Sermon from February 2, 2020. 4 Epiphany A. Matthew 5:1-12.
Borrowing generously from Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Benediction, “Blessed are the Agnostics.”
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:
If you were to visit a church in North America today, chances are you would be faced with a choice: contemporary or traditional. Occasionally there might be a third option of “blended.” There might also be additional styles of worship offered (emerging, recovery, Taizé, liturgical, etc.). Faced with these choices, those assembled are practically begged to answer the questions, “What is my preference?” “What do I like?” and “What works for me?”
These choices for worship have come to be expected in many churches. Is there anything wrong with them? Perhaps they are a cultural phenomenon in a society bent on individualization (a symptom of the Burger King ethos where you can “have it your way”). Perhaps they are the church’s most missional effort to reach as many people possible with the gospel of Jesus. However, a church that encourages self-preferential behavior seems to run against the path of discipleship that teaches, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). What style would worship take if those assembled regarded others as better than themselves?
Reframing the style question
When a new church is birthed or when an existing church launches a new opportunity to assemble for worship, do they ask, “Are we going to be traditional, contemporary, or blended?” Do they look at what the largest church in town does and duplicate it? Is there another way to discern what style of worship a church should employ? Maybe a church has decided that offering multiple styles of worship has become divisive and done more harm than good. Perhaps their question is, “How do we move past traditional and contemporary?”
“Traditional,” “contemporary,” and “emerging” are merely labels. There are instances when our labels are not necessarily helpful or accurate. (see also, “How is worship traditional? How is worship contemporary?”) Regardless of their benefit or precision, these styles for worship have developed and the labels have become affixed to the church’s conscience. In order to move past these labels, a better question may be needed: “How do we figure out what our local worship should sound like?”
“Jesus whom we worship was born into a specific culture of the world. In the mystery of his incarnation are the model and the mandate for the contextualization of Christian worship. God can be and is encountered in the local cultures of our world. A given culture’s values and patterns, insofar as they are consonant with the values of the Gospel, can be used to express the meaning and purpose of Christian worship. Contextualization is a necessary task for the Church’s mission in the world, so that the Gospel can be ever more deeply rooted in diverse local cultures.” (Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture, 3.1)
The Nairobi Statement reasons that worship, as it dynamically relates to the given culture in which it is enacted, is contextual. Worship cannot be disconnected from the time and place in which it is enacted. Many of the factors pertaining to how worship is offered are determined by its particular context. “We call on all churches to give serious attention to exploring the local or contextual elements of liturgy, language, posture and gesture, hymnody and other music and musical instruments, and art and architecture for Christian worship.” (Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture, 6.1) Faithful worship does not ignore the people or culture in which it is located.
Suggestions for making worship contextual
To return to our reframing question: “What should our local expression of worship sound like?” Contextual worship makes use of the music, language, and artistic forms of the local culture the church is planted in. This means that Lutheran worship in downtown New Orleans will potentially be radically different than Lutheran worship in rural Montana. Regardless of how radically different they appear in form and content, they both remain faithful enactments of Lutheran worship. The willingness to connect to the surrounding culture and become contextual make their worship faithfully Lutheran, not their predilection for Baroque-era European music. Contextual worship requires rooting into the neighborhood. There are no shortcuts to contextual worship; real, relational, outwardly focused ministry is the only way to discern context. Contextual worship does not imply a disregard for global music or the historical practices of the church.
The sounds of a worshiping assembly should be reflective of the culture that it is planted in. The musical gifts present that are present within a local church should be used to make worship contextual. The Holy Spirit, equipping her for ministry, gives these gifts to the local church. Many churches have a preconceived idea that worship should sound a certain way, requiring particular instruments for worship to sound that way. Instead of hiring a drummer or hiring an organist because of the perception of what worship should sound like, worship should sound like what you are.
The sounds of contextual worship, produced by the people that God has gifted to a church, should be current and modern, as well as reach back into the history of our faith.
P.S. For further analysis of how to enact faithful, Lutheran worship that is also transcultural, counter-cultural, and cross-cultural, see Can We Talk? Engaging Worship and Culture.
When we are baptized, all of our life is baptized. Every portion of our mind, body, and soul is washed in the cleansing stream of the river of life. Every corner of who we are is wholly dead to sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. When we are baptized we are claimed as God’s child, brought into the loving embrace of God’s body, the church, and wrapped in the arms of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We are then free to find our calling and serve in God’s kingdom, no matter what type of occupation we hold. Everything about us is put into service of making God’s plan of new creation happen where we are.
Leading church music is different than any other type of music. It is a high calling that requires humility and a servant-attitude. The first goal is always to honor/praise God through the music. The second goal is to help the congregation join in. Church music is not entertainment. Church music is helping people participate in worship. Encouraging people to participate starts by making sure that the music is done in a way that makes it easy to sing along, and subsequently making it easy for people to express their hearts to God through the music.
This is part 6 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. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5)
As far as I can tell, this will be the last post in this series about leaving denominational expressions of church. It has been a good way for me to process some of the things I’ve been feeling as we started a new church that was not connected to a denomination or launched out of an established church. But the Church, however, is always connected whether we realize it or not. For there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). And we all claim the same head – the Lord Jesus Christ.
This series of posts has also been a way for me to catalog quotes from others that confirmed my thinking. Here are a few more that have turned up in recent days.
From Bill Easum:
If we were to rely more on the Holy Spirit than on modern, democratic models, denominational structures would be replaced by church-to-church structures based on what is needed to transform each churches community.
Sadly, I think most denominations started out with this intention in mind. And when they operate effectively, they can achieve this church-to-church, Spirit-infused community transformation. But other times bureaucracy gets in the way.
So what can denoms do to get unstuck? Tony Morgan offers some ideas:
The United Methodist Church has lost about three million members since 1970. The number of people attending at least one Church of England service each month is down by 50% since 1968. Today less than three percent of the population attends services. Denominations are stuck.
I get to work with and communicate with church leaders across the country every day. Here’s what I know to be true — churches are stuck as well. Sometimes they don’t know they’re stuck. But, the symptoms are fairly obvious. Here are some symptoms to identify whether or not your church is stuck. Some of them are more obvious than others:
- The church has stopped growing.
- The congregation is aging.
- Giving has declined.
- Spiritual growth has stalled. People are just “consuming” ministry.
- People aren’t serving.
- People have stopped reaching their neighbors.
- The church isn’t developing leaders.
- Communications are confusing and lack purpose.
One of the main reasons I believe churches are stuck is because their systems and strategies are broken. Churches continue to use their same systems, but hope and pray for different results. The only way to get different results is to engage different systems. But, unfortunately, many churches (and denominations) would rather stay stuck and eventually die rather than making changes that might make people (including leaders) feel uncomfortable.
Some people getting uncomfortable might be the answer. Maybe the answer also lies in seeing denominations with different eyes. I’ll admit that this diagram from Steve Collins hurts my brain a little bit. It’s called “Scalability: What are denominations in emergence?”
(HT: Jonny Baker)
A denomination in emergence:
- does not have a fixed or necessary hierarchy
- does not have a large difference between the top and bottom of any hierarchy that may appear
- does not locate authority in predetermined or fixed positions
- does not have clear or static boundaries
- does not have a clear or static centre
- has constantly varying degrees of membership
- may dissolve, and reform later somewhere else
Is there hope and a future for denominations? Maybe. There are obviously a lot of positive things they accomplish – things for God’s Kingdom and for the benefit of those suffering. But long term viability may require seeing things with new eyes and pruning back some of the branches that don’t belong. Which is what the Church should always be doing.
This is part 4 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. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)
One of the saddest facts for some denominational expressions of church is the ingrained tendency for rivalry. Whether its Missouri Synod vs. Wisconsin Synod, or The Church of God (Charleston, TN) vs. The Church of God (Cleveland, TN), or Church of Christ (instrumental) vs. Church of Christ (non-instrumental). Most denominations come hard-wired with divisiveness, separatistic tendencies, and the need to clearly mark the difference between “us” and “them.” When you leave denominational forms of church, these are things that have to be unlearned.
Some leaders in the Presbyterian Church (USA) recently summarized the current situation in the denomination:
Over the past year, a group of PC(USA) pastors has become convinced that to remain locked in unending controversy will only continue a slow demise, dishonor our calling, and offer a poor legacy to those we hope will follow us. We humbly share responsibility for the failure of our common life, and are no better as pastors nor more righteous than anyone on other sides of tough issues. Our denomination has been in steady decline for 45 years, now literally half the size of a generation ago. Most congregations see far more funerals than infant baptisms because we are an aging denomination. Only 1,500 of our 5,439 smallest churches have an installed pastor, putting their future viability as congregations in doubt. Even many larger congregations, which grew well for decades, have hit a season of plateau or decline. We are determined to get past rancorous, draining internal disputes that paralyze our common life and ministry.
Now I will say this: I’m not talking about different ethnic or racial churches. Nor am I referring to different styles or expressions of music/worship/liturgy. But I am talking about taking the minute details that make us different and building entirely segregated groups of Christians based on details that don’t matter to a world searching for the living waters of Christ. Hmmmm – maybe “segregations” is a better word for “denominations?”
I can also add this: I have sat in a room with people who serve in about a dozen differing denominational backgrounds and planned the details of a service of worship together. And then executed the service together as a team of servant leaders. There is hope. Ecumenism is a helpful thing. There is beauty in the diversity of Christ’s body. And even in our diversified beliefs that cause the splits, there is still “one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:5).”
Looking at the ecumenical movement it is noticeable that there is an increased desire for unity in the church today. There is a pulling toward a center, with less emphasis on the extreme outer edges that divide us. A quote from Phyllis Tickle:
American religion had never had a center before, primarily because it was basically Protestant in its Christianity; and Protestantism, with its hallmark characteristic of divisiveness, has never had a center. Now one was emerging, but what was emerging was no longer Protestant. It was no longer any “thing,” actually. It was simply itself, a melange of “things” cherry-picked from each quadrant and put together – some would say cobbled together – without any original intention and certainly with no design beyond that of conversation. (The Great Emergence, p. 134)
And a quote from Bob Roberts, on what he thinks it will take to be a pastor in America in the next 20 years:
The ability to work across “party” lines. No longer will we work in isolation from other tribes, denominations, nations, or even religions for that matter – there will be some things that will be necessary that all of us learn to respect one another and get along. For believers, Jesus makes it clear that “they will know we are his by our love for each other” and we have been called to Unity – how in God’s name that will happen will be the greatest supernatural miracle since the resurrection.
“Revelation wasn’t written to us, but we hear it as a word for us, once we understand it as a word for them, and what it was saying to them.”
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.
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.
“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).
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.