Message from Sunday, November 18, 2018 at Faith Lutheran Church in Bellaire, TX.
We’d like to think that everyone has arrived. Everyone has matured to the point of seeing that equality is God’s design. Women can serve the church equally as well as men (perhaps better?). Most consider the ELCA a progressive denomination. But that doesn’t mean that everyone that sits in our pews are in the same place. This video out of North Carolina is a reminder of that:
And it is great to make a cute video, but even better to follow through and walk the talk. Like this:
One of my seminary professors recently asked this question. What a fertile question. It gives us a chance to consider the needs of the world. What is the status of our world these days? Where are there hatred, violence, and chaos? Where are there famine, disease, and scarcity? Where are there hopelessness, illiteracy, and neglect?
Our world is filled with these things. Some of them are right under our local noses. Surprisingly you don’t have to drive far to encounter some of these needs. So what kind of church is needed to face the needs of our world?
I think you could say lots of things. You could go lots of different directions and still answer this question in a satisfactory way.
The world needs a church that is loving, so loving that it sees every living thing as part of God’s holistic creation and takes every chance to embody God’s love for the cosmos.
The world needs a church that is adaptive, ready to abandon the old, tired ways of organizational thinking for new ways that bring life and vitality.
The world needs a church that is Christ-centered, focused on the words and ministry of Jesus and how they can bring transformation to our world today.
The world needs a church that is compassionate, never using our status or position in the world to bring harm, but only to bring healing to those who are over-looked.
The world needs a church that is self-sacrificing, willing to give away property, buildings, and money so that others can be better off than they were before.
The list goes on and on. I hope you have your own way of answering the question, because it is an important one. Because really, the question is not about the church, the question is about you and I. What kind of person does this world need? How do I live my life more faithfully for the sake of the world?
My heart always goes back to the sacraments and the assembly. So my answer would be: “The world needs a church that continually gathers around God’s story and table, and then embodies that story and food for the life of the world.” I think telling a better story and sharing food is what the world needs from us the most.
One of the things I enjoy most about my calling in ministry is being a resource to others. One of the things that drew me to the Lutheran understanding of faith is our connectional polity. Churches aren’t designed to be individual islands in the ELCA. We are connected to each other. We are connected to our neighboring churches in Houston, we are connected to our sisters and brothers across the Gulf Coast Synod, we are connected to all the other ELCA churches around the country, and we are even connected to other Lutherans across the globe. One of the most common signs of our connection is when we share resources. I really enjoy being helpful to others and supporting the work of the church both near and far.
I was asked by the ELCA worship staff to write some Frequently Asked Question articles for their website. These are common questions the churchwide office gets asked, and my responses are meant to be helpful, guiding suggestions on how to address these concerns. Last month, seven of the articles I wrote were published on the ELCA’s website. Here are some excerpts:
- “In general, the postmodern worship practices of emerging churches are reactions against the pragmatic, baby boomer-oriented, seeker-sensitive movement. Instead of “services” of worship, emerging churches frame their assemblies as “gatherings” that are not afraid of a return to more liturgical forms. The gathering is highly experiential, focusing on the participation of those assembled, often through stations that guide people to interact with prayer, scripture, art, poetry, and other spiritual exercises.”
- “Music for worship provided by a worship band must be done with the same sensitivity and care as any other type of sacred music. The worship band must frame their role in worship leadership as subservient to the assembly’s voice.”
- “As a core function, video projection should be used for enhancing the environment for worship. In serving the liturgy, it should not be distracting but aide the space for worship as the body of Christ gathers.”
- “The pace of technology can be difficult to grasp. Technology that at one time cost churches thousands of dollars to utilize now would cost hundreds of dollars. The cost of technology continues to diminish. At the same time the performance of technology continues to increase.”
- “There are many options when it comes to the video projector component. Generally the most important specification will be the light output of the projector, measured in lumens. The higher the lumens, the brighter the projector will be. It is necessary to take into account the brightness of the room in which the projector will be used.”
- “Worship is always being evaluated. Although it may be informal, everyone that is sent forth from an assembled worshiping body has evaluated that service in one way or another. Evaluations might be based on any number of things: the number of people in attendance, the length of the sermon, the pronunciation of the reader, or the number of flubbed notes by the musician.”
- “The sounds of a worshiping assembly should be reflective of the culture that it is planted in. The musical gifts that are present within a local church should be used to make worship contextual.”
The other day I was skimming through Facebook and saw this ad:
Disciple Fast Track. I had to do a double take. Seeing this add made me stop and consider what the purpose of this program might be. I read a little bit more about it.
“Fast Track … is ideal for busy people who want to fit a comprehensive Bible study into their schedule.”
I no doubt think that the producers of this curriculum have the best intentions. In fact, it looks like it could be something that everyone would benefit from: a 24 session overview of both the Old and New Testaments. But I think the title of the series misses several crucial pieces of discipleship.
Busy lives are counter-productive. You don’t need me to remind you about sabbath. Sabbath is anti-empire. Sabbath makes us acknowledge that we aren’t really in control of anything. Instead of producing curriculum to meet the needs of busy lives, why not invite people to reorient their lives into something more holistic?
Discipleship is slow. Jesus walked around with his crew for three years. Relational bonds take an investment of time. Disciples are grown and cultivated, watered and nourished. You can’t mass produce them or assemble them in a production line.
Following Jesus is not a race. Calling it a “fast track” implies that there is competition. It implies that there is a slow track where all the losers end up. Arriving at the disciple finish line first means you win.
We don’t ever finish our participation in Christ. We never stop growing into the reality of what it means to be in Christ, guided by the Spirit, living lives of love to the glory of God. We don’t follow Jesus on a race track and there is not a faster lane. It is a journey, it has scenic views and side trails. Going faster doesn’t get you to the destination more quickly.
Yesterday I realized that I have read 12 books this summer. I have a few weeks left to squeeze in a couple more. I’m currently on What Is the Bible? by Rob Bell. Here is a look at what I’ve read so far:
- Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads by Greil Marcus
- I started this *before* I knew Bob was coming to Sugar Land in October.
- In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership by Henri J.M. Nouwen
- For Fall seminary class. The second time I’ve read it.
- #NeverAgain: A New Generation Draws the Line by David and Lauren Hogg
- These kids have some wisdom to share.
- Is Nothing Sacred? by Marie M. Fortune
- Also for Fall seminary class. This story has interesting parallels to the story coming out of Willow Creek.
- Mentoring for Ministry by Craig T. Kocher (ed.)
- Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally by Marcus J. Borg
- Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole Creation by Andrew Sung Park
- This was a book I read for a paper on atonement theories last semester.
- Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today by John Shelby Spong
- Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too by Louie Anderson
- If you haven’t seen “Baskets” on FX you need to.
- A Black Theology of Liberation by James H. Cone
- I bought this book like a week before Dr. Cone passed.
- Waco: A Survivor’s Story by David Thibodeau, Leon Whiteson
- The Four Gospels on Sunday: The New Testament and the Reform of Christian Worship by Gordon W. Lathrop
As I’m preparing to deliver the message at church this Sunday, I’m thinking about food deserts.
From Wikipedia: “A food desert is an area, especially one with low-income residents, that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food. In contrast, an area with supermarkets or vegetable shops is termed a food oasis. The term food desert considers the type and quality of food available to the population, in addition to the number, nature, and size of food stores that are accessible. Food deserts are characterized by a lack of supermarkets which decreases residents’ access to fruits, vegetables and other whole foods. In 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that 23.5% of Americans live in a food desert, meaning that they live more than one mile from a supermarket in urban or suburban areas, and more than 10 miles from a supermarket in rural areas.”
For those of us that live with an abundance of food security it can be hard to imagine not having whatever we want readily available to us at all hours. The gospel for this Sunday tells about how Jesus miraculously fed thousands with just a small amount of food available. Jesus was concerned about their well-being. He wanted the people to be really nourished, not just spiritually fed. What does that mean for us? How does the fact that we assemble around a table for communion every Sunday lead us to action?
The table is not just a place for us to commune with God privately. It is a sign of God’s overflowing abundance and desire for all to be fed, physically and spiritually.
I experienced some backlash this week after sharing a Patheos article on Facebook. The article, “How Offering Different Worship Styles Contributes to Church Decline” by Jonathan Aigner has made the rounds recently.
One commenter referred to the article as “toxic waste,” said I was wasting my time, and claimed I was starting a “worship war.” I found it hard to understand why there was such fiery backlash. Most of the objections were because they felt the author was invalidating any style of worship other than his personal preference. They seemed to think that the author was advocating for one, and only one way of worship.
To be upfront, the author is coming from a Baptist, evangelical framework which could be a reason for some of the backlash. And the author did take some potshots at contemporary worship: “Sentimental worship is just as toxic as contemporary worship.” Perhaps it was because I was just skimming the article, but when I read I tend to skip over the less helpful parts and focus on the things I think are said well. For example, one of the highlights for me was this excerpt:
“When we tell our people that we’re here to connect them with God through their own preferences, we are telling our people that worship is about their story.
When we suggest that corporate worship is about fitting everyone just right, we are telling our people that worship is about their story.
When our strategies for church growth hinge on making the worship life of the church fun, entertaining, and easy, we are telling our people that worship is about their story.
When we design worship services to flow seamlessly like a theatrical production, we are telling our people that worship is about their story.”
I have long questioned whether offering multiple styles of worship within one congregation is all that helpful. Is it a quick fix, a patch job, any easy way out of the slow, painstaking work of building a community that actually appreciates one another and puts their needs second to their neighbor?
Can we really claim to be surprised when church members act immature or self-centered after we have programmatically catered to their whims and preferences?
There are good reasons to offer multiple styles of worship. I think you could say that a church in a metropolitan, or ethnically diverse suburban area is being contextually faithful by offering multiple styles. But do we lose something by not learning each other’s songs? Are we missing a depth and richness of our song when it is stylistically monochromatic?
The real worship war is not about musical style or preference. The real worship war is about narrative. Who gets to be the main character in our worship? Whose story is the reason we assemble in worship?