The Modified Christian

Vine-Branches“I am the vine; you are the branches.” – John 15:5

I’m frustrated with the many labels we attach to Christianity in order to modify its meaning. I know why we do it, of course. I do it myself. I want to explain to someone that I am “this kind” of Christian and not “that kind” of Christian.

So one might refer to “Progressive Christianity,” or “Red Letter Christians,” or “Emergent,” or “Liberal Protestant,” or “Evangelical and Liberal,” or “Generously Orthodox.”

And then there are the other terms, that sometimes get thrown like rocks.  “Bible Believing,” “Jesus Following,” “Christ Centered,” “Seeker Sensitive,” all of which seem to imply that there are other misbehaving churches that are not.

At this point, I want to throw all the modifying words out. They just don’t do our faith justice. Any of our faiths.

First, many of the terms are based in the broken vocabulary of the right and the left. Do we really want to preserve the old paradigms of “liberal” and “conservative?” They haven’t served us well in politics. Why would we think they would be anything but divisive in the church?

Next, many of the terms are about trying to be new or edgy. Every generation of the church has its reformers and they have all suffered from a certain terminal uniqueness that they are the new big and best thing to rock the church. But if they ever get a toe hold, those names will seem silly. How long can we be emerging, progressing and seeking before we just admit that we’re a church?

These days, I am increasingly frustrated with the modifying labels and the phony boxes those adjectives put Christians into. If anything is going to modify the definition “Christian,” it is not going to be that one perfect adjective. It will be the people. Weirdly diverse, unpredictable, saved and broken, how we treat each other will determine if the word Christian can have room for us all.

For all the odd wings and vocal varieties of church in the world, even the ones that drive us crazy . . . we pray for them all. And in doing so, we pray for ourselves. Amen.

– Reflection by Lillian Daniel from StillSpeaking

Church Filipino-Style (Philippine Adventure, Part 2)

You know you’re in the Philippines when . . .

I could complete that sentence in countless ways, but for me the most striking is this:

RoosterYou know you’re in the Philippines when you are woken up at 4.00 a.m. by crowing roosters (I found this true even amongst high-rise buildings in downtown Manila!)

So began our first day.

Sunday.

Seeing as we were staying in a pastor’s home, it was natural for us to go with him to his church, Litex Grace Gospel Church of Christ to be exact. The service began at 9.30 with the lively singing of choruses led by one of the “Bible Women” (in Australia we would call them “Pastor” as we do their male counterparts).

Filipinos LOVE singing, and I could tell church was no exception. Some of the choruses I knew from years ago and others were more contemporary. All were sung by all joyfully and loudly.

2013-04-21 (12-58) Philippines 023Once the preliminary songs, Bible verses and prayers were finished, we moved into the more formal worship service. Surprisingly, the same format was followed then that I remembered being used 40+ years ago: hymns interspersed with Bible Readings, prayers and announcements.

Probably most amazing cultural difference was the offering which seemed to have a much more prominent place than in Australian churches—not prominent in that money was made a big issue, but giving as an act of spiritual service was elevated by the reading of a verse, a prayer, the actual offering collection and then, as if on cue, everyone rose and sang “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”

(Side note: I found it interesting to read in the denomination’s Ministry Handbook later that week how that they encourage their churches to charge an annual “membership fee”. Agree with it or not, it seems people place a greater value on that for which they must pay.)

Dad was the guest preacher and I was asked to sing a song before his sermon (they called it “rendering” a song). Following the message was a Child Dedication which was far more a momentous occasion than it is down under. It seemed there were numerous godparents who all had to sign the official church certificate. There was a huge banner with the baby’s picture on the stage. It was a rather elaborate service in itself and quite an honour for dad and I to witness.

2013-04-21 (13-27) Philippines 017After the 2-hour-plus service was finished (with the traditional singing of the fourfold “Amen”), and after the photo taking of anyone and everyone present (“One more, for Facebook“), chairs were pushed to the side and lunch was served. They do this every Sunday so I was told. Rice, chicken, vegetables, sweets, all cooked and prepared in an open kitchen behind the church. Filipino hospitality shone once again and we enjoyed chatting over good food.

2013-04-21 (11-05) Philippines 066Impressed as I was by the excitement and joy of those attending the Litex Church that morning, I was even more impressed by the genuineness of those present. These were mostly young people, and an assortment of singles and families. They had a very real sense of who God is and of their place in God’s mission in their world. They spoke of mission as if it were a given (not an option that is so often the case in Australian churches). This was reflected in the stories I heard about how people came to be together in this congregation and how they came to faith in Jesus.

Whilst I see a high level of professionalism in our congregations and the way we do church here, there is so much we can learn from this grassroots faith community and the way they are the Church in their corner of the Philippines. Certainly cultivating a greater heart for mission/purpose and a greater focus on “coming together” rather than finely choreographing that gathering are key points from which our churches here can take a lesson.

That being said, no church is perfect and I hope to unpack elements of this in a later post.

Now I can’t really see how this all translates into our own context–or if, in reality,  it should–but I do know that participating with these dear folk showed me how grace, love and joy can easily cross any national, linguistic or cultural barrier and bring together people under a common banner of being the people of God together.

(to be continued . . .)

If it Weren’t for Christians, Church Would be OK

I work in a school.

My work involves a range of activities involving mostly teachers, but also students and their parents.

The going joke around here–especially at times when we’re running ragged after 7 or 8 weeks of full-on work–is, “If you would just take away the students, this school would be perfect.”

Church_CRossI was mulling over similar ideas in my head while sitting in our Sunday gathering yesterday and then during a church meeting. I know many people who have ditched the church for a more intimate spiritual search, or in response to a growing sense of duplicity and pretension which one inevitably finds in organised religion. I would never say (as I have heard said) that they have “left the faith,” or they have “returned to Egypt” (which carries another entire set of symbols and metaphors, mostly dark and negative). These folk has simply had enough of their local church and the problems which they believe are very real and embedded in its membership and structure.

Lillian Daniel writes about this in today’s StillSpeaking reflection:

It seems to be a growing trend—people who claim to love Jesus but don’t want to call themselves Christians. The latest to stake a claim for not staking a claim is Marcus Mumford, of the wildly popular Mumford & Sons, whose Christian-themed lyrics have been a source of fascination to believers and nonbelievers alike.

In a Rolling Stone cover story, Mumford demurred when asked if he considered himself a Christian. “I don’t really like that word. It comes with so much baggage,” he said. “So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian.”

I too want to distance myself from hateful statements made in the name of my faith. If this is all that Christianity is, I don’t want to be associated with it either. But of course, that is not all that Christianity is. And unless some sane people claim the label, the extremist fringes will have the last word. I tried to make that case in Relevant Magazine. When people say they love Jesus and not the church, I hear them saying they can’t abide the people. If we could just kick all the people out, we might actually be able to do this Christian community thing. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind.

The church is something you enter at your own risk. Because you might actually bump into humanity there. You might hit up against something you disagree with. You might have to listen to music you don’t like. You might get asked to share your stuff. You might learn from a tradition far older than you. You might even be asked to worship something other than yourself.

It seems to me that, although I sometimes get disillusioned with organised religion, I can’t escape the fact that there are hypocrites everywhere. I guess, like Marcus Mumford, I expect Christians to be more like Jesus than those who don’t accept that label. I suppose my conundrum is that I know many who are not Christian in name who act more out of love and grace than those who claim the Name. I understand Mumford’s dilemma–I too want to distance myself from that type of pretentious faith.

The fact that we are a community of faith does not mean that we are simply a people who believe, but a people who live that faith in real life.

Perhaps part of that living our faith in Jesus is that we accept the sinful and saintly alike, that we embrace those driven by their ego as well as those who are truly self-sacrificing, that we love the hypocrites as well as those who are genuine models of honesty and integrity.

After all, if we can do this in the 2 hours a week we spend inside the church building, imagine how this would look if we then extend our life of love to the other 166 hours we spend in the everyday normalcy of life!

Maybe, as we love as Jesus loves, we will see all these labels and categories fade into insignificance as a new awareness of our shared humanness and earthliness awakens in us a renewed and invigorated sense of belonging, togetherness and community.

Or maybe we’ll just say we’ve had enough, leave this church, and take our baggage with us somewhere else . . .

. . . where it can start all over again.

*  *  *  *  *

For those who appreciate Lillian Daniel’s perspective, you may be interested to watch her sermon “Faith is Not the Opposite of Doubt” here.

Thanks You, Rachel Held Evans, from All the Doubters, Questioners and Wonderers

lonelyFor every person who asks out loud the questions that are burning in their heart,

For every person who thinks that (perhaps) we make this stuff up to calm our fears,

For every person who only shows up at church for Easter,

For every person who has no real reason to believe,

This blog post is for you.

I didn’t write it.

Rachel Held Evans did.

Read it and see if it doesn’t ring true and give you a sense of “I’m not alone.”

It will bother you off and on, like a rock in your shoe,

Or it will startle you, like the first crash of thunder in a summer storm,

Or it will lodge itself beneath your skin like a splinter,

Or it will show up again—the uninvited guest whose heavy footsteps you’d recognize anywhere, appearing at your front door with a suitcase in hand at the worst. possible. time.

Or it will pull you farther out to sea like rip tide,

Or hold your head under as you drown—

Triggered by an image, a question, something the pastor said, something that doesn’t add up, the unlikelihood of it all, the too-good-to-be-trueness of it, the way the lady in the thick perfume behind you sings “Up from the grave he arose!” with more confidence in the single line of a song than you’ve managed to muster in the past two years.

And you’ll be sitting there in the dress you pulled out from the back of your closet, swallowing down the bread and wine, not believing a word of it.

Not. A. Word.

So you’ll fumble through those back pocket prayers—“help me in my unbelief!”—while everyone around you moves on to verse two, verse three, verse four without you.

You will feel their eyes on you, and you will recognize the concern behind their cheery greetings: “We haven’t seen you here in a while! So good to have you back.”

And you will know they are thinking exactly what you used to think about Easter Sunday Christians:

Nominal.

Lukewarm.

Indifferent.

But you won’t know how to explain that there is nothing nominal or lukewarm or indifferent about standing in this hurricane of questions every day and staring each one down until you’ve mustered all the bravery and fortitude and trust it takes to whisper just one of them out loud on the car ride home:

“What if we made this up because we’re afraid of death?”

And you won’t know how to explain why, in that moment when the whisper rose out of your mouth like Jesus from the grave, you felt more alive and awake and resurrected than you have in ages because at least it was out, at least it was said, at least it wasn’t buried in your chest anymore, clawing for freedom.

And, if you’re lucky, someone in the car will recognize the bravery of the act. If you’re lucky, there will be a moment of holy silence before someone wonders out loud if such a question might put a damper on Easter brunch.

But if you’re not—if the question gets answered too quickly or if the silence goes on too long—please know you are not alone.

There are other people signing words to hymns they’re not sure they believe today, other people digging out dresses from the backs of their closets today, other people ruining Easter brunch today, other people just showing up today.

And sometimes, just showing up –  burial spices in hand –  is all it takes to witness a miracle.

If this post resonnated with you, made something come alive in you, or just said what you’ve wanted to say for so long, why not to go the original post, “Holy Week for Doubters,” on Rachel’s blog and post a comment.

As for me, thank you, Rachel, for putting a voice to–for echoing–what so many of us sometimes (often) feel.

Atheist Church?

Is this the world’s first atheist church? Looking everything like a normal Christian church service–apart from the small detail that God was not mentioned–this ‘church’ now holds two services a month with people being turned away at the door. News Limited papers carried this story recently:

Officially named The Sunday Assembly, the church was the brainchild of Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, two comedians who suspected there might be an appetite for atheist gatherings that borrowed a few aspects of religious worship.

790179-the-sunday-assemblyHeld in an airy, ramshackle former church in north London, their quirky monthly meetings combine music, speeches and moral pondering with large doses of humour.

“There’s so much about Church that has nothing to do with God – it’s about meeting people, it’s about thinking about improving your life,” said Jones, a gregarious 32-year-old with a bushy beard and a laugh like a thunderclap.

 The Sunday Assembly’s central tenets are to “help often, live better and wonder more” – themes that would not be out of keeping with the teachings of any major world religion.

At a recent Sunday service, which had a volunteering theme, songs included Help by the Beatles and Holding Out For A Hero by Bonnie Tyler.

The “sermon” was given by the founder of an education charity, while in a section called Pippa Is Trying Her Best, Evans had the congregation in stitches as she reported on her attempts at voluntary work.

The service ended with big cheers and – this is Britain, after all – shouts of “Who would like a cup of tea?”

I don’t know about you, but I would love to attend such a church. Sure, they don’t talk about God, and they don’t claim any particular set of beliefs except a conviction that they can and should work to make their world a better place. As the journalist seems to ask, ‘Isn’t this what church is supposed to be about anyway?’

Pete Rollins, in his book, The Orthodox Heretic, tells a story about a man who lost his faith but, in this loss, found his sense of compassion and justice awakened and, in the end, Rollins poses the seemingly antithetical question: Is it better to say you believe in God and not do what God asks, or to deny the faith yet live a life congruent with God’s love and grace?

In this I seem to hear the echo of Jesus, as he came to the conclusion of the story about the good Samaritan: ‘Go and do likewise.’

Perhaps Christianity–perhaps we--are taking so seriously our beliefs, structures, and services, and need to, in a sense, forget our faith and just do good.

Maybe singing Help on Sunday morning would be a good start.

Anyone with me?

Missional Church: Christianity as a Lifestyle

Christianity is a lifestyle – a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving. However, we made it into an established “religion” (and all that goes with that) and avoided the lifestyle change itself. One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain in most of Christian history, and still believe that Jesus is one’s “personal Lord and Saviour” . . . The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on Earth is too great. – Richard Rohr

What draws me to the “Missional Church” concept (as opposed to the “Attractional Church”) is the way those in a missional setting view their calling as incarnational—that is, following Jesus in being part of the greater and local community (or, as The Message puts it, ‘moving into the neighbourhood’).

What the Attractional Church model says is, ‘Come to us and we will share the life of Christ with you.’ The Missional Church is saying, ‘We will come to you and share our lives with you.” There is no agenda but being Christ to your neighbor. If they never darken the door of your church, you are still committed doing life together.

The attraction-based church fails to do this well, although I have seen some that have found a good balance in encouraging missional-focused small groups.

Here’s a simple illustration of how these two frameworks operate:

Attarctional vs Missional (courtesy of blindbeggar.org)

Attarctional vs Missional (courtesy of blindbeggar.org)

(For a great example of being missional, read Missional Evangelism from The Blind Beggar blog)

The biggest problem with the attractional model is that it encourages a consumerist Christianity where you ‘shop around’ for a church that you like, where you fit in, and that offers programs and services that suit you and your family. Therefore, we see attractional –modeled churches growing simply by transfers of membership, not because people are being pulled in from the ‘outside.’

Missional-minded churches see no distinction between ‘outside’ and ‘inside.’ They tend to be open, welcoming, integral components in their own local communities. They are involved in civic initiatives, establish relationships with local schools, organisations and local government. Generally they have a ‘belong-then-believe’ mentality rather than setting faith as a prerequisite for active involvement.

If we believe the Church is the hope of the world—the ‘suffering’ Earth—then simply attracting people to our Sunday services would not be congruent with our mission. Not that we would be repellant. We want people who attend to encounter God in whatever way they are able and at whatever level they happen to be. However, being salt and light, as Jesus says we (corporately and individually) are, we need to have as our number one goal to reach into our world with the love of God, being—as Christ himself—in the neighbourhood.

Salt must have flavour to enhance that to which it is applied, but it also must be in close proximity to the food and used in appropriate amounts to be of any value.

Light just shines in the darkness to dispel the darkness. There is no additional sound, no bells or whistles, just shining. There is no way that darkness can overpower light because where there is light, there can be no darkness. Even the darkest night can be pierced by the light of a single candle.

The metaphors of Salt and Light are clearly lifestyle pictures.

So rather than be a collection place for salt or a lighthouse, the church needs to see their mission as equipping and sending, encouraging and supporting its people in their lives lived in generous love.

This is a life to be lived, not a religion. This is a way of being, not a building. This is our mission; may we not be distracted into being a place for our own pleasure rather than being a people who truly love.

The Church Creative

ChurchCreativeI’ve been reading John C. O’Keefe’s excellent book The Church Creative: How to be a Creative Gathering in the 21st Century. What strikes me about this book is its numerous typographical and grammatical errors (just kidding!). No, what I find striking is the pointedness at which O’Keefe identifies the problem (lethargy) and presents a solution (creativity).

I must admit that I found the first section a bit sluggish to get through. Perhaps this is because of my experience in the middle of the gigantic mud puddle that is the Church Lethargic. Whilst O’Keefe goes to great lengths to demonstrate there is this lifeless spirit killing the Christian Church (generally speaking), I can see it around me and in my history. He’s preaching to the converted.

And his remarkable solution? Creativity. Unleashing the great ideas and those gifted with bringing these things to life: art, music, drama, prayer, liturgy, architecture, and so much more.

This is more than another program, he is adamant. This is about change–real, committed, dramatic, paradigmatic change.

I’ll let the author tell it like it is:

Like me you have tried every program placed before you to make the right changes to provide missional awareness, and they never really worked. Like me, you’re listening to the world, and not what the Divine was saying. We allowed the present hard time to define us, while not embracing the coming good time.

We’ve done the 40 days of… (fill in the blank) and found nothing truly worked. We’ve tried so many different programs that at this point we’re programmed out. Some of us are at the point where we doubt who we are, our call and even those around us – we’re so beaten down that we have become lethargic.

We’ve invested so much time, money and people into all different kinds of programs, conferences and books, all the time getting nowhere – or we’ve seen a slight bump, only to decline soon after the program ended, which just brought us down further.

No matter what Christian Bookstores tell you, no matter what the Christian Publishers tell you, programs never work all the time, for all our gatherings or for all the people. Programs, it seems, are designed to suck you in, chew you up and spit you out. But, because you want the program to do for us what you’ve heard it did for others, you’re quick to get the next latest and greatest program only to fail again. You’re like Kevin Bacon’s character in Animal House, as he’s being bent over and smacked by the paddle, screaming, “Thank you sir, may I have another” every time you get smacked with a program.

What is the last thing you need right now? Think in terms of your gathering; what is the last thing you need? If you’re thinking that the last thing you need is another program, you would be right. What I’ve found is that all programs are designed to fit a new idea into your old system – and that never works.

Knowing that a program is the last thing you need is a good thing, because creativity is not another program; a program is something that costs you money, time and people; something you do for a short period of time with the expectation of the promised magic results. What I’m talking about with creativity is not a program designed for some quick fix. Creativity is a refocusing in the way you think; a way of becoming, a way of moving from where you are now, and into the idea of becoming a missional gathering.

Think of it this way, it’s a new way (actually, a very old way) of defining your life and gathering, in a redirection; shifting you from where you are now, to where you should be in the future, while bring about a core change in your thinking. It opens you to a way of embracing your gathering where you invite those who are the Creatives to move about in a fluid nature with their natural energy and envelop the entire life where service, unconditional love, grace, forgiveness and acceptance are a way of life. The best way to address a lethargic gathering of followers is to invite creativity and its natural energy to the table.

Many gatherings of followers today have lost creativity, lost the desire to even try to bring it back – so they’re in what I call Maintenance Ministry. The curse of lethargy has taken root and they’re taking care of a dying, lethargic congregation, getting them ready to close their doors. Even worse, they’re ready to simply accept their current condition and walk in the status quo.

In my view, neither is a good place. We need to move past the lethargic nature we find ourselves in and open our eyes to the Church Creative. We need to embrace the energy that Christ gives to each of us…

“He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.”

When you focus on creativity it brings something amazing, something so wonderful, once you try it you will feel the shivers of excitement run down your spine and your toes will tingle. Something so life enhancing, so entrancing, so wonderful it will cause you to look at the world in a whole new way. Once you taste what creativity has to offer, you won’t settle for anything less.

What is this amazing thing creativity brings to the table?

No, it is not a 100% fat free ice cream with zero calories that actually tastes like ice cream — though that does come in a close second.

What is it? It’s called change.

That’s right, change.

This is a necessary step the gathering must take and O’Keefe has done a brilliant job in showing the way.

How to accomplish this may not be so cut-and-dry, black-and-white. But if what this book says is even partly true, then it must be all about creativity.