Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Betwixt City and Suburb

Carol Howard Merritt wrote a great piece addressing shifts in religious culture.  You can read the entire article at The Alban Institute's site.  I particularly resonated with this section:

I cannot remember a time when the church was the hub of society and life. I was born in the 1970s, part of Generation X. I never lived in a church-centered world. When older members of my congregation tell me about it, I can imagine what it might have been like, just as I can envision a time when people went to church three times a week. But I have never lived in that reality. I’ve always been in a culture where church was a place my friends visited on Christmas Eve—and now even that tradition is beginning to fade. I grew up in the midst of church news filled with clergy affairs, prostitution, and pedophilia. Throughout most of my ministry, I have worked in the shadow of these dark wounds of Christianity, laboring in a world in which the church is renowned for its sex scandals and conservative politics, a world in which people proclaim, “Religion poisons everything.” 

This is the culture I know. And this, strangely, is the place I feel most comfortable. It is not that I am happy about our current circumstances but simply that I have not experienced anything else. When I introduce myself as a pastor at parties or neighborhood gatherings, I encounter little awe or respect. Instead, I am met with a ravenous curiosity, as if people did not even realize it was still possible to make that career choice.

Much of her focus is placed on the ethos of urban (shrinking, established) and suburban (growing, young) contexts.  She describes Millennial culture as wanting "meaningful worship, an empowered lay leadership, and a spirituality that leads to action...the very things that many denominational churches have been cultivating for decades."  As one who serves a church in the great in between - neither near the urban center or on the outskirts of town - I wonder what the future holds.  We don't have the allure of a revitalized downtown that's close to businesses, concert halls, sports arenas, and funky loft apartments.  On the other hand, our neighborhood is land-locked and removed from the shiny new schools, homes, and shopping campuses that still attract young families en masse.

If nothing else, Merritt's excellent article is a reminder that we are called to be better connected to the people around us and discern how God is calling us to act relationally with the people in our neighborhood.  

What creative and redeeming work is God doing through your faith community?

Monday, March 14, 2011

LIFTing with LYO

Some people have been critical of the lack of youth and young adults on the ELCA's LIFT Task Force...a group that is studying the "eco-system" of the church and making recommendations for the future.  Though it's frustrating being the youngest member of the task force, I'm grateful that, in many ways, the real work of the LIFT initiative doesn't take place in board rooms and conference calls.  It occurs throughout the entire eco-system; in congregations, homes, synod groups, colleges, camps, etc.  We all bear responsibility for discerning what God is calling us to be and do in the future.

I've enjoyed several opportunities in the last few months to be about this kind of conversations.  The most recent of these conversations took place at the NE Iowa Synod Lutheran Youth Organization Assembly in Mason City, IA.  This event is near and dear to my heart, as it was the site of the first assembly I attended as a member of the synod LYO board 16 years earlier.

For my part, the pieces I used to talk about the LIFT Task Force were similar to the ones incorporated at the Oregon LYO Assembly.  One of my favorite exercises is, after an Acts 2 Bible study, to ask small groups of kids to make three lists.

  1. Essential elements of a 21st century church
  2. Helpful, but not essential, elements
  3. Elements that are neither helpful nor essential

Here are some of the themes that emerged from the "essential ~ helpful ~ neither" activity.

  • God's Word and faithful people are required to "be church"; but a church building isn't.
  • Leaders were considered essential; Pastors were considered helpful.
  • Sacraments are central to a faith community.
  • Money, music, food, and programs are helpful in proclaiming the gospel, but not essential.
  • Several groups lifted up the importance of acts of service and outreach.
  • Technology was considered helpful, but the overuse or idolization technology is not.
  • Robes, fancy clothes, and sermon notes were popular items on the neither list.

It was a joy to be with these young people and their adult leaders.  They had lots of fun talking, learning, swimming, singing, dancing, and playing together.  I remain pleased and grateful that so many young people have a deep and genuine care for the future of our church.  I pray that we continue to make room for their voices to be heard in our congregations, synods, and throughout the whole church.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Christian Worship in our Local Places

Below are my notes from a presentation made by LSTC professor Dr. Benjamin Stewart at the SE Iowa Synod event, Called Together in Mission.

Deep Roots: Christian Worship in our Local Places

Christian worship has always had a theological emphasis on the LOCAL

Road to Emmaus --  the first post-crucifixion worship service.
  • The disciples had “no words” – they just stood there looking sad
  • Jesus draws the disciples into the conversation
  • Luke tells the story in a way that describes God coming to us in our local places
    • Gathering ~ engagement on the road
    • Word ~ interprets the Scriptures, beginning with Moses
    • Meal ~ breaking bread in the house
    • Sending ~ disciples run to tell others
  • Scholars debate where/if Emmaus exists
    • Perhaps it’s not to suppose if Emmaus is anywhere, but that Emmaus is everywhere – our local contexts
  • People come from all kinds of local contexts, bringing their cultures, traditions, and languages with them
  • Christian worship is both local and “more than local” (global)

“Theology is like underwear, you usually want to have it on, but you don’t go around showing it to everybody.”

Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture – Lutheran World Federation, January 1996
  • Transcultural – sacraments, proclamation of the Word
  • Contextual – musical settings, kinds of bread/wine
  • Cross-cultural – Iowans doing Taize worship
  • Countercultural – welcoming the stranger, ritual equality

Three Localestranscultural elements that take root in contextual ways
  • Communion Table
    • A local table, not a distant altar
    • Available to all people each week
    • Food pantry donations included at the “setting of the communion table”
    • Sarah Miles -- communion table at the center of their free farmers market / food pantry
  • Baptismal Font
    • Whoever is to be baptized should be put in and sunk completely into the water and then drawn out again.  For baptism signifies that the old humanity and the sinful birth of flesh and blood are to be wholly drowned by the grace of God.  We should therefore do justice to its meaning and make baptism a true and complete sign of the thing it signifies.  ~ Luther
    • The power of water to give life and destroy life calls us into an honest understanding of what happens in baptism
    • Bring a connection between the local water places and the baptismal font
    • ELW -- Thanksgiving at the Font, prayer D, p. 71 (name local bodies of water)

  • Earth
    • “Death is the completion of our baptism” ~ Luther
    • Care for the Body
    • Burial Vessels
      • Coffins made from local materials
      • Trappist Caskets – New Melleray Abbey, Iowa
    • Committal to the Earth
      • “We don’t bury our dead” – we leave the coffin suspended above the hole
      • Burying people in natural settings as a way to preserve local ecologies
      • No coffins, no burial vaults
      • Images of bodies placed in a hole in the ground in the woods, refilling the dirt in the hole, and planting new seedlings
      • Green Burial Council

Themes for Cultivating Local Roots in Worship
  1. Tend to the locales within your worship space
  2. Expect company (does your posture as a worship leader convey expectancy of visitors)
  3. Local neighbors are our teachers
  4. Mother nature is your interior decorator (local seasons connect with liturgical seasons)
  5. Let local leaders lead
  6. Worship in a space you can (mostly) fill
  7. Prayers of intercession: deep and wide
  8. Bless the (local) holy ground, on the local calendar (blessing backpacks, healthcare workers, etc.)
  9. Physically bury your dead
  10. Liturgy wider than your walls (bless bikes, local gardens, baptisms in local rivers/lakes)
  11. Go in Peace. Serve the Lord (literally…right away)

Worship isn’t window-dressing, it’s central, authentic expression of who we are as the local gathering.

God wants to flood the world with mercy as an extension of our worship.

* * * * * 

We followed up with small-group study of Psalm 104.  One cool thing that was mentioned during the discussion is a young man named Greg Pregracke who is doing amazing work on cleaning up the Mississippi River.