Tuesday, April 30, 2013

It has been here all along

Last week I discovered I lived two miles from a lake!  It is called the Glenn Cunningham Reservoir and it is actually a pretty good sized lake for our area.  We found it by accident.  On our way home from Walmart I looked to my wife and asked, "I wonder what is down that road?"  So we turned left instead of going straight like normal.  We discovered three baseball fields, a garden store, an RV construction plant, and signs for a neighborhood named after a Lake Cunningham.  Our imaginations immediately asked, "Where is Lake Cunningham?  I didn't know there was a lake around here." 

So we broke out Google maps on our phones...well she did it on her phone because I was driving. Anyway we found the lake.  It was nice.  It has lots of RV space, you can rent boats, there is even a trail to walk around it, though I imagine it would take some time.  My first response upon seeing it was, "I can't believe this was here all this time."  There are no signs.  And we had a major drought last year and it was really hot, how nice would it have been to go to the lake?

I think our churches at times are a lot like this lake.  It is a wonderful, refreshing, and fun place to be.  But there are no signs in the community that the church is there.  They are amazing places of worship but have a hard time sharing that beauty with others.  I am not talking about literal signs.  Many churches have more publicity than is necessary to try and attract people into their worship services.  I am talking about presence.  Are there signs that you are present in your community? Do others know you exist based on ministry to and with the community?  Or perhaps like this lake it is for a select group of people who already know where it is...
What I like most about the missional church concept is that presence matters.  We are encouraged to go and be with people where they are.  The missional church often say's something to the effect "Join God in what he is doing."  In other words you get to participate in God's Living Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven.  But like this lake we sometimes hide the Kingdom of God or demand that others know the rules on how to get there.  My hope is that we teach ourselves and our churches how to better share the lake with all.  I hope we realize that the Kingdom of God is in our midst and has been all along, just like the lake.  But hey sometimes we just get lucky and stumble across it because we turned left instead of going straight.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Here's Your Sign

My parents used to tell me that first impressions matter.  So my mom always kept a very clean house in the chance someone came to visit or if I or my sister brought a friend home unexpectedly from school.  My dad always keep the cars clean and the yard mowed.  We always had clean clothes and reasonable times between haircuts.  Probably not much different from your family.

Organizations also present "first impressions" with their buildings, employees who welcome, or the cleanliness of the facility.  The front door might be one of the most important features of these organizations.  Here are a few front doors I have come across in midwest stores recently.

Clearly this is an unwelcoming sign.  This is posted on a sliding door into a business. This store is a large chain and is located in the upper middle class section of town with low crime.  Nothing about this sign says to me I am welcome to shop there.  I have never seen a sign like this on any other business, that does not mean do not exist but I have never noticed one.  I just found it to be a weird notice and felt it to be unnecessarily hostile.

This sign is to a dance studio.  It clearly is sending a message to those who enter what is the most important thing to the owner.  Not the hours of operation, the types of classes offered, or genre of dance, but rather all who enter here must be paid up before they can dance.  I appreciate that they need their tuition to make budget, if this is the first impression one receives they might not want to go back.

These signs are a sort of analogy of churches.  Our churches often put up intentional or unintentional signs up with our actions.  Perhaps they act like the fist sign.  Your life will be scrutinized here.  We will judge you and use a filter process to decide if you are like us.  We will examine every aspect of your life until we are satisfied you look, sound, and act like we think you should.  If you do not agree to these terms you are free to leave the facility.  Now this is of course an exaggeration...I hope.  But we all know groups who unite around the concept of what they are against in order to gain their identity. We also know at times Christians can be unnecessarily harsh to outsiders and even to one another in the auspices of orthodoxy.

The second sign speaks to what is most important to a church. Some feel the church speaks of money to often.  The economy is poor and non-profits all around are suffering.  People don't give excess money to non-profits and churches when they don't have any or are afraid.  But this sign doesn't have to only represent financial needs.  Have you ever been to a church that seems to only focus on one or a few issues?  It could be sex, marriage, family values, abortion, inerrancy,  gay rights, poverty, politics, or anything else positive or negative.  The point is they have so narrowed the scope of the gospel that their message becomes a one trick pony...and it us usually an ugly pony.

Lets try one more sign...
This is a welcoming place. It has the clearly marked sign open, the door is open, and the hours are clearly marked.  What you cannot see is the variety of plant life that greet you from the parking lot to the door letting you know that this place holds a variety of plants, trees, flowers, porch/deck furniture, and other yard DYI things.  But what you see outside is only a small taste of what is on the inside.  A vast complex full of a variety of gardening elements.  The staff is friendly and knowledgeable. 

 What if our church families looked more like this last image?  What if we were more inviting and welcoming? What would it look like if we could find the balance between being welcoming to all and strong in our Christian identity?  What if we found a way to interpret and discern what God is doing in the world?  The staff in the garden center don't just grow plants in a bucket.  They are capable of listening to your home garden needs and demonstrate how to move their nursery plants into your real back yard garden.  They have figured out the balance between safe building and real world application because they live in both places.   They understand the Missional balance of sending and being sent.  Just like Christ who was sent and in turns sends us. God is at work in each of our lives (gardens) we simply need to be aware of his presence and celebrate.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Don't call me a Christian says Mumford

I have become a big Mumford and Sons fan.  Before you cast me into some "band-wagon" "fair-weather" pop culture music participant, I must say I first listened to Mumford about two and half years ago and wore out their first album "Sigh No More" long before they were ever on American radio.  Their lyrics are powerful, their music is catchy, and their live performances are some of the best around.  I actually first saw them on a  live TV performance before I ever knew much about them.  I was inspired by the passion of performance and the fact the lead singer Marcus played a kick drum, while playing guitar, and singing at the same time.

Anyway, their lyrics are full of religious overtones.  Here is a quote from Huff Religion of a quote in Rolling Stone Magazine.  I actually encourage you to read both articles they are very cool.
During an interview last month, the Rolling Stone reporter, Brian Hiatt, asked Mumford whether he "still consider(s) himself a Christian."
Mumford gave the following answer:
"I don't really like that word. It comes with so much baggage. So, no, I wouldn't call myself a Christian. I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don't really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who he was. ... I've kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity."
His spiritual journey is a "work in progress," Mumford said, adding that he's never doubted the existence of God and that his parents are unbothered by his ambivalence toward the Christian label.

According to the Huff Religion article others have gone on to cast Marcus and the band in general in either a wishy washy denier of a strong religious faith or a "spiritual but not religious" crowd.   But I don't get that vibe.

I nearly always prefer people to say they are Christian.  I am a Christian and clergy to boot.  But that puts a lot of people off.  For me it has strained relationships with family members, friends, and strangers I meet.  It is always a little awkward at first when I am sitting on an airplane or getting a hair cut and having someone ask, "So what do you do?"  Because "what I do" is in fact "who I am." So when I say, I'm a minister, or I work with all the denominational churches in a region, I mostly just get blank stares.  They don't know what to say or do to that response.  And as much as I sometimes want to shy away from the conversation I usually cannot because Christ won't let me back out.  I am initially shy not because I am ashamed of my faith or the gospel but because I don't want to have a weird conversation and be silently judged by the person I am speaking with.  The other reason is because much like Marcus my spiritual journey is a "work in progress."  And I don't want to state a belief or explain a behavior only to be led another direction later in my faith walk or perhaps share something unorthodox by mistake.

In the last year alone I have had dozens small chats with strangers in airports, trains, and even a few restaurants.  Once they learn I am a Christian and clergy they respond in two ways. First if they are Christian they want to tell me all the things we have in common and assume we interpret the faith in identical ways.  This is often true but sometimes it is not.  It makes me grateful the Christian tent is a large one that can hold all sorts of people and perspectives.  Or people respond a second way, they want to tell me all the things wrong with the church, why they have never been or won't go back, that we need to stop trying to be involved in politics, and how judgmental Christians are.  And usually they are right.  They accurately point out the worst parts of us.  Many of these anti-church people, I have discovered  really just need someone to listen to them rant for a while.   They need for someone from "inside" the circle hear them out.  Once you do that they are willing to listen you explain there is no circle, no insider-outsider division, and that Christ is willing to welcome all to his banquet table, even them just as they are.

Mumfords lyrics clearly demonstrate someone who wrestles with his faith more than most self identified Christians.  He uses biblical imagery that rivals that of Johns Gospel. He might not self identify as a Christian but he certainly believes in resurrection (see Roll Away Your Stone), redemption (see Lover of the Light), forgiveness (see Awake my Soul, Broken Crown, I Will Wait),  a new heaven and new earth (see After the Storm), and genuine love (see Blank White Page, Lion Man, Lovers Eyes).  Sure he uses the F word sometimes but I think it speaks to his honest passion and frustration with his humanity and need of healing.

Perhaps he is more Christian than he gives himself credit for.  Perhaps he just doesn't want to have awkward conversations with reporters.  Perhaps like the Huff Religion article states, he "falls between Dorothy Day's famous "Don't call me a saint -- I don't want to be dismissed so easily," and Soren Kierkegaard's, "Once you label me you negate me."

So take them or leave them for their music.  But don't deny their journey or yours.  We are all works in progress.  My prayer is that you are willing to simply get on the path.