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Wednesday, March 06, 2013

nextchurch and a bluegrass band

Yesterday's post on "the Water bug" and some of the NEXTchurch conversation about collaboration and improvisation reminded me of a post on bluegrass and the church from a couple of years ago.  Here is a re-posting of that...


Summer 2010

I got back a week ago from "Camp Bluegrass" with my brother.  It was something he first mentioned 2-3 years ago and it sounded like the perfect opportunity to spend some good one-on-one time with him, commuting 30 min. each way daily while staying at his house in Lubbock, TX.

So he went as a beginner banjo player and I took my mandolin, thinking I could experience the most musical growth on it (and boy did I!).  That's all background to the story I want to share...

On the opening morning, the whole camp gathered (about 200 people) to meet the instructors.  There were about 20 instructors on the various instruments (guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass, fiddle, dobro, vocalists).  After being introduced by name, they were introduced musically.  They all played unamplified and, as is the custom with bluegrass music, took turns improvising.

Several things struck me during this 10 minute "introduction."

  1. While the auditorium was AMAZINGLY equipped for amplification of this style of music, they played down on the floor (unamplified), which meant that when one of them soloed, the other 19 instruments played amazingly softly in order that each might be heard.  And each, in turn, was heard clear as crystal.
  2. I am fairly confident that the piece was unrehearsed, though it was familiar to each of them.  They just soloed in the order of the 20-person line they formed across the stage, and the handoffs were SEAMLESS.  As each neared the end of their improvisation, they "set up" the next, who often picked up a riff or sound from the one before and wove it into their own improvised solo.  And each nodded and honored their 'neighbor' (and even left space for the applause of the one who went before).
  3. There was very little ego up front, though these were world-class musicians.  This was borne out in class, when these virtuosos would patiently meet each of us at our level and help us grow.  These soloists weren't trying to upstage their neighbors, but build on, add to, support, and interact with what each had brought. 
As the week progressed, I came to appreciate bluegrass as a particularly humble and communal musical art-form.  While one can get written music, most tunes and chords and licks are learned from the community, around the circle or in friendly and willing collaboration off to the side.  The whole culture of bluegrass is family and friends sitting around swapping stories, tunes, lyrics, and encouragement - and is one of participation WITH rather than attention TO a performer.

Musically, all that was fascinating, compelling, and inviting - and plenty to marvel about, but I could not help but see and hear and share in all that as a Christian and as a pastor and think this is what the church should be like, from the humility to the participation to the invitation to the fellowship, with the Good News as our song.

Sound like a church you'd want to be a part of?  I sure would!

Also check out Steve Lindsley's great description of NEXTchurch and comparisons with jazz!

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

nextchurch and the waterbug

Attending NEXTchurch this year I heard two themes - collaborative leadership and risking failure - that reminded me of something I experienced only three days earlier...

I watched intently as six 3rd and 4th graders excitedly performed a skit to "sell" their bug-attracting pest crusher and then loaded nearly 300 pounds on it to crush their imaginary bug.

What I was watching was the culmination of nearly six weeks of weekly kid-collaboration, to fulfill the challenge #4 of this year's "Odyssey of the Mind" contest: "Tumblewood."  Basically, they had to design a small structure made of only balsa wood and glue, roll it down a ramp and over to a weight-bearing platform without touching it, then load as much weight as possible on it until it broke.

This group of six 3rd and 4th graders (and several hundred others like them from our part of the state) all collaborated, tested, and tried multiple structures until settling on one. They added creativity and expression, and included everyone on the team, and they bonded as a team over the weeks of meeting. What was even more amazing was seeing thousands of kids come together for the district event and seeing this played out with greater and lesser degrees of "success" - but with a stunning degree of community, trust, and teamwork.

Odyssey of the Mind invites a beautiful synthesis of creativity, expression, ingenuity, teamwork, collaboration... and RISK of FAILURE.  My daughter's team had to go through a number of designs before settling on the one they used.  In fact, Odyssey of the Mind so encourages creative exploration and risk of failure that they have a special award for it, called the "Renatra Fusca Creativity Award."

"Renatra Fusca"

This creativity award is "presented to teams or individuals who exhibit exceptional creativity, either through some aspect of their problem solution, or an extraordinary idea beyond the problem solution.  A successful problem solution is not a criterion for winning the award; rather, the award is a way to acknowledge and encourage creative thinking and risk-taking."

Did you get that?  One of the highest special awards is given to someone who exhibited extraordinary creativity, even if the result was (apparent) failure!  (The reason for the name is a fascinating story worth reading!)

"The Church and the Waterbug"

What if the Church (whether local, presbytery, or PCUSA) not only offered grants, lifted up, and shared stories of success for creative and collaborative communities of faith, but also rewarded, lifted up, and shared extraordinary stories of creative risk (and even failure)?  I've heard more than a few groups encourage risk-taking, but might we actually enable creative movements and groups to take the risk and share lessons learned?

Monday, March 04, 2013

nextchurch - a year later (2013)

A year or so ago I attended the NEXTchurch conference in Dallas.  This year, the national conference is in my hometown, Charlotte, NC.  I write this after the first full day, with another half-day to follow tomorrow, and I have already found a number of points of resonance and inspiration in the conference.  I continue to be encouraged that across the Presbyterian Church there is movement out of our inward-focused, attractional, and traditional models of DOING church toward a more embodied, outward-focused, missional, and malleable (by the Spirit) model of BEING church.  I am hearing teaching and testimony to that effect in healthy doses here at NEXT.

I participate from what may be an unusual position in that I also attended the national meeting of the Fellowship of Presbyterians in Orlando, FL, in January of this year.  (I have been participating in both the Fellowship and NEXT meetings since the second meeting of both.)  A year ago I wrote about the number of shared values and emphases between NEXT and the Fellowship, ruminating that many in each group would find great collegiality and shared vision with the other group (and indeed there has been some overlap at the national meetings).  I also noted what I think are forces pulling each away from the theological center (and each other).

This year, if anything, I have heard MORE overlap between the groups, particularly in two areas (so far):

  1. Emphasis on Leadership - both groups had several keynotes emphasizing the need to develop leadership in the church... leadership gifts, strategies, competencies, etc...
  2. Value on Accountability - I heard a new note at NEXT this year, picked up by two different sets of keynoters.  Bill Golderer and Aisha Brooks Lytle shared about the positive role administrative commissions had played in bringing helpful accountability and outside wisdom to two different church situations in which they were involved (to the point of even inviting one in intentionally!) Another speaker (Andrew Foster Conners, maybe?) later picked back up on that theme and highlighted the value of outside evaluation as a form of accountability.  This theme jumped out at me as one that the Fellowship has strongly emphasized in the form of small clusters of accountability between congregations, sessions, and pastors - this is what they call "covenanted order" and involves inviting pairing up to four sessions and pastors for similar roles of sharing and accountability.
Why do I point these things out?

I do so because I continue to hear so much in common between two groups of Presbyterians that more or less run in different circles.  We still live in the shadow (if not the direct glare) of our liberal/conservative (or progressive/evangelical) and other polarities.  And yet there is so much we can do and share and be in common.  The folks that can't are already withdrawing (on both sides).  My question is what will the folks who remain in the broad center of the PCUSA do?  Will we keep DOING church as usual and form new polarities to debate and fight and debilitate?  Or can we find enough common ground and common grace to work together on the many things we can share?

I should add this... I've appreciated all the speakers today.  Aisha Brooks Lytle and Bill Golderer were excellent on sharing what God has done in their midst, but over and above that Rev. Brooks Lytle hit it out of the park in terms of being able to speak to race issues in a way that a predominantly white audience could hear and receive... masterful... effortless.  I know she is a blessing to every community of which she is a part.  And Steve Eason, pastor at one of the local host churches, Myers Park Pres., preached a profoundly disarming, witty, and poignant sermon about listening to the voice of the One who called us, despite all the voices clamoring to be heard instead.  He could have preached that at the Fellowship, at General Assembly, in my congregation, and any other number of places; we were blessed to hear it here tonight.  We can't manufacture "what is next" - God already knows; but we can listen and follow.


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