A New Role

A fabulous author, leader, and visionary, the late Phyllis Tickle, talked about a trend in the Church. She presented the idea that every approximate five hundred years, the Church would do a garage sale. What she was referring to is the idea that due to a variety of forces, the Church was made to look at itself and determine what aspects of being the Church it was going to keep and what aspects would be discarded as the Church moved forward into the future. Her viewpoint was that the Church is currently in one of those periods which started in the early 2000s or a little earlier. (To read about this more in depth read her book, The Great Emergence: How the Church is Changing and Why [2008].)

I think that her theory is very accurate. I also think that we are still in the midst of one of the Church’s “garage sales.” There is a lot of turmoil within the institutional church. We are trying to figure out what will take us into the next five hundred years in a way which will serve the people of God both within and outside of the Church. This inventory and choosing is being done by individuals and by the corporate body. I have addressed this in previous posts without referencing Tickle’s theory but definitely in the same vein as her theory.

In this post, I want to lift up the idea that there is a growing need for nontraditional ministry models. Specifically, I am thinking about the role of leaders, usually referred to as clergy, in nontraditional ministry. The traditional clergy role is one which is connected to a specific congregation, in a specific location, under a denominational title. I do not support the elimination of the traditional role as I have just described but I think it is time that the Church is open to other ways for clergy to live out a ministry role. A vital one which is overlooked as of now is one that utilizes technology.

With the increase in technology and the manner in which it connects us in new ways, I believe it is time for the Church to acknowledge a ministry role for clergy which focuses on technological connections. To date, the Church has just added to the list of duties for traditional clergy, a component which points toward involvement in social media and the internet. I have personally been one of these traditional clergy who has attempted to actively use technology in my ministry. The problem with this is that there is not enough time to adequately serve in this capacity. The amount of time and energy necessary to fulfill the traditional role of clergy as I outlined above, leaves a fair inadequate amount of time and energy to do any sort of justice to a social media ministry. In order to honestly provide ministry in this area, the Church must acknowledge it as a validated ministry with the same status as a clergy person serving in a local congregation.

One aspect of ministry which Jesus demonstrated and the Church has at times striven to live out is the idea that ministry occurs where people are at a given time. Jesus did this by walking from village to village and sitting on hillsides or by lakes. The Church has done this by sending people to new lands. I believe this is what Jesus meant when Matthew records him saying, “Go and make disciples of all nations…” The key word here is GO. Jesus intended the Church to go where the people are. Today, the people are in the cyberworld. For me, this legitimized the importance of an affirmed ministry role for clergy in this aspect of life.

Do you agree that this is a need? How might this need be part of the change happening in the Church? What other nontraditional ministry roles need to be considered?

A Savior

One of the challenges which I see in the church, especially among leaders, is confusion over who is the savior. The problem is not that these leaders, and some members, struggle to come up with a description of Jesus Christ. Many of them do a great job of telling the life story of Jesus, talking about his earthly ministry, and giving a theological explanation regarding his death and resurrection. The issue is that in their zeal for fulfilling the Great Commandment, they begin to think that they are responsible for ensuring the salvation of others. This could not be farther from the truth.

Jesus came with a purpose, some may even say a call. Jesus’ purpose was to destroy all the barriers between humanity and God. God’s desire is that all may experience the fullness of God’s love in a lasting relationship with God. The difficulty in the achievement of this is humans have chosen often to take paths which lead them away from God. These paths make us vulnerable to committing unloving actions and to experience the impact of those actions taken by others. They also can give us a distorted understanding of love. Jesus’ ministry was focused on correcting this distortion and showing how these paths lead us away from God.

Jesus broke down social barriers which humanity created amongst themselves. Jesus presented a definition of love that was unconditional and with a focus toward others and not self. He reminded everyone what it meant to be in relationship with God. Actions which he took supported his words and showed us how we are to demonstrate God’s love to one another. All this culminated in his loving action taken on a cross where he gave his life to remove any remaining barriers we might have between us and God.

That final action by Jesus which led to his death and resurrection is sufficient for all people. Through this action, Jesus saved us from the paths we take which lead us away from the love of God. Jesus does not need us to recreate or to add to this action. Instead, Jesus told us to go out into the world and to tell all the people of his breaking of all barriers. More importantly, Jesus desires us to demonstrate this work in our own actions and words.

There is not one of us who is the Savior. That position has been filled by Jesus Christ. We do not have it within our abilities to break down the ultimate barrier between God and humanity. What we do have is the ability to introduce the Savior to others by our lives. Our expressing of the love of God and attributing that love for the choices we make in life will open doors for individuals to first experience and then begin to understand what God’s love is truly about.

YOU ARE NOT THE SAVIOR! Instead, spend your time introducing the Savior to others through your life and the sharing of God’s love.

The Unexpected

I have become a fan of the reality show Big Brother over the past few years. Not really sure how I began watching it. I may have decided to watch it when my youngest son started and would talk about it. This show is one that most people either love or hate. This is also one of a limited number of reality television shows that I ever care to watch. I share this information because the motto on Big Brother is, “expect the unexpected.” A variety of twists and turns take place throughout the show and little changes to the rules as the show progresses seem to happen each season.

The motto from Big Brother seems to be very appropriate to me when I think about the Lord. Over the years, I have come to realize that God operates more often in the realm of the unexpected than in the predictable. Pleasant surprises are frequent in the life the Lord creates. Occasionally I am alert enough to fully experience these unexpected blessings as they happen. As a rule, I become aware of them only when I look back upon my life.

My life has been filled with God’s unexpected blessings. Sometimes these blessings are brought when a new person enters my life. At times these blessings occur when I choose to get out of my comfort zone. Still, other times they arrive through reading another person’s writing, or hearing a new song, or watching a movie. As unexpected as the Lord can be, the mode in which God gives blessings can vary in multiple degrees.

I like that God chooses to do the unexpected. This has taken me places in life that I would not have ventured on my own. Moving at the end of last year was one of those exact situations. After living most of my life in the same geographical area, I really never thought I would live anywhere else. However, my husband received an exciting job offer to start a brand-new program at a university, and so we were off on a brand-new adventure. Since moving, I have had one unexpected surprise after another. My life has been filled with new experiences. I discovered a love for writing which I had never explored. Some amazing people have entered into my life. A whole new perspective has unfolded before me.

Let me issue a warning to all of you. When you think you have the Lord figured out and you are sure you know what blessings the Lord has planned for you… expect the unexpected.

Answer Unavailable

For me, one of the most difficult realities in life is that times exist when answers do not. As a leader in the Christian church, I have often been present with people when they experience tragedy and/or loss. I have sat beside a person when they have been given extremely bad news. I have accompanied police officers as they have had to deliver news of a death to a family. It has been my responsibility to speak to a community when horror such as what occurred on 9/11/01 happens in our nation. In each of these situations, people have looked for answers that are beyond any human’s ability to provide.

This week, news of a senseless tragedy filled the airwaves and newspapers due to an event in my state. Less than twenty-four hours after this tragedy, another horrible act was committed in Ohio. Over thirty individuals lost their lives within a 24-hour time span because of the actions taken by two individuals. Right away people started seeking answers. The news media asked questions of law enforcement about motives and how these events took place. The politicians started discussing their theories and placing blame on others. The families of the victims, the ones who deserve answers more than anyone else, asked the question that always arises, “Why?

Over the years and my experience in seeking answers to questions like this, I have come to realize that some questions must be left unanswered. Sure, we can theorize, and we can rationalize but the reality is that the answer to Why? is not available. We can search the Bible, ancient manuscripts, history books, psychology books, and all types of writings, but the answer is not there. We can listen to civic leaders, faith leaders, law enforcement, professors, and anyone we believe to have wisdom and still there is no answer.

This lack of an answer frustrates us immensely. We are at the point of human development where we are used to taking on tough questions and with much effort finding the answers. In an age of technology and endless available information, we have convinced ourselves that no question exists which we cannot answer with Google and a little work. When we get frustrated, then we turn to blaming. We blame the cause of the tragedy, we blame our leaders, we blame ethnic backgrounds, we blame the internet, and at times we even blame the victims.

Here is a reality that may be difficult to swallow…there is no answer. No matter how much blame we throw around. No matter how much wisdom we seem to obtain. The answer to this Why? is not within our grasp.

Yet, there is still hope. The hope does not lie within our powers or abilities. The hope does not lie in the ability to “fix it.” Hope comes from only one source. This source has been known to people since ancient times. The name of the source may have changed over the years and throughout civilizations but it is the same source of hope. Some may call it Yahweh, some call it the Great Spirit, some call it Allah, and still others call it God as I do in my Christian faith. Our hope is found in God even when the answer to Why? is not obtainable.

Using A Liturgy

Liturgy in the church is something which can cause quite an argument. Some individuals have the view that without liturgy to guide worship, there has not been genuine worship. On the other side are individuals who view liturgy as a heavy burden from the ancient past which causes worship to be dreadful instead of energized. More than a few remain somewhere in the middle. In recent times, this has been a struggle played out among many congregations and within many denominations. Little surprise that there exists a broad spectrum of the type and amount of liturgy experienced throughout the church.

For those who may not understand the term of liturgy, it is the form which public worship takes within a religion, most often Christianity. The arrangement of the different elements of the worship service is prescribed and followed in each worship service with only a little variation. The actual words, music, and prayers may or may not change but the order and structure remains the same.

My experience in the church has been one in which there has always been some type of liturgy guiding the worship service. I have been in settings where it may not be as pronounced but it is still present. Participants in some worship settings in which I have participated may not even think about the liturgy being used or the basis for the choice of liturgy.

Like many aspects of the church, there are positives and negatives when it comes to the liturgy. First, some positives. The most evident one is that by using a prescribed liturgy, the worship participants who attend regularly know exactly what will happen next in the service whether they have a printed guide or not. In addition, many parts of the service are easily memorized since they are used every week. An example would be a liturgy which includes the Lord’s Prayer. The participants tend to memorize these words early in their worship experience and each week it remains the same. Another benefit to a liturgy is that for worship leaders and planners, it provides a guide for their work. Each week they know what elements they need to prepare. The leadership also knows the order and movement in the worship space.

Now, some negatives which accompany the use of liturgy. One negative is that liturgy can lull a participant into going through the worship service almost on autopilot. All the positives listed above regarding memorization and knowing what comes next can allow a participant to not even think about what is being done. Another pitfall of liturgy is that often the meaning behind the elements and the ordering of those elements gets lost. I mentioned earlier that some participants may not even realize that a liturgy is in place because they have forgotten or it has not been explained what the liturgy is and the reason for every aspect of it. Most liturgies have a theological, practical, and spiritual meaning to them but with time those understandings can be forgotten. The third problem with liturgy is that if someone is a new participant, the individual can become lost since regular attenders just move from element to element with little or no explanation. This can turn a newcomer off since they do not wish to feel ignorant or become very self-conscious of their lack of knowledge.

Much of the negative can be overcome. The key is that communication about the chosen liturgy must happen regularly both verbally and in print. Discussion around the meaning of what is done and why it is done in the prescribed fashion must occur with those who are regularly participating. Explanation of each element and the flow needs to be shared by the worship leaders and/or in whatever printed materials are used so that the newcomer feels she/he has a guide which empowers them to participate.

So here are the questions which I would like each reader to answer:

  1. Does your worship setting use a liturgy? If so, what is that liturgy?
  2. Do you understand why a liturgy is in place and what the elements of it might be?
  3. Is liturgy an aid or a hindrance to the worship experience?

Is This It?

Seems that not a day goes by anymore which does not contain some message about death. Recently I have heard about the deaths of individuals who I attended worship alongside. There have been deaths of celebrities. Tragic deaths such as the ones occurring in California at a garlic festival and those of hikers in Canada have made the national news. Locally, living in a large metroplex, death from accidents and violent acts of humans are daily mentioned on the television or in the newspaper. At times, it seems that death surrounds us all the time. Actually, that is more accurate than we may wish to acknowledge.

I have been thinking about how we respond to death. These thoughts have included both our societal responses and the responses we have as individuals, specifically in regard to our faith. I worry occasionally that as a society we have become so accustomed to death that we hardly even notice it anymore. Yet, I also am aware that some of our apathy towards death stems not solely from the frequency of encounter but also from our unwillingness to look at it honestly. We do not wish to affirm the reality of death because in doing so we have to face our own mortality.

Facing our mortality requires us to think about what we concern regarding the afterlife. Since there is no solid proof about the afterlife, we are afraid. For a large number of people, this fear leads us to ignore or push thoughts of death out of our thinking. We adopt an attitude of if we do not confront death, we do not have to think about death. Death seems too unknown to us and the fear is overwhelming, so we attempt to push it aside.

As a society and as individuals, we often want to hide death. One example is in how we talk about death when a person is deceased. We use phrases such as, “He has passed on,” or “She has parted.” Our avoidance of using the word death is a way to lessen the reality. By reducing the finality of death, we can evade dealing with it.

I have a much different view towards death. My view of death is very dependent upon my understanding of my faith. Through my reading of the Scriptures, the development of my beliefs, and my own experiences, I see death as a transition. There is no finality in death for me. Instead, there exists a belief that at death a person transitions from an earthly existence into a spiritual realm. Since I believe in a bodily resurrection, this does not mean that a person only exists as a spirit in this spiritual realm but that the same joining of the body and spirit which occurred during our earthly birth happens within the spiritual realm. I also believe that in this spiritual realm a person experiences the fullness of God.

Due to my understandings and beliefs in regard to death, death is not something I fear either for myself or those whom I love. Just because I do not fear death does not mean that I do not grieve when a person dies. I grieve though not because I fear what happens at the point of death and after, I grieve because I know that for a period of time I will be separated from that person. Once fear has been removed, the grief is a little easier to bear. Once fear is removed, you can talk honestly about death and the afterlife.

Good Managers

Today I thought I would talk again about one of the words that is used in church circles but is often misunderstood. The focus word for today is stewardship. When most people hear this word they think about a campaign each congregation launches in late fall to get financial pledges from their members for the coming year. Based on those pledges then the leadership creates a budget. The problem with this understanding is that it is far too limited.

The word stewardship comes from the word steward. A steward is a manager of property and/or finances on behalf of another person. So stewardship is the act of managing. Based on this definition, one can easily see why the word conjures in the minds of many church members the image of a financial campaign. Yet this falls completely short of the Scriptural understanding of stewardship.

The concept of stewardship is first introduced in Scripture in the first chapter of Genesis. Here, as part of the creation story, God places all creation under the care and authority of humanity.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

Genesis 1:26-30 NIV

Here God is placing humans as managers over all which God just created. So stewardship includes the managing of creation.

Another aspect of creation is found in 1 Peter. Here the writer reminds us that we are to use whatever gifts (skills and abilities) we have been given to serve one another.

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 4:10-11b

Not only are we reminded that we are to be managers of our gifts but also of the grace which we have received from God.

As you can see, stewardship involves much more than the annual fundraising for the church. Stewardship is an expectation and responsibility placed upon us by God. We are to be managers of everything which God has created and which God has given to us.

Hopefully the next time you hear the word stewardship, you will not only include your managing of money in a way that benefits God’s church, but also consider how you are managing the other aspects of life.

Classless Church

In the June issue of The Atlantic, James Carroll wrote an article entitled, “To Save The Church, Dismantle the Priesthood.” When I saw the cover of the magazine and it listed this featured article, I knew that I had to read what appeared to be a disconcerting concept.

In the article, Carroll presents an argument for removing the clerical titles which have been a significant part of the church hierarchy. His reasoning for this is that these titles separate and give power to a certain class of members which leads to corruption. He argues that this is why there has been rampant sexual misconduct among the clergy because the clergy protect their “class.” My intent is not to argue in support or opposition to what Carroll states but instead to consider what the pros and cons of the removal of a clergy class in the church. Also, I will not be able to fully cover all the arguments in this post.

Beginning with some pros for this change in the church. I do think that Carroll has a valid point that in some denominations, clergy are able to hide behind a code of secrecy among their peers. When their peers are charged with the task of investigating and trying an accused colleague, accountability may come into question. The one way this works is that there is such a high level of transparency in the process and a structured process which can be problematic as well. Elimination of a special designation for clergy could have the potential of placing the handling of misconduct on a more level ground.

Another possible pro to the elimination of a clergy designation is that it would actually require more commitment from the rest of the members. Part of being a member of the clergy is that certain responsibilities and expectations are placed upon the individual. If one person is not given a title which automatically requires fulfillment of these responsibilities and expectations, then those will need to be divided among others within the church.

However, a change as being proposed here comes with issues. The first issue is that organizations quickly struggle if there is not identifiable leadership. While there are aspects of the work which can be managed through group leadership, there are logistical aspects which require a designated person with the correct skills in place. The reality of humans is that we all are given different abilities so there is an inherent division based on skills and abilities. The church has always considered clergy to have a specific role based on their skills and abilities. My denominational background refers to this as separate in responsibilities but equal in faith.

Another issue is that some responsibilities and expectations within the church require specialized training. The method for this training has traditionally been through learning institutions which are called seminaries. Degrees are obtained confirming that the individual has received the necessary education to reasonably fulfill the unique responsibilities and expectations referred to the clergy. Due to the intensity of study needed to obtain that knowledge, not every person sitting in the pew can be expected to obtain this education. So individuals are chosen through a variety of means to obtain such education and training and then return to the church and fulfill the specific responsibilities and expectations.

Again, this is just scratching the surface but my conclusion is that while creating a classless church may solve some problems which now exist, other problems will arise. Does the church need reformation and restructuring? YES Should the individuals in the pews take on more responsibilities? YES Does the elimination of the designation clergy solve all the problems? NO The church is made up of humans who are imperfect, from top to bottom. This truth means that problems will always exist. The true question is are we willing to adapt, learn, relearn, and reform.

The Christian and the Atheist

I have a good friend who identifies as an atheist. He was raised in a Christian church and went through all the rites associated with the Christian belief in God. It was not until he was older and witnessed his father die a horrific death caused by cancer that he decided that there is no God of any kind.

Atheism is defined as the absence of belief in any deities.

By this definition, my friend is an atheist. His reasoning is that if a god did exist, especially the Christian understanding of God, then his father would never have died in the manner in which he did. My friend would not be the first to make such a claim. Not everyone who states this thought begins to identify as an atheist however.

As a Christian leader, how can I be friends with an atheist?

My answer to that question is pretty simple…because I believe in Jesus Christ. My understanding of what my Lord taught is that all people are children of God, even those who do not acknowledge God. If this is true then I am already in relationship with my friend because he is my brother in God.

Another important lesson which I have picked up from reading Scripture is that I am not empowered to choose who receives God’s mercy and love. The choice of who receives and who does not belongs solely to God. We see this in the story of Nineveh and Jonah. We see this in the story of the woman charged with adultery and Jesus. God retains the power of who God gives mercy and love. With me not having to make that decision and my belief that God has chosen to give ALL people mercy and love, then I am free to love even those who identify as atheist.

My understanding of my commitment as a Christian is that it is not my responsibility to save anyone. I am not even sure what someone would need saved from other than maybe themselves. Once again, the saving has fallen into the realm of God. What I am called to do as a Christian is to do my best every day to demonstrate the love and mercy of God to others as I have received it. The reason that I strive to do this is not because it impacts my receiving of love and mercy but in response to having received that love and mercy.

I have heard some people state that there is no way they could ever be friends with an atheist. Why they feel that way is only known to them. However, I can speculate that for some it is out of fear. The individual may be afraid that if they befriended an atheist, that friendship might weaken or damage their faith. If that is the case, then I think they need to examine their understanding of faith and work toward a healthy faith.

Others may argue that being friends with an atheist would shed a negative light on them when viewed by their Christian friends. This argument has problems abounding. First, you would need to question what type of Christian friends you are associating with if they do not view extending love and mercy to others is in opposition to Christ’s teachings. Second, using the example of Jesus, a follower should never allow the viewpoints of others to limit reaching out in relationship towards others, especially those termed undesirable.

A Christian and an Atheist

I am a Christian. I am a leader in the Christian church. My good friend is an atheist. We have a wonderful relationship in which we can share ideas (even opposing ones), laughter, jokes, and some coffee. I no longer get to see my atheist friend anymore since we live in different states now but I think of him often. I look forward to being able to see him again soon.

Understanding Prayer

Prayer is one of the most common aspects of any faith system. Every faith tradition which acknowledges a belief in a higher power has some form of prayer as one of its spiritual practices. Some systems have regimented prayer structures. Others are relaxed and dependent more upon the individual than upon a structure. No matter how a particular faith practices prayer, the understanding is that prayer is a conversation between a person or group of people and the higher power which is at the center of the beliefs.

A challenge which prayer presents is that there are such a variety of forms and so many ideas about prayer that we often stumble over ourselves attempting to engage in prayer. As a Christian, I have often heard people say they cannot pray. Whenever I hear that, I am saddened because often this type of thought is the result of someone telling them that they do not pray correctly. At these times I explain to the person that a “right way” to pray does not exist. Sure there are formulas that some individuals use but a specific pattern or specific words are not at all necessary. Usually structured or patterned prayers are intended to introduce the concept of prayer to a person but are not mandatory in any way.

Prayer is a conversation, a conversation which should include a sharing of thoughts and feelings like any other conversation you have in life. A unique aspect about this conversation though is the reality that there is no audible response from the other one in the conversation. I am not saying there does not exist a response, just not one to which we are accustomed. A person needs to be open to experiencing the response in a much different way. Yet what remains is the understanding that prayer is a conversation and does not need to be difficult.

I have been practicing my faith for a large number of years. I have been trained as a leader in my faith. Over all those years and through all my training and service, I have prayed in different settings both aloud and silently. I have led prayer and I have been led in prayer. All types of prayers have been a part of my experience. I continue to learn of other ways people pray. Through all this, I have come to the point where praying is no longer confined to a specific time or location but seems to have become woven into my everyday life. I had heard of continuous prayer but had no perception what that might mean. Instead, continuous prayer in my life has just happened. I feel constantly engaged in conversation with my God. Different experiences, different settings, and different forms of expression make up continuous prayer for me.

Let me confess, I am not sure that the title I have given this blog post is fair or accurate. I say this because I do not believe that prayer can truly be understood. Prayer contains so many elements and expressions that it cannot be neatly tied up with a definition or a specific formula. Prayer instead is an experience, an experience that is unique to every person, every faith, and every culture. Accepting this reality is what I think has opened the door to continuous prayer for me.

Since prayer is such a large topic, I want you to view this as an introduction into my thoughts on this topic. I can promise more blog posts concerning prayer as time moves along. I would also love to hear of your experiences of prayer.