Friday, November 30, 2012

Propped Up by Culture

Every once in a while a blog post comes along that appears to be speaking directly to me.  Such was the case with Pastor Keith Anderson's Pastors Stop Complaining About Sunday Morning Sports.  If there's one common theme that has come up in youth ministry circles (with greater frequency) is the idea that we are in competition with sports, music, drama events.

At some level, we are.  Young people have a finite amount of time to give to various activities.  The extrinsic consequences for missing a basketball practice, for example, are greater than missing youth group.  The coach can reduce playing time or even remove a player from the team if they appear to have a divided loyalty.  The youth leader, by contrast, isn't likely to bench a young person because they missed youth group.  At worst, the young person might get a "hey, we missed you" or "you haven't been to church in a while"...but nothing like what might happen after missing a practice/rehearsal.

It's like every activity-group is a plastic containers of food.  Everything aspect of life is compartmentalized.  A sports team is one container.  Same for a music ensemble, drama troupe, academic club, social group, etc.  Some containers are bigger than others.  Many consider their faith-related activities to be in a similar container -- something they do when they're not doing those other things.  Maybe, instead, we need to help people think of their faith life as the refrigerator; the appliance that keeps the food in the other containers from spoiling.

Pastor Keith points to the need of church leaders to emphasize vocation in their interactions with people.  If, instead of becoming bitter about being on the losing end of our competition with sports/music/drama, we encouraged those young people to consider the way they approach those activities is connected to their faith life.

* * *

Another fascinating concept Pastor Keith broached is this:

The emergence of Sunday morning sports is just a symbol of a shift that's happening in our society where the church is no longer accommodated or propped up by our culture.

I never thought about the church as being propped up by culture - but I have to admit there are a lot of ways it has been and continues to be.  I've grown up in a time and place where almost all of my friends went to a Christian church.  I knew some nones, but I knew even fewer people who practice a different religion than Christianity.  Additionally, I recall a strict "no homework" policy at my school on Wednesday nights, because that was Church Night.  Music contests, sporting events, and other extra-curricular activities took place on Saturday; never on Sunday.  Lots of stores were closed on Sunday, some even explicitly indicating it was "in honor of our Lord."

As this trend continues, it's understandable that some church leaders will become depressed.  It will also become easy for parishioners who long for the good-old-days to blame their pastor or youth leader for why young people aren't flocking to churches like they did in previous generations.  (Something I touched on in this post.)

I have hope that an emphasis on vocation will renew our church members and staff to being about Christ's presence in the world.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Biblical Purity

Some of you may recall me writing back in February about a biblical purity resource called Wholeness & Holiness.  I'm thrilled that, after more than a year of collaborating with Jake Bouma and Ritva Williams, W&H is finally available for church leaders to purchase and use in their context.  It's only been a week and we're already hearing great feedback from people who plan to use it with youth, parents, and other adult groups.

One of the hurdles we are already facing is the notion that "biblical purity" is only about sex and sexuality.  From my perspective, Wholeness & Holiness is about sex in the same way a grocery store is about selling vegetables.  When you enter a grocery store, you can find a lot of varieties of vegetables prepared in different ways (fresh, canned, frozen, etc.), but there are many other kinds of food in that supermarket.  In the same way, W&H has a robust lesson called Holy Sex! and includes an extended supplemental resource for leaders to delve into deeper conversation about sex...but W&H is about much more than sex.  The purity laws found in the Bible touch nearly every aspect of individual and communal living — food, clothing, hygiene, jewelry, and much more.  When crafting this resource we tried to reflect the expansive nature of biblical purity, dating back to the time of Moses.  As one commenter put it, "so you really do mean BIBLICAL purity!"

I hope people find Wholeness & Holiness to be a helpful resource in telling the whole story of biblical purity.  It's exciting to be part of the conversation that is already unfolding.  For example, the concept of calling behavior "biblical" is a hot topic right now.  (One needn't look any farther than the thousands of comments related to Rachel Held Evans' recent post, The danger of calling behavior 'biblical'.)  I hope W&H can debunk some existing purity myths and be part of the larger discourse about holy/pure/biblical living.

If you want to know more about Wholeness & Holiness, please check out our web site, like us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Drinks & Hymns

A few years ago, some of the cool churches started doing a "Beer & Hymns" event — a time for the spiritual-but-not-religious and the religious-but-not-spiritual to meet in a locally owned pub for a hymn sing.  The allure was two fold: (1) a chance to debunk the impression that Christians are stuffy prohibitionists, and (2) a proclamation that songs of faith can/should be sung outside of church.

In September my friend Nate Houge came down from Minnesota and led a coffee + beer + hymns event in Des Moines.  The venue was perfect -- a slightly rundown theater owned by an adjacent coffee shop which also seves food, wine, and beer.  We promoted it across several Lutheran churches and two local colleges, hoping to snag the notoriously de-churched Millennial crowd.  About 30 people came - many of whom were church workers.  I'll admit to being simultaneously disappointed with the turnout and blessed by those who came.  It was a fun night, but I wondered if my circle of influence wasn't "urban hipster" enough to pull off this kind of radical project.  I totally get it.  Singing hymns in a public non-church place is weird...especially if alcohol might be present.

I'm not sure why, but we decided to do another one...with a few tweaks.  We held it on a Friday night (instead of Thursday) and changed the name to Drinks & Hymns which is a little more church newsletter friendly.  We also relied on local musicians to perform a brief concert and lead the hymn sing.  This time around, there were 75+ who attended, which made for a loud and satisfying evening.  It was truly a cross-generational event involving people in their 70's on down to a five-week old baby.  The full spectrum of drink varieties were consumed.  Some tears were shed.  Harmonies were sung.  The feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

There seems to be some energy around doing Drinks & Hymns again in Central Iowa...which makes my heart happy.

If you're thinking of starting your own beverage/hymns event, Pastor Keith Anderson has some helpful suggestions.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Give Me Shelter

Last night I had the opportunity to serve supper with some high school students at the Central Iowa Shelter & Services in downtown Des Moines.  The congregation where I work provides dinner to nearly 200 people at the CISS on the 11th day of each month.  It's a powerful reminder that Jesus calls us to give food, drink, clothing, and shelter to people in need.

This was my first time in the new 42,000 square foot shelter facility.  The building has a large dining room, two smaller gathering rooms, laundry, computer classroom, clothes closet, food pantry, and a weekly medical clinic.  These upgrades help CISS pursue its mission "to provide free shelter and meals to homeless adults regardless of physical or emotional conditions, and to facilitiate their move toward self-sufficiency."

I recall visiting the St. Francis Center in Denver, CO in 2004 and wishing that Des Moines had a similar place to provide holistic services to homeless people.  Though the operations at CISS aren't nearly the size of St. Francis, I'm proud to live in a city that has devoted significant resources to reaching out in love to people in need.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Everything Is Public

In preparation for a presentation I'm making with my friend Jake this weekend ("Parenting Teens in a Social Media World") I've been compiling examples of how people use and misuse sites like Facebook and Twitter.  These web resources are often used for good (if they weren't, why would Facebook have over 1 billion active monthly users worldwide?).  However, there are plenty of examples of how online missteps have resulted in people jeopardizing their jobs, friends, marriages, and standing in their communities.

If I had one bit of advice to people who use social media it's this: assume everything is public!

Yes, Facebook allows you to limit the scope of your status updates (words, links, pictures, videos) so that only your *friends* can see.  Twitter has something similar with "protected tweets."  However, once those people see what you've posted, they can print that page or take a screen cap of what you posted.  From there, that information can be shared with anyone.  There are too many tales of people who posted "private" data and got burned.

Whenever I post something on-line, I scroll through my list of friends/followers and imagine myself in the same room with some of those people.  Would the information I'm about to post on line be something I'd say aloud to my next door aunt...the elderly lady from church...the person who seeks to do me harm?  If the answer is "no" then I don't post it.

Assume everything is public.

I may sound a tad paranoid, but in the world of social media, you lose control the second you publish something.  If you don't want some people to know about it, don't post it.

Monday, November 5, 2012


By most standard measurements I'm not a very patriotic person.  I don't have a flag hung on my property.  There are no political signs in my yard.  I have not served in the military (I've never even fired a gun).  I'm a believer in what Thomas Jefferson called the "wall of separation between church and state" - and because most of my time is spent in church endeavors, there isn't a lot of time left for state stuff.

My lack of overt patriotism should not be mistaken for a lack of gratitude for the freedoms provided to me in the United States.  I look forward to participating in one such freedom on November 6 - the right to vote.  It's difficult for me to consider that some people don't have that opportunity...and, as recently as a few generations ago, there were voting limits on some American citizens.

I'm also a person who will be relieved when this political election cycle is over.  I believe the level of vitriol and anger being spewed the last few weeks has been unprecedented - way worse than 2008 or 2010.  It seems that this election has brought out the worst in people.  Every day for the last month I've been unpleasantly surprised by the hateful things shared / endorsed / instigated by "friends" of mine on Facebook and Twitter.  Apparently civil discourse and respectful disagreement are passe concepts in 2012.

Despite my frustration with how this election cycle has played out, I will be proud to cast my ballot on Tuesday.  It serves as reminder of how lucky I am to have been born into a country where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are considered "unalienable rights" and not the luxuries that they are in some places.

Lord, have mercy.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Reggie's Sleepout

Last Saturday I spent a chilly night under the stars at the Drake University Stadium as part of Reggie's Sleepout.  This annual event is a way to raise money and awareness for youth homelessness in central Iowa.  Around 1,500 people participate in this event, which generated over $150,000 for Youth & Shelter Services.  Reggie's Sleepout is named in honor of Reggie Kelsey, who died a few months after aging out of the foster care system.  He was active in homeless youth programs prior to his death.

The best part of this event is the timing.  Reggie's Sleepout is held in late-autumn, when overnight temperatures are near freezing.  If you're cold by 10:00 p.m., it's unlikely you'll warm up until the morning.  Participants sleep in cardboard boxes to, in some small way, simulate a night of homelessness.  Most groups keep it simple.  Some create impressive structures in an attempt to win prizes.  (Personally, I think the contest for best design distracts some groups from being in solidarity with homeless youth.)

I was pleased to see so many church groups involved in Reggie's Sleepout - including at least six local ELCA congregations.  It's a good event that keeps homelessness-related issues in the public consciousness as winter approaches.