at the National NEXT Church conference I ran across several conversations about the language of membership in a church not making sense.  The idea of membership – the argument goes – is antiquated and institutional.

The conversation is familiar, it is one I picked up about 8 years ago and it led into my Doctor of Ministry with a focus on discipleship and how member language may subvert the church’s calling to make, and send out, disciples.  I want to try to distill some of those thoughts:

My initial frustration was that member language makes the church feel any social group – rotary, the YMCA, a soccer club, a country club.  We pay a service, we get a card: we are a member.  Furthermore I have “membership” cards to everything from my favorite yogurt place to Pet Smart.  I constantly am reminded of this when I stop at gas station I use frequently that has a membership card (I don’t have one) and before you pump you have to hit a button either for “loyalty card” or “continue without loyalty.”  I always feel judged when I hit the latter.  Is church just a place seeking your loyalty and your dues in order to be included?  Furthermore if you work towards what you measure and we measure members, not disciples, than isn’t the church working toward the wrong telos?

The church is not a social club.  A word from a great sermon by Nadia Bolz-Weber:

“To some this may a sign that the “church is dying” …society will still have the Fortune 500 for profits, and non profits for service and day care centers for children and the ELKS Club for socializing and Starbucks for overpriced coffee and many other things we may not ever be. But we should never judge ourselves as the church according to these things because you know what the culture around us will NEVER do? Preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments and proclaim forgiveness of sins. You know why? That’s OUR job.

 You can catch the whole sermon here.

Add in to this critique of looking and acting like a social club that generations of people today are skeptical of institutions or wish to create new ones.  In today’s culture anything that feels rigid and formal and promotes the church as a place where you have to fit yourself into us in order to be an “insider” just feels wrong.  I can understand, in this light, the desire to do away with the member word.  I was one of those people.

But I’ve tipped my hand when I said was.

Two things emerge from a cascade of thoughts:

Peter Block’s research on belonging (I highly recommend his book Community: The Structure of Belonging).  His work on community is not about the church but I find it the most captivating argument about what a church needs to be in order to really BE church.  In the foundation presentation of his thesis he presents a two-fold understanding of belonging.  The need to foster a sense of belonging to the community that causes a sense of place (I belong here) and a sense of responsibility (I own the mission and seek the welfare of these people).  We make a difference in our community, and make communities of difference, when we belong to them.

Member: send it away or claim it in a healthy way I do think we are all in for the work of creating this kind of belonging (both these kinds of belonging).

Secondly.  Its Jesus.  Pesky, makes my life difficult, Jesus.  Jesus certainly reached out to the masses, healed insiders and outsiders, and frankly more outsiders.  Jesus preached on the street to any who overheard his gospel.  But Jesus also called disciples.  From out of the crowds of undifferentiated masses Jesus calls individuals. Jesus called those disciples to committed relationships (just take a gander at the Luke 9).  Jesus required “dropping nets” and leaving behind and committing to a community of transformation.  I recall often the words of A.B. Bruce author of The Training of the Twelve.  He says that the apostles in the Acts are capable of audacious faith because first they spent significant formative time committed to be in the presence of Jesus and community of discipleship around him.

I may not love the member word.  But the word isn’t as misplaced as I once thought.  I came to an articulation of membership like this: Discipleship is our lifelong journey of wrestling with God, and God’s people, in how I am called to live my faith.  Membership is the particular community I choose for this time and place to help me do the ongoing work of discipleship.

Maybe what our bigger problem is when we think the membership word draws a line.  Us | Them.

Jesus doesn’t practice this kind of community.  Instead he seems adept at ever larger concentric circles of community.

(Jesus-Father-Advocate)

(The Twelve Disciples)

(“many disciples” (John 6:66 indicates a ring beyond the 12))

(The crowds // onlookers, over-hearers… admirers)

You get the point.. ultimately this is an unbounded set. Emphasis on unbounded!

So maybe our member word isn’t the problem.  The problem is that we make too little, and not enough of it, in the practice of the community of those who follow in the way of Jesus. The community that is, somehow, the Body of Christ.

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Storied and Story-telling People: An All Saints Sunday sermon

 “Marker Moments: Celebrating our Stories”

A sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church of Boise, ID

Nov. 2, 2014

Joshua 4:1-7

When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua: 2“Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe, 3and command them, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood, carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.’” 4Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe. 5Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites, 6so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’7then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.”

—–

When I sit down to put on my socks and look down at my foot there is a small discolored spot right on the inner part of my foot.  You might not see it as scar but that is what I know it to be.  And every time I see that scar I remember my year of living in the Philippines where I got the scar.  I was there as yearlong young adult volunteer in mission after college and there are many stories of that time but I particularly remember one night.  I would say I was on an island but the Philippines is a collection of thousands of islands so you are always on an island.  I was on the island of Mindoro that night and we had been there for several days and we were living out of our backpacks going back into remote villages and learning about the culture, and after a long hard day we got to what looked like the very traditional image of a collection of huts in a rice field.  This little village was all bamboo huts rising up out of standing water surrounded by rice.  And we were spending the night here in this little community.

I had spent the whole day miserable.  I had one of those ear infections where it felt like someone had taken a letter opener and punched it through my ear.  I was exhausted and had grown numb but we were far from doctors or medical care and so you just continued on.  We had been trying to delicately walk through these rice fields but I will tell you that big ugly American feet do not skillfully traverse rice fields.  It was a hard day.  So then we were to sleep in this small bamboo hut that was about 8’ x 8’ and there were 8 of us sleeping in it.  The guy who was sleeping next to me – well I wasn’t sleeping, but the guy next to me was and he kept rolling over and putting his arm and leg around me.  And if you don’t know this about me already, I’m an introvert.  I do love you all – but I love to go home to my own space too!  Introverts struggle in the Philippines because there is no individual space there, it’s not a culture for introverts and if you try to get off by yourself they think something is wrong with you and seek you out and crowd around to talk about it.

So here we are and I’m miserable and in pain and I’m down about being here at all.  I rolled out from under the guy next to me and went for a walk in the rain – of course it’s raining because there are only four seasons in the Philippines: hot, hotter, wet, and wetter and we were somewhere between wet and wetter at the time.  And there was a massive thunderstorm I can see out on the horizon probably out over the ocean and lighting was flashing and I could just barely hear the slight rumbling of it… and that was all demonstrative of my mood.  And I remember walking and standing in the rain and talking to God, I remember being upset with God, upset at feeling abandoned.

“God I think I’m here because of you.  I think you wanted me to be here to learn and to serve and I think if I’m here doing your work, but you could have my back and help me out a little more.”

And I felt… abandoned.  Not complete but still – abandoned.  Do you know what it’s like to feel radically alone when you’re are surrounded by people?

I remember feeling that aloneness and frustration and questioning.

I do not know what happened the rest of the night… I seem to have blocked that part out but I know that after spending some time there in the morning we walked out and to hiked most of the day to get the Oceanside where we were going to stay to have some reflection time of what we had seen and learned the last week.  So we walked to the ocean and we set our bags down and I changed into a bathing suit and ran out to the ocean.  Now the Pacific Ocean is a very poorly named ocean.  There is nothing passive about it.   Particularly the day after a storm and there were huge rolling waves crashing on the beach.  And it was the most therapeutic thing I could do to dive into those waves.  It was like being a kid again diving again and again head first into those waves and letting them crash against me.  It was cathartic and I beat my frustration out on those waves and it was a baptismal water kind of moment, being washed clean, renewed, refreshed.

And it had become night and walked up that beach and the stars had come out.  And I was feeling alive – the yuck that was in me had fallen away, I had this sense of calm and comfort.  I had a sense of awareness that I wasn’t alone and I looked up and a shooting star went by but I swear to you it was God winking at me.  No hindsight.  Right in that moment it felt like God looking me in the eye and winking at me with a smile saying, “Andrew, my beloved, you are not alone, you have never been alone.”

So every time I look at that scar.  Every time I see it I see far more than just a spot on my skin that didn’t heal.  I see that memory from the time when I got that scar.  I feel that memory.  I am taken back to that moment in the water when I realize that I wasn’t alone.  And that is exactly what is happening with Joshua and the Israelites in our story today.  There journey – their journey out of Egypt to Promised Land – began at waters, at the Red Sea.  The time in the wilderness began with God parting the waters for them to enter. And forty years later on the other bookend of their journey Joshua leads them through waters again.  By God’s decree the ark – a abode of God – passes before them into the Jordan and the flow of the river is cut off so that they may walk across the land into the Promised Land beyond the river.  God is right in the middle of the water, in the turbulence, in the chaos of their journey and says, “I am here with you, I will get you through this.”

And when they get to the other side they are told go back to the middle of the river where the priests were with the ark and get some stones – not some small rocks  but stones you have to haul up on your shoulders – and take one for each tribe and carry them across to the other side of the river (your side of the river) and create a tower of the stones.  Do this so that it will be a tangible reminder to you, you will see it and remember that in the middle of the chaos, of the challenging times, of the questioning times, of the times when you aren’t sure how you will carry through the day, build it so that in the middle of such times you can remember that you have been there before and you do did pass through, you did survive, and I was there with you all the way to the other side, from beginning to ending you were not alone.

And the even better part is that the memorial of stones isn’t just for them – though we need such memorials and reminders in our own lives.  But this is also for their children and their children’s children.  So in the time to come, Joshua says, when your children ask you what those stone mean to you.  “What’s that?”  “Why is that there?”  You can tell them a story.  THE story.  “Ooooh, that. Yes.  A wonderful question, dear one, let me tell you a story.  Come on, gather around.  Sit here on my lap… let me tell you about a journey your parents went on… your grandparents went on… your great-great-grandparents… let me tell you the story.”

It’s our story too.  And that is the point of it all.  We are a storied people.  God writes us into God’s story.  So we hear the stories of those who came before, and we pass on our stories to a generation that will create their own as well.  And as you read through the Old Testament you will notice that God liters the wilderness and the landscape of the Israelites with such reminders, memorials, altars in the wilderness – scars on creation if you will – that remind us that in the hardest times of our lives we are not alone.  God desires to be a God that is in the midst of the waters, God lives with us in the waters, God lives FOR us in the waters, and we will be carried through.

On this All Saints Sunday we think about all those who have come before us.  Who has been a saint for you?  Who is someone particularly dear to your heart who taught you something of love, of grace, of carrying through the hard times?  Who has helped you to know that you are not alone?

We celebrate the saints in our lives, we celebrate those who told us a story of what the “stones” meant to them.  Who wrote us into the story of creation, wove us into God’s tapestry of life.

But we are also story-tellers.  For whom have you told stories?  Where have you placed yourself so that children and adults alike might ask you to tell them your stories?  How have you helped invite people into God’s story who have felt too alone to be a part of it?  Who have you woven into the tapestry they were excluded from, who are you being a saint for?

God has called us into God’s story, to be a people who are storied and story-tellers.  People who are ministered to by the saints even as we are saints to one another.

Who are you celebrating, and who is celebrating you?

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Google+, Circles, Authentic Community and Edited Selves

With what seems to me like more shock value than real substance Google released its competition to Facebook at the end of June. Google+ is still in beta-testing and, like Facebook, will see a lot of changes before its full value is known. However I’m struck by an intriguing ethical question as I learn its ins and outs.  Its main advertised appeal at this point seems to be the circle concept. Friends aren’t just friends, they say. In real life we have circles of friends that don’t necessarily mix and meet. So why should our online presence be forced to one pool of friends? We should be able to share certain things with only certain people? (Click here for more on Circles and Google+)

 

I understand the allure of such a structure.  An entire genre of comedy exists making fun of the consequence of saying the wrong things in a single social network where family and work may learn compromising things about you. It doesn’t even have to be that nefarious. As a pastor I have had my fair share of dilemmas as congregation members, college friends, family, and even social network friends I’ve never met in real life have mixed. Political agendas outted, poor choices spoken about, less-than-child friendly links shared – these and more are the challenges that created the great desire for a system of networks just like Google’s circles. From the standpoint of meeting customers desires, it strikes me that Google just leap-frogged Facebook (for the time being, and conceptionally at least). But is it good?

 

I realize that questions about the common good have gone out of style, but I also knew a long time ago that I’m always at least ten years behind the style of the day.  I think there are issues to be learned and worked out with circles.  A learning curve exists with them just as with one single network. But I’m not debating Google’s execution or the practicality of compartmentalized social networks. What I’m wondering from my own theological and philosophical standpoint is the ethics of assisting the further fragmentation of our lives. Circles perpetuate a natural desire to live differently among different people. We get to be our ideal selves (maybe) with family and work and church and, depending on your particularities, our neighbors. And, we get to let it all hang loose with friends and strangers.  We can act and think and talk almost as two (three or four or however many suits us) different people.  We don’t even have to do the work, the self examination, to figure out who is our whole self and what are simply edited versions of who we are that we maintain to avoid conflict and keep our options open. We can be Christians on Sundays, capitalists by weekday, nurturing loved ones by weeknight, and cosmopolitan socialites on Friday night and Saturday. (Yes a fair amount of dramatic exaggeration is evident in that last line but I wonder where fiction and fact merge.)

 

It may be like real life to maintain circles.  It may even be authentic in a way that perpetuates our broken and divided selves that we live as, maintaining different masks with different people.  But as one who has long been fond of the work of Parker Palmer in nurturing a whole and undivided self, I wonder if while desirable the circle construction is just one more way of enabling our own unhealthiness.  As one who is invested in recovering a fruitful understanding of discipleship I am concerned with any system of structuring life that is premised on non-disclosure of self.  (This is not about creating healthy boundaries and keeping confidentiality – these are important.  This is about hiding who we are for the sake of acceptance and accommodation often great mental and emotional cost to ourselves.)

 

Am I being unfair to Google+ and the circle concept?  Probably… consider it a foil for a larger question.  What is community?  What does it mean to seek authentic community where we do not have to edit who we are, and invest undue energy in keeping the unacceptable parts of ourselves hidden?  What would it mean for all our circles to be the same kind of authentic community where we could fully share ourselves?

 

I’ll leave you with someone who says it better than I ever could: “Community is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace, the flowing of a personal identity and integrity into the world of relationships… to teach (I would add, “to live”) is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced.”  (The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer, p. 90)