This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Was Jesus Born to Die?

            There is an old Christmas spiritual which begins: “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, why Jesus the Savior did come for to die.”  The reason we wonder about it is because it doesn’t make any sense.  So we think we have to leave it as a divine mystery and just accept it on faith.  It is after all what some preachers have been telling us for over a thousand years. 
            Well, we can stop wondering.  Jesus came to announce, embody, and bring to people the Kingdom of God.  He did not, therefore, come to die.            
            If Jesus was “born to die,” Herod’s soldiers could have taken care of it when Jesus was a baby, which they were fully prepared and indeed ordered to do (Matthew 2:16-18).  We could then worship the baby Jesus (like Ricky Bobby in the film Talladega Nights), and remember how he “died for us,” without having to be inconvenienced by anything he did or said as a grown-up.    
            There is more to Jesus than his death.  Statements like this “born to die” thing reduce Jesus’ actual ministry to meaninglessness.  AND they undermine the importance of the resurrection. 
            In truth, Jesus himself says that he came to inaugurate and establish on earth the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:15): which is the healed and reconciled relationship between God and people, and people and each other.  He was born to live and show us how to live together.  He was born to bring us eternal life. 
            In order to do this he had to give his life (John 3:16).  And the life he actually lived is an integral part of this initiative.  Otherwise we would not know what kind of life he gives us.  He gives us his life in his ministry.  His ministry culminates in his death and resolves in his resurrection.  It is all one integrated movement.
            If he did not live the kind of life he lived his death would not matter.  Indeed, his death on the cross wouldn’t have even happened, since how he lived is what offended the authorities and caused them to have him executed.  It is his life, his actions, that demonstrate and prove his Messiahship (Matthew 11:2-6).  His life is able to be a “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45b) precisely because it had value in some demonstrated content in the way he lived: “not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45a).
            Excessive concentration on Jesus’ death is always a way to avoid the challenges of his life.  We can then focus on “what he did for us” while ignoring what he calls us to do for others.  The empire always gets more mileage out of a dead Jesus than a living one.   One thing crucifixes communicate is: “Worship him… but don’t follow him or this could happen to you.”

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Families With Young Children.

            I have read enough Church Information Forms in the last year, during the time of my under-employment, to realize that most old-line churches are in decline… but they still think everything will be fine when they start attracting “families with young children” again.  So they seek a minister who can help them do this.  Indeed, the quest for “families with young children” is the epitome of the mindset we in the church inherited from the 1950’s.  Our vision for the future of the church is a replica of the remembered past, when the church was filled with families with young children.  We imagine everything would be great if only we could get back to those days!
            In reality (a place many churches avoid like root-canal) families-with-young-children is not the same demographic it was 50 years ago.  We have fixated on the classic nuclear family of a man and a woman of the same race, married to each other, each in their first and only marriage, with two or three natural offspring, living in the same house together.  Ideally, the man has a decent job and the woman is a full-time mother and homemaker, with lots of time to do volunteer church work. 
            Now, there are still people like this out there.  But if they were ever the norm they are not now.  These folks represent, to say the least, a shrinking demographic.  In addition, those of this category who do exist today are not necessarily attracted to the traditional experience of church.  Which means that churches are actually aiming the bulk of their “evangelistic” efforts at an even tinier and more precipitously declining demographic: “families-with-young-children, -who-enjoy-traditional-church.”
            I suspect that almost all of these people who do exist are already active members of churches.  To try and attract them to a church is, except when considering newcomers, inherently and necessarily a matter of “sheep stealing.”  (That’s the epithet we give the practice of one church trying to take members away from another church.)  How many churches that have shown explosive growth by attracting this demographic have largely drawn them from other nearby churches?
            Some churches have widened the demographic somewhat by making the church experience more user-friendly.  They go to a format more like The Tonight Show, with rock music, breezy and light monologues, and almost nothing “religious” in sight.  This worked (if by “working” we mean it got people to come, sit, and watch) for a while for some.  But even this has also maxed out and leveled off.      
            In short, the bid to center a church’s evangelistic efforts on families-with-young-children is, at best, a lateral movement within the larger church, where members shift from smaller churches with fewer programs, or churches undergoing conflict, to larger churches that offer more programs and are at least at the moment healthier.  At worst, this emphasis is a suicidal waste of resources.  It attempts to attract people who are simply not there.
            So, if these people are not out there, and the general population has increased over the past half century, it follows that there are lots of other people who actually are out there.  But, because they do not fit the fantasy of the church that wants to be what it once was, they are invisible.
            Which brings me to Jesus’ own understanding of evangelism, as he states it in some detail in the Parable of the Sower.

            Jesus said: “Listen! A sower went out to sow.  And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up.  Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil.  And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away.  Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.  Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold” (Mark 3:3-8).

            The first thing that strikes me about this parable is how sloppy the sower is.  He does not take care to cast the seeds only at the good soil.  He throws it everywhere, all over the place.  His profligacy is out of control.  Everybody gets a chance to receive and nurture the good news. 
            This flies in the face of church growth experts who talk about churches targeting their outreach efforts at certain populations.  Churches are advised to undertake expensive demographic studies and analyses of population groups in the neighborhood around the church.   Then the idea is to shape the church’s message to appeal to the church’s selected target group. 
            But would Jesus do this kind of thing?  Do we ever find him re-engineering his message to attract or resonate with this or that interest group?  No.  While consultants advised churches to use a hook with bait designed to attract a very specific species of fish, Jesus casts a wide net intending to pull in a variety of fish (Matthew 13:47).
            The second thing that occurs to me about Jesus’ parable is that the seed is sent into the different kinds of soil.  It does not stay in the sower’s bag, with the sower somehow expecting the soil to come to him.  This is not an invitational approach.  This is not “if you built it they will come.”  The soil goes nowhere.  The seed is thrown onto it.  We in the church have been spending almost all of our energy trying to get people to come to us, as if we were retail outlets waiting for customers.  We have built expensive silos in which to store the seed of the word, expecting apparently to distribute it to those who show up.  But if we follow Jesus’ example we should be investing in seed spreading technology.  
            The third thing I notice here is that the church has chosen to target its seeds mainly on a certain kind of soil:  the elusive, mythical “families with young children.”  The church imagines this is “good soil,” but, as I have suggested above, it isn’t.  If it were good soil it would have produced the kind of lives Jesus inspires (Mark 4:20).  It hasn’t.  For instance, the “children” in the families-with-young-children who were so prevalent in the 1950’s, are largely gone from the church.  Focusing on this group back then did not result in the exponential harvest Jesus talks about.  Churches today are full of elderly people whose children and grandchildren find no reason to accept the good news.  
            Which means that the church has been busy intentionally and deliberately pouring nearly all of its seeds into bad ground.  And, because the good soil does not look like the church’s fantasy of the way things were in 1956, the church is assiduously ignoring it.  And then we wonder why the past 50 years of evangelistic/church growth strategies and tactics haven’t produced any significant fruit (except for church growth consultants).
            Jesus interprets the parable himself.

            “The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.  And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy.  But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.  And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing.  And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:14-20).

            The unproductive soil is described in three ways. 
            First, there is the road or path.  The seed just lies there until “Satan” comes and takes it away.  These are folks who just don’t get it.  The word bounces off of them and makes no impact.  It doesn’t sink in.  They forget it and move on. 
            Second, there is the rocky ground, where the seed is under constant challenge from “trouble or persecution.”  Its roots can’t go deep, and the new plant remains weak and eventually dies from overt hostility. 
            Third, there is the ground already covered in thornbushes.  The plants trying to sprout there may gain some root, but they can’t go higher because of the competition from shrubbery, cutting off the sunlight and giving no room.  These plants also die.  Jesus explicitly says the choking bushes are like “the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things.”  It is not hostility but the distractions of prosperity that kill this plant.             
            I wonder if there is any class of people more likely to be distracted by these kinds of concerns than families with young children.  If this demographic is so golden, why did the church of the 1950’s and 1960’s deflate so profoundly?  Clearly, this was not a good foundation upon which to build even then.      
            Notice that Jesus never says the word should not be sown in these unproductive kinds of soil anyway.  He remains a profligate and generous sower.  No one will be deprived a chance to embrace and respond to the word.
            In Jesus’ own ministry, he found the good soil in unlikely places.  “Tax-collectors and prostitutes” represent Jesus’ followers.  The religious elite generally classed these people as “sinners.”  Among outcasts, workers, slaves, women, the diseased, the possessed, the broken, the poor, and otherwise marginalized people… this is mostly where Jesus found good soil for the word.
            Which leads to where the church needs to go today.  We need to lose the fixation on attracting “families with young children.”  Obviously, the church will extend the good news to them.  But we also want to aim much more broadly, as Jesus did, and bring his message and practices to everyone. 
            That includes a lot of people whom the church has largely ignored: single parents, blended- or step-families, adoptive and foster families, and GLBT parents with children; and singles, disabled people, ethnic and economic minorities, empty-nesters, retired people, unmarried couples (Gay and straight), college students, the un- or underemployed, migrant workers, institutionalized people (in prisons, jails, nursing homes, rehab centers)….  And so on.
            Maybe we’d get more traction if we followed Jesus’ advice and example and started sowing the seed of the good news a lot more widely.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Mission to Suburbia.

            The church has to stop thinking of suburbia as prime real estate for church growth.  After over a century of mission, suburbia has become a very difficult context in which to follow, and encourage others to follow, Jesus Christ.           
            The expansion of the church into suburbia in the first half of the 20th century turns out to have sprawled townships wide… and only about a millimeter deep.  It really exploded for just one generation, that of the men returning from World War II.  But their church-going habit did not get passed to their kids, the Boomers.  Successive generations continued this drift away from the church.  Now in the second decade of the 21st century, the church must realize that suburbia is a very challenging mission field.
            Church officials still look at new developments of condos, tract-housing, or large “McMansions,” and imagine that any conventional church nearby will automatically thrive by the usual quantitative measurements.  That may have been the case fifty or sixty years ago, when these kinds of places were filled with young families looking for churches.  But the few people who fit that mold today have mostly already found their church homes.  Everyone else, that is, everyone who isn’t in a family-with-young-children and seeking a church, which is to say most of the people by far, are not going to be interested in, much less attracted to, the church down the road.  Suburbia is littered with failed and declining churches.
            One way to make a church in this environment thrive according to the standard measurements is to play to the market and give people what they want.  Hence, many churches are not shy about their embrace of causes, practices, worship styles, and attitudes they assume will be popular with most suburbanites.  Even this once famously effective mega-church strategy now shows signs of losing steam.
            An increasing number of people living in suburbia now see churches in a negative light.  There was a time when having a house of worship in the neighborhood was considered a plus.  But judging from the resistance churches now attract when they try to build or expand, many suburban residents view churches as a nuisance.  We have to get through our heads and into our actions that much of suburbia is now indifferent, or actually hostile, to Jesus, his message, and his church.
            The mission of the church in suburbia, as in any other place, is to witness to the love of God by following Jesus.  But discipleship in suburbia looks particularly subversive and eccentric.  Therefore, it will take significantly more discipline, intentionality, and courage to undertake mission in suburbia than we have ever imagined.
            Jesus’ life and message stand in stark contrast to the values and practices that often define the suburban context.
            - Where suburbia values individualism and independence, Jesus comes to establish a new community of mutual dependence, accountable to him. 
            - If suburbia is often about affluence, Jesus exemplifies simplicity and selfless generosity. 
            - Jesus’ would have his followers not be anxious about acquiring and keeping material things.  But gaining and protecting a “treasure on earth” is important for many in suburbia (Matthew 6:19-21, 24-34). 
            - Jesus’ call to work in solidarity with the poor, the sick, the outcast, and the alien challenges the suburban economic homogeneity.
            - In suburbia, forests and farms are wiped away for the sake of houses, highways, and malls.  Jesus, on the other hand, would have us walk lightly on the earth, generate less waste, and appreciate untamed environments.
            - If suburbia thinks of itself as a meritocracy, Jesus preaches the boundless, unmeritable grace of God. 
            The church in suburbia is called to be an alternative community.  It will witness to and express a lifestyle that is often contrary to what prevails.  It will necessarily undertake practices profoundly different from, and indeed perceived as critical of, what is considered normal.

            Of course, no people, and no region, is outside of the reach of God’s grace.  There are segments of the suburban population that could be nutrient-rich soil for the good news of God’s love in Jesus.
1.            First of all, we find many lonely, hurting people in suburbia.  The suburban lifestyle can be isolated and isolating.  This is not necessarily healthy for human beings.  There are casualties.  Therapists abound.  Many in suburbia seek healing and deeper community.  That’s why Twelve-Step groups draw such large numbers. 
            Jesus’ mission will benefit from presenting him as the healer he was, and showing how his community remains a place for real healing in his name. 
2.            We also discover, sprinkled among the population, a certain percentage who are open to spiritual practices.  Suburbia has many who would define themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  Yoga, Tai Chi, and assorted martial arts are popular.  While they appeal at first as techniques for improving physical health and well-being, a spiritual element is inextricably embedded in most of them.  Suburbia is fertile ground for things like holistic medicine and organic gardening.  It is not a majority of the people, by any means, who are into this sort of thing.  But there are spiritual seekers in suburbia.  Right now they are listening to voices and learning philosophies and practices from other parts of the world.  Without disrespecting these traditions, we have to present Jesus as one of these voices and show why he, and his philosophy and practices, may be beneficially followed.  Jesus and other faiths are not mutually exclusive.
            Suburbia may therefore be receptive to exploring the “mystical” heart of Christianity: things like Taize worship, meditation, labyrinth walks, spiritual discussion groups, and “emergent” liturgies, may readily take root.   
3.            People in suburbia tend to be educated.  Many are open-minded, informed, thoughtful, humanistic, and aware of the larger world.  We should not downplay the intellectual integrity of our faith, but demonstrate how following Jesus’ teachings is essential for bringing justice and peace into our lives. 
            On the other hand, educated people are often likely to have reason for a particularly negative view of the historical church.  They see the image of Christians portrayed in the media as violent, hysterical, hypocritical, and bigoted.  This fits with what is often taught about Christianity in secular universities, where the focus is on things like the Crusades, the Inquisition, and religious wars. 
            We need to acknowledge this history and honestly admit the awful atrocities that have been committed in Jesus’ name.  But at the same time we should strenuously separate ourselves from that foul part of our tradition.  The church has always had a mystical, contemplative, social-justice, inclusive, and healing side;
every age has had Christians who actually sought to follow Jesus.  This is the spirit we want to embody today.
4.            Suburbia is becoming more multi-cultural.  The percentage of suburbanites who are Asians, Latinos, Africans, and African-Americans is increasing, as is that of people who practice other religions, like Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism.  While this aggravates the xenophobia and racism of some, many in suburbia are coming to know these “different” people as friends, neighbors, coworkers, and in-laws.  We should emphasize our witness to Jesus as one who welcomed aliens by reaching out in inclusion, conversation, and celebration of different voices in our midst.  Highlighting interfaith activities and conversations would be one way to do this.
            A largely invisible and underestimated class of “support” people also exists in suburbia: like housekeepers, nannies, gas station attendants, security guards, health care providers, and landscapers.  Many of these folks are non-European in extraction.  The church is compelled by Jesus’ example to locate and befriend these people.  Some of them “live in;” many commute to work from somewhere else.  Ministry with these folks should be an essential aspect of the church’s mission. 
5.            There are some good “secular” people in suburbia.  We should partner with those who coach soccer, serve on civic committees, collect for the Cancer Society, give to disaster relief, volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, go on work trips with churches, and so forth.  Anyone who follows Jesus even a little, even without explicitly acknowledging him, is the ally and friend of his people.  Jesus himself said, “Anyone who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50).
6.            Finally, we may find invisible sub-groups in suburbia which could be open to hearing and living the good news of Jesus.  Disabled people, different tribes of young people, non-traditional families, Gays, empty-nesters, etc., etc., have particular  spiritual needs and desires.  The church needs to be imaginative and open its eyes to who is really here and find ways to welcome and journey with them.
            All these people put together may not be most of the population in suburbia; but they are enough to form small, healthy, and vibrant communities of serious and active disciples of Jesus Christ.  Jesus called his disciples leaven (Matthew 13:13): a small cadre of activists who influence the whole society in a positive way.  This more subversive and subtle approach may be the way to undertake a faithful and effective mission to suburbia.