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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

nextchurch, pt 2 - who we are and who we're not

I'd like to reflect on another aspect of the NEXTchurch conference I attended in Dallas: how NEXT relates or doesn't relate to the Fellowship of Presbyterians.  I have seen numerous tweets, FB comments, and other commentary noting that very similar conversations are being held around the church (NEXT, Fellowship, Mid-Council Commission, 21st Century Church Commission, nFOG, etc...) on new, open, flexible, emerging models of mission, witness, and BEING the church in the world.   And I agree that very similar conversations are being shared in many places.

I went to the Orlando conference of the Fellowship of Presbyterians.  And we were having that conversation.  I just got back from the NEXT conference in Dallas, and we were having that conversation.  And here's the thing... my focus in this post is on NEXT, but I will say that the Fellowship/ECO is facing and will have to face what I think is a pull in two directions.  One is to have this, shall we call it "emerging missional church" conversation, and the other is the "how will we separate from or differentiate from the Presbyterian Church?"  And I understand the importance of that second conversation (not really the focus here), but I think it pulls in a different direction than the first.  And so you have folks in Orlando who aren't really in "all that missional stuff"; they just want out.  Etc...

Well, I think NEXT has a similar dual-pull.  And I heard it throughout the conference.  On the one hand, like the Fellowship, GA commissions, and others, we were having that conversation about where God seems to be leading the church in terms of mission, witness, community, authenticity, etc...   And that vision of WHAT WE ARE (or could be) was what was most exciting at the conference.  And then I kept hearing bits and pieces of WHO WE AREN'T.... and I couldn't help filling in the blanks.  In prayers and keynotes and liturgy and sermons:
  • We aren't pulling away from the denomination (like them).... 
  • I have some conservative friends who are way out of step with the culture (no argument; should we not then be at NEXT?).... 
  • A prayer full of paired opposites - Jew/Greek, slave/free, gay/straight - and including evangelical/mainline (is that the right pairing?  I know many evangelicals remaining in the mainline)... 
  • And the ending message with a very clear dig at the Fellowship/ECO, "an ecosystem that is monocultural is NOT sustainable"
In a geographic break-out group, I raised this point... NEXT is going to feel pressure internally and externally (and systemically) to define itself by who and what it is not.  And if it does that, it's going to become an affinity group (I've already heard "Covenant Network 2.0" floating around).  And if it becomes that, it's okay, but I think it will have missed becoming what many present in Dallas (including I'd say at least 50-100 evangelicals present*) sense that it could be, which is a broad new expression of what God is doing in and with the Presbyterian Church.

My challenge to the NEXT leadership and participants?   Keep saying WHO YOU ARE and resist the pull to say who you are not.  That alone will go a long way in keeping this what you/we say we want it to be.

*My observation is also that of those listening and looking at the Fellowship, there are no small number who are not looking to leave the PCUSA, but are interested in the emerging/missional conversation found there.  There is great potential to come together around core Christian identity or to keep settling back into our corners.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

nextchurch, pt 1 - christian communities

I have been in Dallas, TX, the past few days, at a conference called "NEXT Church."  There was much to reflect on, so I'd like to offer a couple of posts over the next few days.  One aspect I'd like to explore is how NEXT relates to (and doesn't relate to) the Fellowship of Presbyterians.  But before going there, I'd like to reflect on what was probably the stand-out speaker for me and that was Judd Hendrix, from Mid-Kentucky Presbytery.  He is part of the ecclesia project, a "vision of Mid-Kentucky Presbytery to cultivate a culture of creativity and innovation in Christian community."

I'll have to admit that when Jud first started talking, I thought, "This is out there!"  He shared an example (in his presbytery) of a church that closed and gave $100,000 to the presbytery from the sale of the building.  The presbytery used that to give out twenty $5000 grants to all manner of creative expressions of Christian community.  He talked about a culture of experimentation and the value of the word "prototype" to describe these efforts... really, there was no such thing as 'failure' because every outcome taught them something and moved the greater experiment (and adventure!) forward.  He talked (I think this was still Judd?) about the limitations of a "professional clergy class" - in terms of the built-in self-protection we (as clergy) can't get around easily.  Pausing for editorial comment here... this is where I really thought, "This is really going to scare the establishment!"

And then where he went next caught me by surprise and is really where I connected.  He talked (voluntarily?) laying aside the professional clergy class in order to empower the laity... not only could a Christian community survive without professional clergy, but might even thrive!

And my mind was swirling... he was using different words and phrasing things differently, but I realized that what he was describing was, in many ways, the kind of ministry that has been percolating in and around my own congregation at Good Shepherd.  I thought about the creative arts community that has developed in multiple directions around our music/songwriting/recording, our visual arts, and our theater/drama ministries... each of them studying/praying/learning/offering communities led by laypeople (okay, I am involved with the music).  I thought about the way I have instinctively looked to elder leadership rather than outside clergy leadership for preaching... recalling the seven folks or so that regularly preach when I am gone, including the twelve-week sabbatical in 2009.  I thought about the "Wednesday Night Experiment" and the Christian communities that have formed and re-formed as we left the church building on Wednesday nights and met in nearby bookstores, coffee shops, playgounds, and more to interact more with our neighbors.

When Jud referenced the GAMC challenge to form 1001 new worshiping communities and laughed (as if that was nothing) and suggested we aim even higher, I though, "He's right... we've probably formed 8-10 expressions of Christian community in the past two years... at our church of 220 members."

NEXTchurch offered us a new way of thinking, a new way of being, and lots of stories and testimony to what God is already doing in the Church for the world.  And I'm excited to be a part of what God is doing!

Friday, February 24, 2012

the house God is building (1 Peter 2)

In our worship at Good Shepherd, we have been studying 1 Peter 2 for a number of weeks.  What began as a look at our identity in Christ developed into a rich consideration of the "house God is building."  What follows below is a summary of that study with links to individual sermons.

Peter sets the teaching of identity in the broader context of who Jesus is and what God is doing, using the imagery of God as master builder and architect. God has a plan, outlined on the foundation of His Word, spoken through Apostles and Prophets; on that foundation, at the time of God’s choosing, God set the chosen one, the Messiah, Jesus Christ, as the cornerstone (that makes some stumble). That living stone is measured with justice and level with righteousness. And on that foundation and cornerstone, God is building His Church – YOU are that Church, and at that point the names or identities begin to flow.

You are a spiritual house made of the living stones of those who trust in Jesus Christ, made alive just as Jesus is alive. You are a holy and royal priesthood, those who respond to God’s grace with obedience, praise, and public witness. You are a chosen race, adopted into God’s family in Christ and attached through him to God’s people in the world and all the promises and mission given to them in scripture. And you are a holy nation, not an earthly one, but a spiritual kingdom that confesses Jesus as our King.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

ash wednesday revisited

It's Ash Wednesday and I'm preparing for tonight's service.  Over the last week or so I've received several e-mails and comments from folks who found the report on our 2011 Ash Wednesday service.  I do remember it being special... perhaps unique, because we aren't repeating it this year.  But if you are looking or interested in a different approach, you might enjoy reading the account below.

February 17, 2011

We thought we'd try something different this year.  I'm not talking about content-wise; we still focused on sin, our own mortality, and repentance.  We still had the imposition of ashes.  But here was the particular dynamic we had in view...

One of the exciting fruit of our searchlight vision (in general) and "Wednesday Night Experiment" (specifically) is a blessed pandemonium on Wednesday nights.  Our pattern has been to draw all of the Wednesday night crowd in for the Ash Wednesday service.  But now, rather than the group of 40-over-40 from several years ago (see "Blessed Pandemonium"), we had 100 or so folks, with 30 under 12, various reading/ADD/learning style challenges at the child to adult level, and an exciting number of "I've never been to church before" folks in attendance.

And we were going to work through a liturgy about sin, death, and repentance using the wide-ranging and weighty words of Psalm 44.

We recognized that so much of our worship is word-oriented (and Word oriented!), musical, and visual - and all delightfully so.  But maybe something different tonight?  Psalm 44 has a number of references to "hands" - and the series from Lent I (this Sunday) through Easter is called "I Will Stretch Out My Hand" in reference to God's statement in Exodus 7:2 to that effect.  So, we decided to have a more kinesthetic learning-style service (yes, I remembered that word from developmental psyche back in college!!).

We used Psalm 44 as the structure for the whole service, and we used our hands (literally!) to understand and work through each part of it.  Here are the basics, and I will link to the order of worship below.  When I realized we'd be using our hands throughout, we did away with the bulletin and projected all the scripture and music on the screen.
Psalm 44:1-8   We opened with a Call to Worship and time of thanks and praise these verses, which celebrates God's faithfulness in times past.  We saw a visual of a strong hand.

We sang "The Potter's Hand" which talks about God's molding, guiding hands (like a potter).  :)

Psalm 44:9-14    We talked about anger and blaming God for our circumstances and read these verses together while tightly clenching our hands into fists and holding that through these "God, look what you have done to us" verses.  I then spoke briefly about them, connecting them back to the anguish and frustration in Exodus 6 (last Sunday's text), then we let go with our hands.... (after 2-3 min of tight clenching, that's an interesting feeling!)

Psalm 44:17-19    The Psalm moves into more of a pleading tone, saying, "but we have not forgotten you (Lord)."  We clasped our hands into a child-like prayer gesture and prayed these verses together.  I then spoke briefly, asking whether Israel (and we) might have forgotten God, despite these words.

Psalm 44:20-22   We continued with "extended hands" (as if grasping for something), focusing on the words about "extending our hands to a strange god" - and I spoke briefly on sin and idolatries we sometimes reach for instead of God.

And with that move from anger to pleading to self-examination (which reminds me of the stages of grief!) led us into a prayer of confession.  I had been looking for a time in which we could join hands.  This didn't seem the obvious time, but we did and I reminded the congregation that though sin isolates, we are never alone - indeed, scripture reminds us that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" - and so we prayed a prayer of confession together - eyes open reading screen - and holding hands.  Very interesting...

Psalm 44:23-24    These verses literally ask some questions of God - "Why do you sleep?  Why do you hide your face?" - so we raised one hand like a child would at school if asking a question, and we read these verses together.  I spoke briefly about how multiple times in Exodus 3-6 (the text we have been using in worship the past month) God's word to the people was, "I see you; I hear you; I remember you and the covenant; I will deliver you."

Psalm 44:25    I noted that this verse is the next to last in the Psalm and is where we end up without God intervening to save.  "Our soul has sunk down into the dust; our body cleaves to the earth."  And at that point we had the imposition of ashes.

Psalm 44:26    Then the Psalm ends with a plea for help and hope: "Rise up, be our help, and redeem us..."  We read that, sang another song ("Give Us Clean Hands") - yes, another hand song.  :)

The benediction was from Romans 8:35-39, which quotes Psalm 44, which we had just read: "For your sake we are being put to death... sheep to the slaughter," but which surrounds that with one of the most hope-filled declarations of the Gospel in scripture: "Nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ..."  I asked the congregation to hold out their hands in a receiving gesture as I spoke these words of blessing over them.
Did it "work?"  Well, we focused on God's Word and the Spirit was present; this wasn't about a gimmick.  But, I do think it was an effective way to enter into that Word.  The chaperones for the kids we tutor and for the group home guys caught up with me after taking their folks home and said the conversation on the way home was significant.  I asked my own 8, 10, and 12 year old what they thought - and they are usually pretty honest if they are bored - and they all really seemed to like and understand it.  The gestures (clenched fist, etc...) seemed to help explain/experience some verses that probably would have been hard to process in a normal sermon-type delivery.

So, that's what happened.  We won't be shaking fists every Sunday, but this definitely was something new and something to return to in different ways.

Here are the notes I was working from and what was projected on the screen (with lots of "handy" artwork by Kathy Larson).  I can even send the PowerPoint slides if anyone is interested (just e-mail me at robert@gspc.net).

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