Some implications of being startled

In my last post, I suggested that there is often a connection between the word “gospel” and being surprised. The good news is not the same old, same old, because it is truly startling. And I wondered if this might be a necessary part of our salvation–that believing the shocking announcement of God’s good news results in our seeing everything differently, and thus more in line with how God sees things.

I know that this isn’t how we typically think about the word salvation. We tend to think of it as a legal standing, either lost or saved, justified or condemned. These binaries are not necessarily wrong, but they fail to take into account the rich and broad language of salvation found in Scripture. This “legal” view of salvation is only applied to the individual and misses the ecological and communal language of salvation (God is reconciling all things to himself…whether in heaven or on earth). And it’s too punctiliar, a moment in time, which fails to account for Paul’s language of “being saved,” or “working out your salvation in fear and trembling,” or “we are nearer now to our salvation than the day we first believed.”And it sets the problem of sin too feebly, seeing forgiveness and its attending guilt as the only thing to be overcome in salvation, failing to take into account the need to be liberated from the powers of sin and death and the principalities and powers which accompany them.

All of these enlarged notions of salvation would allow, even require the kind of “startled to our senses” notion I have identified related to the word gospel. In fact, if part of salvation is being liberated over time from the powers of sin and death that continuously press on us, then our need for the gospel as a startling realization would be ongoing. Our lives might be filled with multiple moments of terrifying and liberating surprises, large and small.

I am increasingly convinced that we arrange our lives with the express purpose of diminishing the element of surprise. We want our life to work out according to plan. Get an education, marry, have a career, raise kids, welcome grandkids, and retire in comfort. We, at least those of us with enough social capital, work hard to secure outcomes and shield ourselves from loss. No surprises allowed.

To this end, we surround ourselves with people who are like us, who share our values and experiences, who mirror our sense of a dependable world. Those who can’t secure their own lives, we deem “unfortunate,” which carries with it an implicit moral judgment that they haven’t been smart enough or hardworking enough or good enough. We would be truly shocked if someone announced, “blessed are the poor, God looks with favor on them.” Perhaps even more shocked if the same person said to the rest of us, “congratulations, you have your reward already, and it has little to do with the Kingdom of God.”

Now, none of us lead completely charmed lives. Life has a way of puncturing our bubble of control. A business fails. A long illness threatens our lives and ruins us financially. We endure a divorce. Our children are born with genetic defects. Or, they run off the skids that we have so carefully greased for them. The possible culprits are legion. As my theology professor was fond of saying, “life will always bite you in the ass.” We are fractured.

And our responses to these fractured places vary. We scapegoat people who are not like us. They’re taking my job or threatening my security. Or we find ways to deny or avoid reality. Or we resign ourselves to karma or God’s will or some other invisible force and bravely say, “it will all work out in the end.” Or we double down on all the bootstrap pulling willpower we can muster, which blunts our empathy and makes the edges of our lives harder and sharper.

Occasionally, rarely, but sometimes, we are shocked into seeing the world differently. No longer able to sustain the world in which we are sovereign, we abandon it as a lie and begin to see the ways we were complicit in the lie. Here, we might despair and surrender. Or, we might repent in the belief that an alternative world is available that orders things differently.

To me, this is the power of the cross. It promises that especially in the fractured places of our lives, God has set up shop. That the shocks to our lives are possible places to see the world anew.

I have friends who received the news that their newborn son, their third child, had down syndrome. They were devastated, the script of their lives turned upside down. Years down the road, their lives are totally transformed. Former careers abandoned, they have thrown themselves into lives of active compassion.

I am shocked every time (which is every Fall) I walk the Wall Town neighborhood of Durham, NC, with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. His deep participation in that historically African-American neighborhood have made him well aware of the systemic challenges that residents of that neighborhood face every day. One example which struck particularly close to home (there are innumerable examples). For years, Wall Town was red-lined by banks, meaning that they wouldn’t give loans for residents to buy the homes they lived in. This made the landlords wealthier, but more, limited inheritable wealth. I can’t begin to estimate the difference home ownership has made in my life. Not just in the homes that I have owned, but the homes my parents and grandparents have owned. We are a family of preachers and educators, not the highest paying professions, but if I outlive my parents, I will die a wealthy person.

But beyond the financial well-being this provided, I lived within a world of possibility. I never once doubted that I would go to college, never once lived with the anxiety/despair that there wouldn’t be enough for me to do what I chose to do.

Realizations like this have changed dramatically my views on race and poverty and made me aware of my own advantage and complicity. But more, walking with Jonathan through Wall Town, has made me aware of the rich networks of life that the residents share, which has conversely changed how I view the benevolent paternalism of some suburban churches.

I teach students like Sher Sheets and Ali Kaiser and my son, Josh, who have given their lives over to broken neighborhoods and circumstances. I marvel at their stories. They have eyes for the world that I have to borrow to see the world as God sees it. They have no time for the bullshit lies that equate prosperity with human value. Their lives are full of holy ache and joy.

Here’s what I’m trying to say. These transformations in how the world is viewed don’t come primarily from reading books, hearing sermons, or getting our theology right. They come through participation in the world, especially by attending to the broken and shattered places in life.

Let me be clear at this point. I don’t want to glorify brokenness. God’s ultimate aim is healing, not brokenness. Nor do I want to suggest that God is behind every hardship we suffer in life, or that they are necessarily the result of malevolent spiritual forces. The world is estranged from God and no longer corresponds to God’s good intentions. Shit happens, and agency is a complicated thing to assign in a fallen world.

What I am saying is that the broken places in life are more often than not the places that bring us up short, that refuse to conform to the “good life” we’ve put our trust in. They can startle us into new recognition. And to this extent, they bear saving potential.

And here’s what I’m saying. The gospel of the cross finds its natural habitat in broken places, in the brokenness of God in God’s own self. Broken places bear the hope of salvation because God has taken up residence there. The good news is that the marred, disfigured one is the servant of God. The good news is that the Kingdom of God has appeared, not in the halls of power and influence, but in backwaters like Galilee. The good news is that the “weakness” of God on the cross, is the power of making things new through enduring love. The good news is that even though we were complicit in killing God’s prophet, the crucified and risen Lord proclaims peace, forgiveness, and joy in the Holy Spirit for those who repent.

It’s startling. Believe the good news.

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Startled unto Salvation

I’ve been thinking a lot about gospel and salvation these days, and some things are falling together in ways that they haven’t before.

Let me begin with the idea that the gospel is “news.” Shocking, I know. But we tend to make the gospel into something else, like truth or a theory of the atonement, important things, but things that aren’t news. But I think it’s important that gospel remain in the form of news. The gospel is news, and surprising news. It’s always surprising news.

Let’s look at a few biblical texts. Let’s start with Isaiah 52-53, one of the few texts in the Greek Old Testament that uses the word gospel.You know the verses. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announced peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!'” The prophet goes on to use the imagery of the Exodus to suggest that the return of exiles to Zion (Jerusalem) is the extending of the mighty right arm of God.

For those watching and hearing the announcement, this is surprising. It’s news to them. “Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (53:1). There’s debate over who the watching audience is. Some take the audience to be those who persecuted the prophet and treated him shabbily. I think the audience is the nations who oppressed Israel and can’t believe that the events announced here could be considered the mighty work of God. I say this, because the verses that directly precede these feature the nations. God’s servant, his chosen one Israel, has been marred beyond human resemblance, “so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see…” (52:14-15).

Ay any rate, the point is the same. The announcement that this is mighty work of God, that Israel’s God reigns, is shocking news. The facts on the ground don’t support the claim. But if the claim can be believed, if things they “had not been told they shall see,” then there is a chance they can be startled into reality. “Surely, he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions.” The startling “news” that Zion’s God reigns through the wounded servant creates the possibility that others will see their own complicity in the injustice done to God’s servant. It pierces their own self-perpetuating view of reality to expose the world according to God’s reality.

Or, let’s look at the announcement of the gospel in Mark 1:14-15. “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the gospel.'” The surprise here is not as obvious, but I think is implied. The proclamation of the gospel comes against the backdrop of John’s imprisonment and the region of Galilee, none of which seem to be saying the kingdom of God has come near. And Jesus’ message ends with the exhortation to “repent and believe the gospel.” In other words, you will need to change to believe this nondescript movement out of Galilee is the good news of God. It’s surprising news. So surprising, that even Jesus’ own followers don’t believe it, highlighted by Peter’s rebuke of Jesus in Mark 8.

Or, we could look at Paul’s understanding of the gospel in 1-2 Corinthians. Paul defines the gospel in relation to the death and resurrection of Jesus, which has done nothing less than bring a new age with surprising sources of power. The word of the cross for many seems weak and foolish, but for those “who are being saved,” it is the power of God. If the principalities and powers had recognized this, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. So, the startling revelation that God’s power is being worked through what others perceive as weakness requires belief. “We no longer see things from a human point of view. Though we once regarded Christ that way, we do so no longer. So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away, everything has become new!” For Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus is startling news that allows the possibility of perceptual change. Once you believe that the cross is the power of God, then the whole world starts looking new.

There are other texts along these lines. I think of Acts 2 where the crowd realizes that they have crucified the one attested to by God and who has now poured out the Spirit that they both see and hear. They thought they were on the right side of history, but now see their complicity in opposing God, in killing the ultimate prophet of God. “Brothers, what shall we do?” is answered by Peter’s word of peace. “‘Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’… And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them saying, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.'”

A few things to note here. They are startled by Peter’s words and are urged to save themselves from this corrupt generation. In other words, they are asked to see the world differently, not the ways they saw it while in alignment with the powers of this corrupt generation. But, they are also offered the power of the Holy Spirit, an alternative form of power that will allow them to see and act in the world anew.

So, what if salvation requires this kind of startling news–shocking news that brings us to our God senses. What if our salvation, and the salvation of all creation, requires that we be thrown clear of the world given to us by the principalities and powers of this age, to the world that’s been pulled down over our eyes? This perceptual change would be the tangible result of a victory over the powers of sin and death. And the cross would be more than an atoning sacrifice, but also (primarily?) the social location from which to view the world anew, among the poor, the powerless, those unjustly treated. Part of our salvation, then, would be the ongoing process of discovering the ways we are complicit with powers other than the Kingdom of God, startled into this recognition by a scandalous gospel.

Been startled lately?

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A little riff on Springsteen

This past October, James Smith led our Streaming conference on worship and the formation of missional communities. He also supplied the title for the conference, “Everybody has a hungry heart,” 14707895_10157540683075007_4308623066983235923_oa Springsteen lyric. We took his title and ran with it on Thursday night at the conference. We had a “prairie home companion style” night of music and other “amusements.” Caryl and Scott Parker (Nashville) and Boone Langston and Robby Wells (Portland) covered Springsteen numbers, we interviewed James Smith, had an An14633729_10157550449180007_8819322726775762675_onie Dillard reading by Anne Nichols, a few attempts at sketch
humor. I capped off the evening with a Springsteen inspired essay, built in large part on his outstanding memoir (which had only just come out). I include it here.

I know better tonight than to say that I’m a Springsteen fan. It’s not because I don’t listen to Springsteen. I do. I have most of this catalog in my itunes folder. Nebraska is one of my favorite albums, and thank goodness for The Rising and Devils and Dust, albums that did some justice to the experience of 9/11 and the second gulf war. I’m plenty familiar with Springsteen and enjoy listening to his music.

I hesitate to call myself a fan, however, because I know a few, and I have nothing in comparison to their life-altering devotion. Springsteen is not on their bucket list. Springsteen is in the oxygen they breath. So, they might drop all the details of their life and get on a plane and fly across the country to attend a concert, maybe even for the third or fourth time on this particular tour.

A friend of mine has been to countless Springsteen concerts. His boys are now old enough that they’ve been through the Springsteen catechism and now attend concerts with their father. Recently, the boys went to a U2 concert and were disappointed at the weak effort of the lads from Dublin who could only manage to play for two hours, far below the Springsteen standard, who on his most recent tour played one night for four hours.

For John and others, you know who you are, Springsteen doesn’t just talk about life, he delivers it. A through your ears to your heart, throughout your body kind of life.

And, I have found, he does this for people who are particularly spiritually sensitive. Not necessarily the “go to meeting on Sundays” spiritual types, but the ones whose cares and concerns related to life cannot be assuaged by the sweetness of a praise chorus.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s some church in his music. It’s not hard to scratch on a Springsteen lyric and find some sort of faith allusion. I don’t know if you saw Springsteen with Steven Colbert the other night on the Late Show, but they talked about the way their Catholicism has shaped them. I saw an earlier interview with Springsteen where he talked about how the themes of faith, of resurrection and hope, show up in his music. He didn’t write deliberately of these things. He wasn’t intentionally writing songs of faith or about faith. It was more that the rhythms and smells and dispositions of his early religious training got deep inside of him, so that no expression was devoid of them.

In his recent memoir, a brilliant read, he writes,

In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self. I found a land of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward. It was a glorious and pathetic place I was either shaped for or fit right into. It has walked alongside me as a waking dream my whole life. So as a young adult I tried to make sense of it. I tried to meet its challenge for the very reasons that there are souls to lose and a kingdom of love to be gained. I laid what I’d absorbed across the hardscrabble lives of my family, friends and neighbors. I turned it into something I could grapple with, understand, something I could even find faith in. As funny as it sounds, I have a “personal” relationship with Jesus. He remains one of my fathers, though as with my own father, I no longer believe in his godly power. I believe deeply in his love, his ability to save . . . but not to damn . . . enough of that. (Springsteen, Bruce. Born to Run (Kindle Locations 298-305). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition).

In his interview with Steven Colbert a few nights ago, he talked about his songs in gospel terms. “The verses,” he said, “are the blues. The chorus is the gospel. It’s how I think of a song when I write.” The chorus, he says, is where I try to bring some “transcendence.”

Maybe the themes are getting more explicit the deeper Springsteen goes into his career. The allusions seem more obvious in Devils and Dust and Radio Nowhere. The friend I spoke of earlier says he’s reconnecting with his catholocism. Maybe. But this is not, I think, Springsteen’s primary appeal to my more spiritually sensitive friends.

His appeal comes more, I think, from his ability to name our common experience poetically, and in doing so, to make it transcendent. Our everyday experience is shot through with meaning, with a beat, with a turn of a phrase, and in the performance with an embodied passion that makes it all mean something.

It’s this sensibility, I think, you hear in his memoir, when he writes about the neighborhood he grew up in:

There is a place here— you can hear it, smell it— where people make lives, suffer pain, enjoy small pleasures, play baseball, die, make love, have kids, drink themselves drunk on spring nights and do their best to hold off the demons that seek to destroy us, our homes, our families, our town. Here we live in the shadow of the steeple, where the holy rubber meets the road, all crookedly blessed in God’s mercy, in the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, race-riot-creating, oddball-hating, soul-shaking, love-and-fear-making, heartbreaking town of Freehold, New Jersey. Let the service begin. (Springsteen, Bruce. Born to Run (Kindle Locations 173-177). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition).

Life as worship. Where the holy rubber meets the road.  Blues and gospel. Laying it across the hardscrabble lives of friends and families. The truth.

Springsteen has a way of making me ache when I listen to him. He touches places I’ve been and feelings I’ve had. Some of it in sepia tones, home, glory days, regret and longing for home. But some of it is the ache for escape, to run, for the desperate need for there to be more. To follow the indeterminate destination of the road, or to be carried someplace by the river, which makes us clean.

He captures something of the beautiful and horrible ambiguity of life.  Oh that our worship on Sundays could hold this beautiful and horrible ambiguity! Too often our worship “papers over” our reality. It’s too glib, too easily moves to happy or joyous. It’s all gospel and no blues. It scarcely notices injustice or hardscrabble lives. And in so doing reduces the gospel.

One final thought about Springsteen tonight. It’s rock and roll that carries all of this, that both holds the lyrics and creates the space for them. But it’s more than that. The words are embodied in the performance. In the sweat and the movement and the beat and the way the sound moves through your chest. At a Springsteen concert, we’re not “brains on sticks,” to use Jamie Smith’s memorable phrase. We’re bodies connected to light and sound and others and the world. It’s not escape. It’s connection. One that we long for. One that we desire.



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Shifting the center of worship from sermon to table

In anticipation of the conference we hosted a few weeks ago, “Everybody Has a Hungry Heart: Worship and the Formation of Missional Communities,” I put out a survey for those who plan and lead worship. The results were revealing in many ways.

People invest a lot of time in worship planning and take it very seriously. We’ve raised the bar in terms of the importance of thoughtful planning, which is good. But we still have a ways to go in how we conceive of worship in the first place.

In the over 50 completed surveys, one thing emerged over all other responses as a shared practice related to worship planning: it begins with and revolves around the sermon.

This is not a surprising insight, especially for those of us in free church traditions (most of the respondents) that do not begin with a fairly set liturgy buttressed by readings from the lectionary. (Although, even the few that completed the survey from more liturgical traditions built their services around the sermon).

I probably wouldn’t have questioned this much before reading Jamie Smith’s books, particularly, Desiring the Kingdom. Smith questions our view of what it means to be human, noting that since the Enlightenment, we’ve tended to think of humans as creatures driven by reason, or ideas. But, a more satisfying view from theological, philosophical, and psychological perspectives, is to see humans as desiring creatures. As the title of Smith’s latest book suggests, we are what we love. And desire is not cultivated or trained primarily by information, but by bodily practices in the world, our habits and routines, or as Smith calls them, liturgies, that hold our lives.

If Smith is right, and surely he is, then what does the fact that we plan worship around preaching say about what we think it means to be human? Do we think of humans as “brains on sticks,” to use Smith’s memorable phrase? One other survey finding might support that we do indeed suppose that formation is primarily a function of rationality. We expect very little in terms of bodily participation from those who worship. As one respondent put it, “We don’t expect our members to do anything except sing.”

Now, don’t get excited here. I’m a preacher and would like to think my sermons make a big difference in people’s lives. And I think good ideas are better than bad ideas or no ideas. Unlike some worship leaders who equate worship with singing, I think a good deal of worship goes on during preaching. No one is saying stop preaching (though occasionally sermons I hear miss two or three good places to end earlier), but we might want to be more realistic about what preaching actually accomplishes (a post about this, perhaps, in the future).

So, let’s keep the sermon and maybe even think more fully about its importance, but what if we built our service around a different telos, or “end,” than the sermon?

What if the service was built around the Lord’s Supper? And by that I mean, what if the planning and design of the service revolved around making the new social arrangements of the gospel visible? OK, let me explain a little. Surely part of the significance of the gospel is that the welcome of God cuts across ways of sorting the world by ethnicity, gender, age, class, etc. In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. The Spirit has been poured out on all flesh which means that men and women, old and young, servants both male and female, will prophesy (to paraphrase Acts 2). All who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved, without distinction.

The table is the place where these new social realities become most prominently visible, where we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us, for the glory of God. Admittedly, the way many of us practice communion conceals this reality. We are left to our private meditations as we take individual portions and pass the emblems down rows to faceless participants. Communion is the time, in many worship services, where we are left alone with our thoughts (brains on sticks?).

We’d have to practice communion differently to make visible the new social realities of the gospel embodied among the eschatological people of God (church). In fact, I very seriously doubt that we would have come up with the idea of passing plates down rows in the first place if the social aspects of the table of the Lord were our starting place. I am struck every time I attend a service where I am invited to get up and go to table. The visual impression made by a diverse people being welcomed around one table is striking. Often I have thought, what but the reconciling work of God could have brought these people together?

And, we’re doing things with our bodies and interacting with other bodies. We’ve moved from being worship spectators/consumers to embodying the claims of the gospel on our collective life.

To refer back to the post from two days ago, now the focus of worship is not an excellent performance, but making the diversity of the people of God visible. We would think of leadership roles in worship, not just in relation to who can do the best job (or what gender they are), but in terms of making the reconciled people of God visible.

It might change the ways we think about other parts of our worship, like singing. Consider that toward the end of Romans, Paul exhorts this Jew/Gentile challenged church to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” He then cites passages from the Psalms that imagine all of humanity with one voice praising God. Singing in worship is not just about you getting your praise on. It’s a public act of solidarity wherein the gracious welcome of God becomes visible. The offering, the sermon, the call to worship and the sending at the end, all would be given a different significance.

I know that this kind of shift from sermon to table as the focus of planning would form a different kind of imagination for who we are and what we do in the world. It would shape our desires differently. It’s tougher to worship around the notion of the welcome of God and then exclude others in the various places we live and work. And it would protect our preachers from the temptations related to celebrity. I think we’d be less compartmentalized in our Sunday lives and our Monday-Saturday lives, less likely to distinguish between the gospel and justice, less likely to see personhood in relation to autonomy, more likely to know in our bones the significance of community. And on and on and on….

Anyway, that’s my proposal. Who’s in?

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When excellence is a guiding principle, is your worship Christian?

At a conference at a Christian University several years ago, I heard Stanley Hauerwas comment on part of the University’s mission statement that used the word “excellence.” As only Hauerwas can say it, “When excellence is in your mission statement, you’ve lost the capacity to be a Christian University.”

I remembered this comment a few weeks ago as I was reading survey responses given by those who plan and lead worship. The word “excellence” was used several times, alongside words like “seamless” and “flow,” words which require a certain competent efficiency.

I remembered Hauerwas’ words again today when I read an article published by The Christian Post that reported on a church in Oregon that bans fat people from serving on the praise team, for, among other reasons, their tendency to interrupt the “flow of anointing” between members of the team. I kid you not. These guidelines, which included many things, were posted on their website until it began attracting negative attention.

Our outrage over this (I hope you’re outraged, but I’m worried that some of you might be thinking, “it’s wrong, but they have a point”) gets at Hauerwas’ point. Their concern over appearance was in part related to the public statement they wanted to make with guests. “You only get one chance to make a good first impression,” the statement read. Fat people need not apply. I wonder about old people, or people with disabilities, or physical deformities. Could a person in a wheel chair even make it onto the worship “stage?”

Richard Beck tells of being invited to share from his book, Unclean, with the ministry staff of a very well-known megachurch. He visited their worship before he met with them, and they asked him about his impressions of their worship. He responded that there was no death visible. They were certainly not expecting this response, and asked him to explain. Everyone who led in their very polished worship experience, he explained, was young and pleasant in appearance. Death denial. They were shocked that this was the case, perhaps an indication that all of this works on us at a very subconscious level.

These kinds of worship experiences certainly do leave a first impression. We’re about the appearance of wholeness and vitality. We’re hoping you find us attractive and enjoy your time with us. We’d never do anything intentionally to offend you or put you off. And for an hour on Sunday, you too can live in this world of appearances. Excellence. And here’s the thing. Excellence is exclusionary.

So, what would a Christian first impression be? Wouldn’t it have to be a little scandalous? Wouldn’t it have to give an impression of gracious inclusion, that all are welcome here just as they are? Wouldn’t it have to publicly exhibit the fact that our world is not perfect and you don’t have to be either? Wouldn’t we have to exhibit in some way our brokenness? Wouldn’t it have to demonstrate that the people our society would hide or overlook have a vital and visible place here?

I attended a church in Durham, NC, recently that gave just this kind of impression. The worship band was diverse, as were all who led publicly. Young and old, black and white and hispanic, male and female. The entire service was done in both English and Spanish, even though there didn’t appear to be many “Spanish as first language” people present. At one point in the service, they opened it up for anyone to speak around a prompt that had emerged from the sermon. Talk about a “flow” killer. The first speaker was a young man with down syndrome dressed in a suit and tie. Earlier in the service, he had walked in front of the praise band to get to his seat while doing some version of the funky chicken. At this point in the service, he enthusiastically took the mic and said some things that sounded sufficiently churchy, even if they weren’t fully coherent. The church applauded when he finished. I bet there aren’t that many public places he can go and hold the microphone and speak and be so warmly affirmed. And I bet there aren’t many places where the members of this church work that would appreciate or encourage this kind of thing. That’s Christian worship.

I could give several other examples of how that congregation gave a first impression of inclusion. I wondered if I were that church’s pastor, if I would’ve been cool with all that, particularly of giving the mic to anybody. I recently visited one of my former congregations and was stunned when a particularly challenging member of the congregation led a prayer. To my shame, I knew that would never have happened when I was there. What value was I protecting by resisting that level on inclusion? Probably something to do with excellence or efficiency.

My friend, Erik, who is on our grad program and lives his life in a wheelchair, is very kind to gently point out ways that I haven’t fully thought about the experience of people like him. At our conference a little over a week ago, Jaime Clark-Soles talked of her experience in imagining church from the perspective of people with disabilities. She says she’ll never see church the same way again. I know that parents of “special-needs” children often give up on going to church because its moving too fast for them to participate. They often feel disruptive and left out. Shouldn’t their inclusion be a test of the gospel in worship?

I can hear some of you hissing. You’ll never reach people that way. Agreed. Some you won’t. Some won’t think that this kind of public display represents much good news. It will be too embarrassing, too many smells and sights and sounds. But some will. The poor, the lame, the blind, the crippled. Let the reader understand.


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The Patient Practice of Sail Making

A little excerpt from the book I’m trying to finish on Luke’s view of the church.

The movement and power of the Holy Spirit explains the practices and shape of the church in Acts. This statement bears some emphasis. In my tradition, structure and practices were constitutive of the church. We were the church because we had the right polity and the right practices of worship. When this is your view of the church, you have little need for the Holy Spirit. Consequently, our congregations are not built for discernment. We prize control and mastery, rather than surprise and pliability. If the church is a boat, we are building oars to propel the boat under our own power, rather than sails to receive the empowering wind of the Holy Spirit. My sense is that most congregations are building oars (or engines!) rather than sails. Put plainly, many congregations are built for taking initiative rather than receiving power. So, what would it take to put them in the business of sail making? Or, how would a community be structured to make it’s posture more receptive?

Jesus’ instruction to his followers is to wait. In our world, we earn no cultural cred for waiting. Waiting sounds to us like a waste of time. It makes us think of the DMV or the long lines of an amusement park. Waiting is non-productive, and we feel valuable only when we are producing or consuming. Waiting is slow and we value fast. Congregations, too often, double down on this cultural value. Instead of slowing the pace, we pile on, equating membership in a church with program involvement. “We don’t want you to simplify your life or slow you down,” we tell our parishioners, “we want to provide you with spiritual fuel so that you can navigate your hurried life better.”

The anecdotal evidence for hurried congregations seems overwhelming. Congregations are veritable beehives of activity, to the point that the program life of the congregation becomes the proverbial tail wagging the dog. The infrastructure needs of a program driven church are enormous and require constant feeding. Recruiting staffing for various programs, especially for children and youth, is never ending. Even a small congregation will list dozens of ministries on their websites, hoping to impress would-be members that they can meet their needs the way larger congregations can.

Those who plan and organize worship will tell you that worship is on the clock every week and that the one thing it cannot be is boring. As a result, “dead time,” or silence, is almost never intentional, but a mistake, the result of poor planning. I recently had a pastor tell me that they stopped processing to the Lord’s Supper table, opting instead to pass the emblems down the aisles, because it took too long for everyone to move to tables. “There are only a few things,” he said, “for which we are willing to lengthen a service.” Apparently the sacrament of the Eucharist is not one of them. I seldom attend a congregation that invites its members during worship into contemplative space, slow space, attentive space.

When I consult with congregational leaders, I try to impress upon them the importance of practices of attentiveness so that they can lead the congregation in discerning the leading of the Holy Spirit. They often claim that this seems like weak leadership. It seems indecisive and takes way too much time. Members reinforce this perception, urging leaders to state a direction, any direction, and lead. To them, the one thing leadership cannot include is waiting. Activity, busyness, urgency. These communicate purpose and direction. It’s oar building.

I’ve mentioned the word “attentiveness” several times now. The cost of a frenetic life is a loss of attentiveness. Philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Charles Taylor have taught me to think of the importance of attentiveness in relation to our being in the world. All of us function in in the world in relation to a shared imagination, what Taylor calls a “social imaginary.” In other words, our life in the world comes with shared assumptions that are necessary for us to navigate life. We can’t rethink these assumptions as we participate in the world. We have to assume that driving on the right side of the road is a shared value (in most places), or that the proper place to join a line is at the end, and that being a Cubs fan inevitably involves disappointment. In small ways and great ways, in ways articulated and tacit, we assume a shared world. And the faster the world goes, the more things we have to assume. This map, or social imaginary, is the world as it appears to us, not necessarily the world as it actually is. By necessity, as we hurry through our world, we lose our ability to attend to things, to let things appear to us on their own terms. We lose the capacity for surprise and reflection. We’re imposing a world instead of receiving a world.

I’m convinced that all spiritual practices worth their salt in some way slow us down. They don’t just interrupt our regular routines, they invite us into a slower way of being in the world so that we might be more attentive, and through attentiveness to discern more clearly the leading of God’s Spirit. They put us, not in a posture of grasping or acquiring, but of receiving or waiting.

So, waiting for power from on high is more than a detail specific to Acts 1 (i.e., in this instance, wait for power from on high). Rather, waiting is a posture necessary for receiving and participating in the powerful movement of the Holy Spirit. And leaders in contemporary congregations face an uphill battle in convincing themselves and others that waiting is a powerful action. It is, however, the necessary posture for all the observations that will be made in following chapters. Being drawn together into the life of the Holy Spirit is impossible apart from waiting. It does take more time initially than organizational cultures that value speed and efficiency, but over time the patient practices related to waiting create a powerful ecology that bears enduring fruit. These practices eventually become a powerful way of life.

Let me repeat the contrast I’m drawing here. The contrast is not between slow and fast, though sometimes waiting can seem slow. The contrast is between God’s initiative and the church’s, between building oars or sails. If our desire is to create a posture in our congregation and its members of attentiveness to the Holy Spirit, then practices related to waiting constitute the fastest path toward that end.


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Tell a Story, Change the World

I’ve said in this space many times that information is a fairly weak instigator for change. We don’t change much, generally speaking, just because we receive new information. We tend to absorb new information into the frameworks we already have in place. And these frameworks are related to stories we’ve learned to tell about ourselves and our world.

So, deep-down-big-change requires at least two things. First, significant change requires new experiences that disrupt business as usual. Second, new narratives have to be told that take the disruption as the starting place for a new account of things. And this is where we are failing.

I think we have a lot of experimenting going on. Congregations are trying new things all over the place. But the potential these experiments hold for deep culture change is largely dissipated because we lack sufficient reflection that would ultimately lead to story-telling. We tend to reflect on new experiences around one question: did this work? To which I want to ask, work according to what framework? In other words, the question “did it work” tends to be answered from our current frameworks of understanding, thus robbing us of the ability to provide a new account of things. Reflection around different questions–my favorites are “what are we learning” and “what surprised us”–lead to new narratives.

But I am convinced that we are also in need of story-tellers. Not everyone can make narrative sense out of the confusion of new experiences. So, when we find story-tellers with this capacity, we have to encourage them.

So, with regard to missional innovation, the moment we are in is not an information moment. While gains can still be made by connecting the mission of God to Trinitarian theology or good eschatology, the biggest catalyst for transformation will be the sharing of stories. And I’ve been trying to encourage the story-tellers. And I’ve found a few good ones. I’ve been reading Bruce Logue’s reflections for awhile now. Bruce is launched into a deep and meaningful learning curve. He’s re-learning ministry in the new, trying, and exciting environment of a new kind of Christian community. You can find his stories here.

If you have stories, and I’m also very interested in stories within existing congregations, let me know where you’re telling them. We need to hear them. Tell a story, change the world.

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Blessed are those who believe without seeing

Wouldn’t you kill for a paragraph or two in the NT on what should happen in the worship assembly? Maybe we could put to death some of our worship wars. Alas, no NT writer ever weighed in on the appropriate style of music or whether sermons should be topical or textual. In fact, I think much of the NT assumes views of worship carried over from the temple and synagogue, practices developed over time and modeled most clearly in the Psalms.

This is not to say the NT has nothing to say about worship, it’s just that what is said is embedded in narratives or assumed in theological arguments. So, what is said about worship is fairly indirect and must be teased out theologically. Since we have no NT manual for worship, we have to think about what we do in relation to the God who is the subject of our worship and what it means to live in praiseworthy ways in the world God created.

There is, however, one direct statement about worship in the NT that is both deserving of our attention and frustratingly vague in its application. When Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, she poses a question about worship to him. “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” She tries to pull Jesus into a worship war to deflect his queries into her personal life.

Jesus responds, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Well, that’s clear. We must worship in spirit and truth. My hunch is that the various worship traditions represented by contemporary Christianity all think they are in compliance with this statement, but have very different views about what it means. Some place the stress on the word “spirit,” others on the word “truth.” All would agree that something huge is at stake in the phrase “spirit and truth.”


Jamie was born in Michigan, just a few miles from RC, but hadn’t been here since she was 3. I was excited that she came to visit recently with her mom. She can’t wait for Streaming.

I’m not sure I’m the one to shed a lot of light on this text. Fortunately, we have Jamie Clark-Soles coming to Streaming to help us think about worship in relation to the Gospel of John. Jamie is a Johannine scholar from Perkins School of Theology at SMU. She is also very concerned with the renewal of the church in North America in our post-Christendom context. My first instinct in encountering Jesus’ statement to the woman at the well is to say it needs to be answered first in relation to the world imagined by the Gospel of John. So, I’m anxious for Jamie to help us explore the contours of John’s gospel with this question in mind.

Here, I will offer only one suggestion. In John, both seeing and hearing play a role in creating belief. Seeing creates initial belief, but hearing is necessary for deeper belief. In a crucial text near the end of the gospel, Thomas believes because he has seen the resurrected Jesus and touched his wounds. Jesus does not rebuke Thomas for his need to see, but offers a blessing that indicates the priority of hearing: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

I’ve often thought that much of what passes for worship renewal these days runs along the rails of seeing. We want the experience of worship to be immediate, to produce in the moment. The one thing, then, that we can’t be is boring. We are constantly giving people something to “see.” Hearing is a much more patient endeavor, requiring the capacity to be still, to be attentive, to be reflective. Perhaps I’m wrong about this, but I think it’s worth asking if our worship aims too much at the more superficial level of seeing, not enough at the deepening capacity of hearing.

Come to Streaming and help us extent this important conversation.

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Worship Planning: what are we aiming at?

I am often struck by how much thought goes into planning worship these days. Back in the day, worship planning often meant the song leader picking out songs on the front row right before worship (with enough time to slide the song numbers in the board at the front, next to the attendance and giving board). These were usually the song leader’s favorites. There was seldom thought given to themes or how the service might flow or build. In Churches of Christ, we thought of worship differently then. We were satisfying “acts of worship,” not so much curating an experience for worshippers. Though informal, we had set prayers and liturgical pieces (“guide, guard, and direct us,” “help us to take this in a manner worthy,” “separate and apart from the Lord’s Supper,” “we lay aside in store”). These stock phrases reminded us that worship was satisfying a list or approved practices of worship.

Surely, the thought that goes into worship planning now is an upgrade over the “guide, guard, and direct us” days.

I’ve put out a worship planning survey in advance of our Streaming conference, Oct 6-8, featuring Jaimie Smith from Calvin College. Our theme is, “Everybody has a Hungry Heart: Worship and the formation of missional communities,” a theme which allows us to consider the relationship between worship and the formation of communities. (I’ve gotten good response, but hope to add more in the next few weeks). The surveys to this point bear out my observation that a considerable amount of effort goes into the planning of worship in most places.

I have other observations from the surveys that deserve further attention. First, the planning process is very sermon-centric. This is particularly true among “free churches” that don’t rely on lectionary readings, but even in more “liturgical” churches, many choices are not made until after the sermon’s direction has been set. Most planners talked about the sermon as setting a “theme” for the worship. And in my own worship planning days, this was certainly how things went.

I was struck several years ago by a comment from Luke Timothy Johnson related to his being asked to speak in chapel at Candler School of Theology. Johnson was taken aback by the suggestion that there would be a “theme,” supplied by his message, that would become the strategic focus of worship planning. This seemed to him to be manipulative and presumptuous. This approach to worship planning sought to manufacture a certain experience in the worship participants, primarily an affective response of some sort (inspired, moved, etc). It was presumptuous of those leading worship to assume we know what best outcome there might be for worship and worshippers and that somehow we can manage God’s work in worship.

Those provocative words have troubled me ever since, and I think he’s on to something. At the very least, every preacher and worship planner knows very well the experience that what was planned or hoped for was not what came to fruition, and often what was not anticipated was better. Still, I think thoughtful planning is better than not, though I would begin now with the lectionary and the time we occupy on a liturgical calendar, not the sermon theme for the day. But I think Johnson’s critique might occasion other important questions.

It seems clear from the surveys at this point that the worship planners are typically aiming at the interior of the individual worshipper, whether that be a rational or emotional aim. One of the strengths of Jaimie Smith’s work is his critique of a modern anthropology, namely that humans are self-possessing, autonomous individuals, and that the interior life counts above all else. It’s pretty easy to make this argument from our worship practices. Increasingly, our worship spaces are theaters for the head and heart, stages, video screens and sound monitors replacing the table, or even the pulpit, as the symbol of worship. I am not opposed to these things in general (though would someone put a table somewhere visible in the worship space), but offer them as evidence that the aim of worship is often the interior of the individual. If you can’t imagine a different aim than that, then this underscores my point.

Other things could be the aim of worship. For instance, the making visible of a redemptive, reconciling community might be the aim, in which case, theater seating and a big stage would be a poor venue. Or we might imagine that the aim of worship might be bringing God’s concern for the world more into focus. Often, we are encouraged to leave the world behind when we come to worship, reinforced somewhat subliminally by the lack of art or plants or windows in our sanctuaries. Mark Noll once suggested changing a lyric in the song, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” from “the things of this world will grow strangely dim” to “the things of this world will become strangely clear.” Our hymnody, architecture, suburban locations, etc, all seem to communicate that the church is a sanctuary from the world, not an outpost for the Kingdom of God.

Let me be quick to say here that our worship does things we do not intend and that there are important ways that community and belonging to the world are fostered by what we do in worship. And God certainly cares about the interior of the individual. But our aim matters, and, at the very least, we should be aware of how our aim(s) are shaping communities of faith.

I hope we can talk about this some at Streaming in October. Hope you’ll come.

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Worship and the formation of missional communities

While barrels of ink have been used to explore all things missional, very little of it has been used to talk about the relationship of missional communities and worship. I think the primary reasons are two-fold. First, many people still think of missional only as things done outside the four walls of the church. “We’re out their doing missional things,” is an ill-informed comment I often hear. Worship, then is one thing, missional something else. Second, worship has been so over-identified with the experience of church that missional true-believers shy away from it in favor of themes more immediately associated with the social realities of the Kingdom of God. As Craig Van Gelder has aptly stated the problem, “in North America, worship has replaced Christianity” (or something to that effect). So, if you’re in the business of rescuing Christianity from worship, then you don’t write as much about worship.

But there are huge gains to be made by thinking worship and mission together. To this end, our ministry conference this year is taking as its theme, “Everybody has a hungry heart: worship and the formation of missional communities.” And we’ve invited the absolute best presenter for the subject, Jaimie Smith of Calvin College.

16478344637_9ce25a995c_kSmith’s books, Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom, along with his new book, You are What You Love, make the case that humans are not brains on sticks, primarily driven by reason, but are desiring creatures, driven by what we love. And we learn to love through our bodily practices. Smith makes several applications around these basic themes, the most significant being that we learn to desire the Kingdom of God through the bodily practices of worship. Our desires are formed through liturgy, the repetitive, embodied practices of worship.

This is good theology, it seems to me, but I was curious if my psychology friends like Richard Beck thought this was good psychology as well. From what they’ve told me, pretty good psychology as well.

So, if Smith is on to something here, then two questions pose themselves: 1) Why have our worship liturgies not done a better job shaping the next generation of Christians? Or, are other cultural liturgies more powerful and pervasive than the ones being offered in congregations? 2) Why don’t our current liturgies produce missional communities? Or, if “missional” represents a deep cultural shift within congregations, and if worship is a key to such deep formational shifts, then what must worship become to embody missional community?

These are the questions we will be pursuing this October 6-8 at Rochester College. Joining Jamie on the program will be Gospel of John scholar Jamie Clark-Soles (Perkins, SMU), Randy Harris and Richard Beck (ACU) and Naomi Walters (Rochester College).

Jamie suggested our conference title, “Everybody has a hungry heart,” which is of course an excuse to feature the Springsteen catalog at the conference. We have some special plans along these lines for opening night of the conference,




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