Weekly Worship Thought – Easter Vigil Recap

Faith Lutheran Church began to hold the Easter Vigil in 2012. Some of our long-term members can recall gathering for worship on the Saturday before Easter decades ago, so technically 2012 was not the first time the Vigil was held at Faith. However, Faith began to celebrate the Vigil anew in 2012. That means that this was our fifth year to gather on the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday.

I’m not going to sugar coat it: this service is not easy. It is not the most “user friendly” worship we offer. It starts late (8:00 PM). It runs long (nearly two hours). There is a procession from outside the building to inside the gym. There are SIX scripture readings (but I want you to know that there are 12 readings assigned for the service, so it could be worse). The air conditioning turned off half way through the service. I could go on, but you get my drift.

Why is it so challenging? Our version of the Easter Vigil is modeled after what we know the church did based on historical documents from the first several centuries after the resurrection. In the first centuries of Christianity, believers would gather together and hold vigil, all night long from sunset on Saturday till sunrise on Sunday. The church would be gathered in prayer in one part of the building, while in another part of the building, final preparation was being made for candidates for baptism. These candidates had in some cases been preparing for three years. Three years of gathering with the believers on Sunday, hearing the word read and the gospel proclaimed, and then being ushered out of worship into a separate space for further explanation and instruction. There time of preparation was intense and included fasting and exorcisms.

Why did it take so long? Mainly because the church didn’t assume that their candidates understood the doctrinal basics of the faith. But also because these candidates weren’t simply transferring their name to a new church directory or joining a country club. They were undergoing the radical transformation that we call conversion. Their thinking, their livelihood, their origins, their idolatry, and everything else about them were called into question. It was a slow, measured, weighty process. These churches weren’t interested in the assembly line production of Christians. This was slow-growth, organic, artisanal discipleship.

Now you see some of the rationale behind the First Steps @ Faith catechumenate. Our motivating factor is slightly different though. We think that it is relational connectedness that is most needed for a newcomer in this day and age. More than fully grasping what it means that Jesus is both human and divine, more than renouncing our idolatrous ways of being, we think that candidates need to know that they are loved and cared for by a group of people called into community by God’s Spirit. That is the bed of soil that the seed of faith is planted in.

I have many favorite parts of the Easter Vigil, and one of them is how we gather together for this service. We start outside around a fire. If you’re a fan of camping you will get this. There is something magical about being outdoors around burning wood. If we try to explain the magic we can trace it all the way back to the origins of what it means to be human. What set us apart from the other animals is that we learned how to use tools and start fires. So gathering around a fire outdoors is perhaps one of the earliest, oldest cognitive memories of humanity. Fire is also a central symbol in our faith. God led Israel by fire through the desert. God spoke to Moses in a flame. All the way down to the narrative of Easter, where around the fire Peter denies even knowing the Lord. We start the service around a fire. But not any fire, a new fire, signaling a new way of being that is burning into our world.

If you’ve never been, make plans to attend the Easter Vigil next year.

Weekly Worship Thought – Silence

mv5bmjy3otk0nja2nv5bml5banbnxkftztgwntg3mjc2mdi-_v1_sy1000_cr006401000_al_I saw the film “Silence” last week. The new Martin Scorsese movie is getting a lot of buzz in the religious world. It raises many spiritual elements in a thought-provoking way: faith, doubt, iconography, apostasy, evangelism, and suffering to name a few.

I read the novel by Shusaku Endo (on which the movie is based) about five years ago. One of the most intriguing characters in the novel/movie is Kichijiro. He is the guide that the priests take back to Japan to show them the way. He ends up being the Judas-type character of the story. But the more I think about it, Kichijiro is like the church. As much as we whole-heartedly repent and turn to seek God, we just as earnestly jump back into our old ways. I’m reminded of the line from Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love…”

This film has stuck with me. Most movies I see don’t leave much of an impact, but I find myself still reflecting on this one. I recommend it if you get the chance. This is not a popcorn and soda type of movie though. It is sobering and very artistically done.

Weekly Worship Thought – Welcome to Baptism

riverIf you were with us in worship last Sunday you got to see the “Welcome to Baptism” rite by which we introduce our candidates in the First Steps @ Faith catechumenate process. The rite of welcome is an important transitional moment for these folks. It signifies that they are committing to growing their faith in Jesus in a very intentional way. It also lifts up to the church the fact that we have disciples sprouting in our midst, and our job is to nurture and encourage them in their journey of following Jesus. The ritual we witnessed is one of the most ancient rites of the Christian church. Record of its existence goes as far back as Hippolytus in 235 AD. “New converts to the faith, who are to be admitted to hearers of the word, shall first be brought to the teachers before the people assembled. And they shall be examined as to their reason for embracing the faith, and they who bring them shall testify that they are competent to hear the word.” (Webber, Journey to Jesus, p. 83)

(Welcome to Baptism starts at 34:42)

“God Still…Draws the Whole World” Message

Magi_(1)Matthew 2:1-23 –
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”
7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead. 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus (Arche-Lay-Us) was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

  • Prologue
    Welcome to the first Sunday of Christmas; remember that there are 12 days in the season of Christmas. Unlike our house, the tree is still up here at Faith. Also this is the last Sunday of the year 2013 – which happens to be the most heretical Sunday of the church year! Why are churches across the nation filled with heresy today? Because this is the Sunday that every pastor takes off, thus leaving others to fill in the pulpit. Which leads to all sorts of heresy! (Hopefully not here.) Continue reading

TUNE UP worship band gathering recap

Coaching for Bands 1aOn Saturday, August 10, 2013, the first TUNE UP worship band gathering was held. Over 125 contemporary worship musicians and sound techs assembled on the campus of Faith Lutheran Church in Bellaire, TX (Houston) for a day of learning, growing, and networking. The event was organized by the Worship Excellence Team of the TX-LA Gulf Coast Synod (ELCA) to provide training in the fundamentals of music and worship.

The group that gathered represented 28 congregations including Lutheran, Nazarene, Episcopal, and Non-Denominational churches. Churches from as far away as Austin, TX and Chalmette, LA brought musicians to attend the event.

The schedule included times of worship, instrumental/vocal tracks, and conceptual tracks. A team of track leaders with main speaker Bishop Mike Rinehart led worship. The instrumental tracks were divided by specific instrument (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboard, drums, vocals, sound tech). Each group gathered together for training and instruction specific to that instrument. Conceptual track offerings included sessions on arranging songs for worship, choosing songs for worship, and principles for worship. Additionally, a “Coaching for Bands” track was offered in which two church bands received feedback and help with their music from a panel of track leaders.

1167394_1402084233343388_1413482869_oOne attendee commented, “It’s nice to attend an event where you get something you can actually use.” Another said, “Thanks for doing this. It helped to refocus me on being a lead worshipper instead of a lead guitarist.”

An overwhelming amount of positive responses suggest that we will likely offer the event again in the future. Watch the event website for details: TuneUpGathering.org.

Proposing an Ancient-Future Faith

I’m part of a new community that is forming called the “Ancient Future Faith Network” (AncientFutureFaithNetwork.org). I’ve always felt the need for ministry to be rooted in the historical, not just concerned with the novelty of the now. Bob Webber, in “Ancient-Future Faith” writes:

“In biblical and ancient times worship was the primary way of experiencing God’s saving work in history. Early Christian sermons (as in Acts) and liturgies (both Eastern and Western) are oriented around the proclamation and enactment of God’s saving work from creation to the consummation. This historical and symbolic recitation expressed the identity of the church, gave shape to its communal self-understanding, and signified its place in the world. During the first three centuries of the church, worship took place in homes or the catacombs. Its content was primarily the proclamation of God’s salvation and the anticipation of Christ’s return. The culminating praise of worship celebrated the work of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. Because believers did not meet in churches, worship was informal and intimate.” (p. 97)

The vision of the Ancient-Future Faith Network (AFFN) is to grow and facilitate a grassroots network of like-minded individuals and churches.

At its core is Bob Webber’s 2006 “Call to an Ancient-Evangelical Future”. But the association is not so much about doctrinal bona fides as it is about mutual encouragement and resourcing. The very heart of the Network is its members. Our desire is that members will find in this virtual community of faith a vibrant place for interaction. The Network:

  • Is purposefully ecumenical and non-denominational.
  • Exists for the purpose of championing and promulgating an Ancient-Future theology and philosophy.
  • Is open to men and women around the world— both ministers and lay persons— inside and outside of established churches who are interested in worship renewal and what it means to be Ancient-Future.
  • Exists for established churches, and people who serve them, who want access to Ancient-Future materials, resources, and ideas, and want to learn from, share, and collaborate with those who are using them.
  • Exists for brand new church starts, and those called to start them, who need a network of encouraging, like-minded communities of faith.
  • Promotes and coordinate conferences, workshops, and offer appropriate resources and materials consistent with the mission of the AFFN.

If interested in learning more you can browse the AFFN website and join the network.

Fellowship Belongs

Transcript:

  • Acts 2:42-47
    42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
  • Robert Putnam wrote a book in 2000 called “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” In this book, Putnam puts out a simple premise: “Americans need to reconnect with one another.” He chronicles that many of the civic organizations that were started and thriving in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s have begun to collapse. Bowling leagues and garden clubs that had popped up and continually been replenished with new members, suddenly stopped growing. In the last 20 years, many of these groups have ceased to exist. The church hasn’t been immune either. The days when it was assumed that everyone would belong to a church somewhere are gone.
  • However, in the passage from Acts 2 we hear the story of the early church – the followers of Jesus that formed communities immediately after Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This passage presents a paradigm for church membership that includes four main actions: the teaching of the apostles, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer (v. 42). These four main actions are expounded on in the verses that follow (vv. 43-47). These four main actions synthesized the new faith of these Jesus followers.
  • The first action was that they “remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles” (Acts 2:42). The teaching is specifically related to how the apostles worked “many signs and miracles” (v. 43). In the modern mindset, it can be very difficult to link these two things: teaching and miracles. The Western, Post-Enlightenment, rational mind tends to view teaching favorably and miracles with questioning. However, in ancient Eastern cultures, as well as in many developing cultures today, miraculous events are seen as modes of authentication.  At one time in the church’s history, theology was naturally linked to miracles, spirituality, and mystery.
  • The next action that the earliest followers of Jesus remained faithful to was “the fellowship” (Acts 2:42). The Greek term used is koinonia which is also translated as “the community.” Specifically, the fellowship practiced by the early church is elaborated on by their familial sharing of possessions. They “owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and distributed the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed” (vv. 44-45). Actions such as these were the signs of a deep connectedness and humility toward one another. Jesus’ teaching that one should “lend without any hope of return” (Luke 6:35) was being actualized.
  • The third action that the early church committed to was “the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42). This action is expanded on with the description that they “met in their houses for the breaking of bread; they shared food gladly and generously” (v. 46). It is worth noting that the Eucharistic practice of the early church occurred during the sharing of a larger, common meal (known as the agape). When the early church had communion, it wasn’t in a continuous assembly line! It was in the context of the common meal the blessing and thanksgiving over the bread and wine would take place. Eventually the practice of the common meal fell out of use and the rite of giving thanks that Jesus instituted remained.  It is clear from the language in Acts 2:42 that the common meal was the practice in the context of Jerusalem. The sharing of food generously speaks to the context of the larger agape meal. The breaking of bread, however, is more specific language that Luke previously used when Jesus shared a meal with some disciples after the resurrection (Luke 24:35). When the disciples broke bread together, it was more than an ordinary meal. The breaking of bread recalled the death of Jesus, the mighty acts of God’s salvation fulfilled in Jesus, and the hope of his return. For Jewish believers, recalling Jesus’ death through the breaking of bread was more than detailed memory. It was the truth, fully alive and come to life before their eyes.
  • The fourth action to which the disciples committed themselves was “the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The disciples’ faithfulness in prayers related to how “they regularly went to the Temple” (v. 46) and “praised God” (v. 47). Just as the final parts of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem took place within the context of the Temple, so the apostles and early church continued to gather there for prayer. Despite the persecution and uncertainty that surrounded them, the early church was characterized by their praise of God.
  • These four main actions of the early church remain essential in the church today. It is vital to remain connected to the apostolic teaching and witness to Jesus’ life and ministry. Being bonded together with other Christ-followers in fellowship and commonality is also important today. Continually remembering, giving thanks, and looking forward to Jesus around the table are still central symbolic actions in the church. Jesus has also established his church to be a house of prayer and continual praise. These four actions provide the framework for membership in the New Testament church. These four things are still central to our church here at Faith today.
  • Today we are honing on one of the four actions from the early church in Acts 2: Fellowship. In our church we say, “Faith belongs.” The word “belonging” is such a fascinating way of thinking about fellowship and membership in the church. When we join a church – or I would suggest instead of saying “when we join” it is actually “when the Spirit draws us into a church” – it is more than signing your name on a line or attending a class. You are actually belonging yourself to a group of people. They belong to you, and you belong to them. And that is something that the world and culture around us is thirsty for – an authentic community. There is a brokenness in our culture, and it stems from our individualism. We prefer to close ourselves off from the rest of the world. We wear earbuds everywhere (work, shop, and exercise), we’ve got man caves (private dens of testosterone), we work in cubicles (usually wearing headphones). We see our world through an individualistic lens. Lead actors and actresses. Sports stars. Solo artists. Top chef.
  • Now compare that with Scripture. Start with the Passover. God rescuing his people Israel from the bondage and slavery of Egypt, delivering them to freedom and new life. Think about how the Passover is celebrated in the Jewish community. The central episode in Hebrew history is celebrated, not in a synagogue by priests, but in the home, by parents around a table set for an evening meal. Its been said that if all Christian churches closed their doors today, the faith would crumble. But if all the synagogues closed their doors, the Jewish faith would carry on as if nothing had happened.
  • The transformative aspect of a church community is not only the religious practices, but the friendships that are nurtured there
  • The new covenant that Jesus established – Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, opening the gate for belonging to the people of God (no longer race-related, no longer born into it, but available to everyone/everywhere) – The new covenant was instituted and is renewed in the context of fellowship, specifically in the act of table fellowship.
  • New research from Robert Putnam: He suggests pastors: “Spend less time on the sermons, and more time arranging the church suppers.” In a new Gallup-Healthways poll with more than 676,000 participants it was revealed that the more church friends a person has, the happier he or she is. “Church friends are super-charged friends, but we have no idea why,” “We have some hypotheses, but we don’t know for sure.” The researchers found that non-church friends do not provide the same benefit in terms of well-being, and that other measures of being religious — like belief in God or frequency of prayer — do not serve as a reliable predictor of a person’s satisfaction with life.
  • A meal is a real, valuable act in a church. It takes attention, the food has to come from somewhere, and it all has to be planned, prepared, and afterwards cleaned up. There is really good work, as Putnam indicates, for pastors (and other church leaders) to do in arranging church suppers, both for the act of fellowship and the friendships that will be nurtured around the table.
  • “People who frequently attend religious services are more satisfied with their lives not because they have more friends overall but because they have more friends in their congregations,” And churchgoing alone without making friends does not improve well-being, they found.
  • Putnam said, “In short, sitting alone in the pew does not enhance one’s life satisfaction,” Only when one forms social networks in a congregation does religious service attendance lead to a higher level of life satisfaction.”
  • The transformative aspect of a church community is not only the religious practices but the friendships that are nurtured there. Or perhaps it’s that developing friendships is a religious practice. There is a spirituality to being woven into the fabric of community. Sharing life, sharing possessions, sharing joys and sorrows.
  • Let me encourage you: Don’t be a “lurker.”
  • Belong to Faith – find a group of people that you can belong to and that they can belong to you – Faith Family Fun Days, Learning Groups, Congregational Events/Meals, service opportunities.

Recap from "Exploring the Future Church" Session 2

“Exploring the Future Church” is a series of discussions around the question, “What does it mean to be in a faith community?” These sessions are the foundation of the ministry intervention for my doctoral thesis (Discerning the Meaning of Church Membership at Theophilus). If you’d like to follow along you can download the notes from Session 2 here: Session 2 Handout

Big Takeaway from Session 2: God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15) was meant to be a blessing for all people (Genesis 12:3). The fulfillment of God’s promise to bless all people is realized through the Holy Spirit working in and through the church (beginning at Pentecost, leading to today, and into the future). There is some difficulty in explaining ideas like “covenant” and “Kingdom” today. They are foreign terms for most people. God’s Kingdom and covenant can be simply understood as “God’s love working to bless all people and bring peace.” When it comes to the church, people are wary of joining institutions that are interested in their own preservation. The foundation of the church has to be authentic and genuine relationships.

Unplugging from the Matrix, part 3

This is part 3 of a series of reflections about the journey of starting a church and leaving established, organizational, denominational religion. It’s a lot like unplugging from the matrix. (Read Part 1, Read Part 2)

The Church Building. Also known as the sanctuary, worship center, nave, cathedral, auditorium, chapel, worship-torium, etc.

Churches waste money on buildings.

Church buildings aren’t inherently bad. Good things can come from a church having a building. But a church shouldn’t have to waste loads of money on a building – instead of investing in things that better serve the Kingdom of God and alleviate suffering in the world.

Everything that makes the church “the church” can be accomplished without a building. Can the Gospel be proclaimed without a building? Yes. Can you love and serve your neighbor without a building? Yes. Can you care for orphans, widows, and strangers without a building? Yes. Can you learn more about Jesus, the Bible, and discipleship without a building? Yes. Can you baptize people without a permanent baptistry or font? Yes. Can you share God’s meal of bread and wine without permanent furniture? Yes.

Oh, oh, oh, but how will we have a potluck luncheon, if we don’t have a building?!?

Well, the first issue is that you’ve named something a potluck luncheon :-). If anything, not having a physical building enhances our ability to be a community and tribe. Not having a building forces us to build relationships around tables, at bars, and in living rooms, which is where community is meant to happen and really occurs.

Mike quoted David Platt last year:

He makes a pretty good case that traditional churches are not very effective or efficient at helping change the world because they tend to get consumed with their buildings, their campuses and their little empires. (American Christians spend $10 billion a year on their church buildings, and almost a quarter trillion dollars is tied up in church-owned real estate.) In his book, Platt does a good job of challenging Christians to start caring less about building fancy, state-of-the-art church campuses and, instead, to start caring more about impacting the world for good.

One of the biggest cultural shifts for people that leave established/institutional church is getting over the building. The challenge is finding a way to create sacred spaces where people can feel like they’re “at church,” while not sacrificing the money to have an empty building 6 days a week.

Unplugging from the Matrix, part 1

The Matrix” is a film from 1999 that “depicts a future in which reality as perceived by most humans is actually a simulated reality created by sentient machines.

If memory serves me correctly, the movie became a natural analogy used by many hip preachers back at the turn of the millennium. It was an easy connection to the “in this world but not of this world” aspect of our faith.

Recently I’ve been reflecting on the journey of starting a church and leaving established, organizational, denominational religion. Its a lot like unplugging from the matrix.

A quote from Will Mancini:

The rise of church planting networks not only validate the entrepreneurial spirit but enable new groupings of ” the small” from the prior trend to exert more influence. As the new learning, new strategies and new relationships cluster in these front line networks, the knowledge, encouragement and accountability of traditional denominations bring less value. It’s no surprise to most readers that the time and resources from most denominations are woefully tied up with ineffective congregations.

When you first make the decision to leave the established/denominational church there is a lot of fear. It’s a scared-of-the-unknown, red pill/blue pill type decision. It’s inherently risky. I’ve spent several nights pondering whether delivering pizzas was in my career path. Or maybe inquiring about a managerial position at the local Half Price Books. But when you step back and look at the world today, that reality is present in every sector of the job market. So while leaving the established may seem risky, was it ever safe to begin with?

If you leave organized/denominational/established religion to find or create the perfect church, you’re doing it for the wrong reason. Because even the cool church with all the best intentions of not repeating the sins of the big brother down the block is doomed for imperfection. Because the church is made of people. And we all suck (see Romans 3:23).

A quote from Morpheus in the movie:

What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

The reality is this: God is working in some of the most unlikely places. I think that’s been the point all along, and why the Bible includes liars, adulterers, murderers, and doubters among it’s greatest heroes. When you step outside the matrix of established religion, there is another world. It is the real world and it is filled with people. And God is working in it.