Monday, June 28, 2010

Between Churches: Why I Left, Part Four

Part four of an occasional series. I'd suggest first reading parts one, two and three. As always, I welcome your feedback and insights.

Hope and disillusionment are key characters in the drama of church, and so they will be key characters in this drama of church as it unfolds. I set out, with my wife, in the wake of our leaving our church of six years, not immediately to find a place to land. We know too much, I’m afraid, for that to serve any purpose. We weren’t really on a search for a church anyway but rather something more elusive, more elemental to life lived to the full. We were disillusioned; we needed to be reminded of hope.

So we set out to be reminded of hope, without losing sight of the reality of disillusionment. We set out to find not one or the other but the right mix of both—that sweet concoction of hope + disillusionment that could generate more than the sum of its parts.

This was going to take time, we suspected. And so we set out not to shop for a church home but to see what God was doing in the churches in our area—in all their diversity, in all their varied interpretations of the meaning of life and the mission of God’s people. We also wanted to see what churches in our area were doing to God—where these collections of people were falling short, as humans inevitably do, and how God was working through those shortcomings and failings to nevertheless accomplish his purposes. We wanted to cement in our own minds, at least, the reality that there aren’t actually multiple churches but rather one church, whose one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord, before landing on a location in which we could join our efforts to something beyond us.

It’s worth mentioning that we had occasionally been told by friends that they could see us starting a church of our own. In particular, one new friend and one old friend were quite explicit about this, although I couldn’t really tell whether my old friend was joking or not. I thought it was funny, in any event, but it’s an idea that continued to populate a corner of my brain, one that invariably influenced how we interacted with the existing churches we visited. Full disclosure: I’m writing this introduction at the front end of this experiment, so it’s entirely possible that when it's all over I’ll be my own pastor. But I doubt it: I like autonomy too much--and I don’t like people enough--to be a pastor. As my old friend once said, “Being a leader means not getting to do what you want.” And that doesn’t sound fun to me.

But then again, who knows? This cocktail of hope and disillusionment I’m currently nursing hasn’t gotten me to that question yet. Before we look seriously at that, we’ve got some churches to visit. I'll be organizing these visits according to what’s considered “conventional” and what’s thought to be “alternative.”

“Conventional” churches include churches that can’t yet be considered “traditional”; there’s been no shortage of experimentation in church forms over the past fifty years, but you’d sound awfully funny, for example, saying “Remember the old days when our church had four hundred people, equally representing the Latino, Arab, African American and Caucasian communities?” Nevertheless, in the context of discussing churches, there are some words that evoke a particular imagination—“mega,” “traditional,” “multiethnic”—and so some observations about a particular church can be extrapolated to describe a particular movement.

There are some expressions of church, however, that are best described as “alternative,” mainly because they as yet have not gained a significant foothold in the ecclesial imagination. Even their practitioners identify them as different. I plan to include the “Christian concert” in this group not because anyone seriously considers such a gathering as church but because it functions as much like a church as like a concert. Sometimes they even take offerings. In any case, my wife once left a Christian concert by the great Sarah Groves and told a friend of ours, “This is like worship for me.” She’s not alone in that sentiment, by any stretch of the imagination. That needs to be taken seriously, and so I’ll take it seriously here.

This is a real experiment. I visited these churches for real, out of a real desire for myself to find a local Christian community to call home. I’m writing because I’m convinced that my experiment, for all its particularities, has some resonance for people like me whose hope-disillusionment continuum has gone askew. These churches are, by and large, in the Chicago area, although my travels often bring me into contact with other churches elsewhere as well. I don’t see any need to identify most of the churches I visit by name, although I see no real harm in doing so where appropriate. You may take offense at how I characterize some of these churches and their practices, but be assured that I consider all these churches to be acting in good faith, embracing the audacious calling to be the people of God in local witness to the goodness of God, conducting the mission of God in the place God has placed them. These are finite people with an infinite agenda. These are congregations of the disillusioned hopeful, and I count them as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Between Churches: Why I Left, Part Three

Third in an occasional series. Read "Why I Left" part one here; part two here. I welcome your comments and questions.

***

I am a firm believer that disillusionment is at least value-neutral and quite possibly a dispensation of grace. By disillusionment Moses forsook his Egyptian upbringing, later embracing his identity as a Jewish deliverer; by disillusionment King David ended his silence and confessed his sin; by disillusionment Jonah sang inside the belly of a whale and changed his course, which eventually changed the destiny of the Ninevites. By disillusionment Peter told Jesus to go away from him, only to hear Jesus bid him to follow; by disillusionment did he weep at his own betrayal of Jesus before his execution, only to be restored after the resurrection. The evangelical account of conversion demands disillusionment—a turning away from our past life, with all its sins and self-assertions. We sing things as audaciously disillusioned as “This world is not my home,” “I once was lost,” “I was sinking deep in sin.” We don’t repent of our disillusionment; we repent because of it.

Nevertheless, in and of itself disillusionment doesn’t deliver the goods. A disillusioned Moses would still be wandering the desert, too jaded to waste time on a burning bush. A disillusioned King David would have ceded the throne and retired to a cave somewhere. A disillusioned Peter would have let Jesus leave, would have rejected Jesus’ offer of restoration. No, disillusionment is intimately connected, in the evangelical story, with hope.

Hope doesn’t necessarily replace disillusionment for us; rather it counterbalances it, offering our Christian experience a dynamic constructive tension that keeps us from settling into either despair or na├»ve optimism. Like those desk toys in which two magnets exert equally repulsive force on a metal pen or ball or some sort, hope and disillusionment conspire to leave us hanging. They keep us unsettled, shimmering with the kinetic energy of a propulsive faith, ready—-whether we want to be or not, whether we’re conscious of our readiness or not-—to be changed, uprooted, rerouted, freshly commissioned.

But nobody likes a state of perpetual tension, no matter how dynamic or constructive. Disillusionment, for all the negative energy the word connotes, by itself is at least a fixed state. We know what to expect from disillusionment, and we know what not to expect. It’s comfortable in its own way. That’s why we get so thrown when we’re surprised by hope; it disrupts our settled state, stirring up feelings we thought we’d dispensed with or been drained of.

Likewise hope--and perhaps even moreso--is a comfortable condition. Hope without disillusionment assumes that this is the best of all possible worlds and that tomorrow will be better than today. Nobody likes a person who lives entirely in the realm of hope, but that person doesn’t care—tomorrow will be better.

No, there’s an important alchemy in the collision and collusion of hope and disillusionment. These two tastes go great together, if by “great” you mean that they do a great thing. They keep us moving: they keep us expectant while assuming no great change; they keep us grounded in reality while waiting for the happy ending; they allow us to survive and even thrive in the here and now, rather than retreating into the elusive future or sulking in the perpetual present. “An optimist,” my daddy always tells me, “can never be pleasantly surprised,” but a pessimist can never be enthused or excited. Without each other, neither can be much of anything, quite honestly. But together—together brings the magic.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Art of Demotivation

Years ago now, my friend Judi loaned me a book by E. L. Kersten, cofounder of Despair Inc., which produces those Demotivators posters ("Burnout: If attitude is contagious, mine could kill you"). The jacket of the book reads "Ethics, Integrity and Sacrifice in the Workplace," but that's just a cover, literally: under the jacket is the real book, The Art of Demotivation: A Visionary Guide for Transforming Your Company's Least Valuable Asset--Your Employees. Har har snort.

Anyway, Judi finally asked me if I could give it back to her, so I thought, before I do, that I'd finally read it. It does what all good satire does: takes an absurd system and treats it seriously, turning it on its head in an equally absurd way. Kersten's book--at least in the eleven pages I've read so far--indicts the twentieth-century infatuation with self-actualization as the reason for the mediocrity of so many companies. The solution he proposes, with tongue at least partially in cheek, is "demotivation," or the systematic humiliation and alienation of employees so that they'll quit looking for their jobs to fulfill them and instead concentrate on fulfilling their responsibilities at their jobs. It's horrific, it's distressing, it's brilliant.

Exhibit A is this long excerpt on the "motivational industry," or consultants who are hired by corporate executives for weekend employee pick-me-ups. It makes a far less sympathetic but otherwise similar diagnosis of the culture we find ourselves in to the one I made in Deliver Us from Me-Ville. Enjoy it, understanding that he's being provocative on purpose:

Much of what passes for motivation in the motivational industry is little more than egoistic, short-term enthusiasm, or warm feelings generated by the creative packaging of the "principles" of the human potential movement, which itself is little more than a curious amalgam of common sense, humanistic religion, sophistry, and psychological snake-oil. The primary objective of the motivational industry is to stoke the fires of your employees' narcissism so that they fall in love with themselves all over again, just like they did when they saw their own beauty in the distorted reflection of their mother's adoring gaze, prior to their exposure to any of the objective, real-world criteria that would define them otherwise. The insights peddled to your employees revolve around the ideas that they are uniquely equipped to do something special, that they have a proprietary configuration of underappreciated skills that they have yet to discover (or show any evidence of), that their weaknesses are really strengths, and that they are winners who have simply not had the chance to win. They are regaled with stories about people like Thomas Edison who regarded failed experiments as stepping-stones on the path to scientific discovery, and they end up concluding that their own personal histories of failure and non-achievement are signs that they are bound for greatness. In this systematic distortion of reality, they learn to label their stubbornness as conviction; their bad attitudes as a passion for justice; their willful subversion of the company's goals as a unique, underappreciated perspective on how the company should proceed; and their general surliness as a natural response to a global lack of appreciation for their supremely valuable uniqueness.


Kersten attributes the perpetuation of the motivational industry to the way it calculates its success rate: not consequent improvement in employee productivity, but comment cards filled out by the employees in attendance. In actuality, "the life-changing insights sold by the motivational industry are the source of their problems rather than the solution to them. The consultants . . . are like ice cream vendors at a fat farm, pimps at a treatment facility for sex addicts, or drug pushers at a methadone clinic. They pander to your employees' cravings, and in so doing they exacerbate the problems they are paid to solve."

You'll get your book back soon, Judi. I promise.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Between Churches: Why I Left, Part Two

I left my church for, I admit, relatively petty reasons. I was irritated; I was burned out; I was out of sync with the culture of my church. It hadn’t always been that way, of course. My wife and I had come six years earlier, having left a far-off megachurch as an act of discipleship, a decision made when the megapastors began talking about a local witness, being salt and light in the places we live. The place we lived, we determined, was too far from the church we belonged to for us to be meaningfully engaged in both. So we found a comparatively small church within walking distance of our home, a fifty-year-old fellowship in our community, with an apparent respect for the arts and a clear commitment to the spiritual gifts of women, both of which were impressive to us. They had a new pastor with a commitment to evangelism and a connection to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which, full disclosure, is my employer. While they were, like so many churches in our suburban setting, lily white, they had a nice mix of ages, which was a welcome change from our demographically organized now-former church. We had a good feeling that we had hit the motherlode, and a few weeks of comparison shopping at other churches merely confirmed our suspicions. We liked the place so much, we spent our Valentine’s Day there; they hosted a dance featuring a jazz band populated almost entirely by church members, and while we didn’t dance (not my thing), we spent most of the evening talking to the pastor and his wife. I can, I almost certainly thought to myself, work with this.

And work with it we did. Within a few weeks we were taking membership classes. A few weeks more and we were participating in their small groups program. Not long after that we were leading a group; not long after that my wife was running the program. I got involved in an adult education course that soon morphed into an Easter play; not long after that I was acting in and then writing scripts for sketches during Sunday morning worship. Before too long I was describing myself, to friends and family and even in the bio for my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville, as an “actor.” My wife participated in and then led the annual summer short-term mission to Appalachia; I participated in and helped lead the confirmation program and adolescent Sunday school. I became an elder; my wife became an employee.

Less than a year after that, my wife quit her job at the church. Fifteen months after that, my term as an elder ended, and we quit the church.

Six years of our lives, suddenly done. It didn’t end in scandal; I guest-preached four weeks before our last service. My wife quit her job despite the pastor’s effort to keep her and the church’s repeated declarations that they wanted her to stay. We didn’t unfriend anybody on Facebook, and to my knowledge, nobody at the church unfriended us. It wasn’t shocking or blistering or anything other than, I suppose, disappointing.

We were disappointed, and our disappointment gradually became disillusionment, and it gradually became clear to us that our future lay elsewhere.

***

The second in an ongoing series. Keep coming back to read about what we learn about God, the church and ourselves when we leave one faith community in search of another. Feel free to weigh in, too; when it comes to hope and disillusionment, everyone (and no one) is an expert.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Between Churches: Why I Left, Part One

There are many in American Christianity who survey the landscape and complain that the church is under attack. I am not one of them. I look around and see, in American Christianity, an embarrassment of riches, both metaphorically and literally.

The church in America is unusually powerful, exerting remarkable influence on the cultural and political system it inhabits. A few complainers notwithstanding, the general public sees no problem with the longstanding practice of presidents employing “spiritual advisors”; the military faces no serious critique for continuing to sponsor a chaplaincy program; the most constructive programs run in the nation’s prisons are sponsored and maintained by religious organizations; no one as yet has mounted a serious challenge to the tax-free status of any organization that claims religion as its reason for being; and every week—though not as pervasively as in years past—Sunday mornings are widely accepted as sacred, with communities ceding the time to religious observance. This is the influence of Christianity in America: the Jewish Sabbath is Saturday, and the Islamic Sabbath is Friday, but Sunday—the Lord’s Day in Christian tradition—gets all the press. So, despite paranoid protests to the contrary, I’m not terribly concerned about the security of the church as an American institution.

The church in America has benefited from the laissez-faire posture of other powerful institutions. Without significant intrusion from government, business or other social movements, the church has been free to flourish. Diversity of belief and practice is widespread. Whole industries undergird and append to the church’s secure base.

And yet the church fails to thrive. Membership rolls in churches across the country steadily decline every year. Congregations and denominations split in bitter disputes over money, power and piety. Adolescents complete their confirmation and confirm to their parents that they’re done, thank you very much. Revenue to churches from wedding planning and hosting is shifting to hotels and resorts. By some accounts, the church isn’t simply failing to thrive, it’s free-falling.

Oh, it’s not as dire as all that. But there are some serious, unchecked, intrinsic problems in the shared space of Christianity and contemporary culture, with its peculiar philosophies, politics and priorities. There was a time that a church centered a town; the tall steeple oriented the surrounding terrain, the bell tower kept everyone apprised of what time it is. That time is now past; the church is on the peripheries of relevance, the steeples themselves are quaint anachronisms that embarrass some and whisper sweet nostalgic nothings to others. The church as we know it is failing to thrive; it’s dying on the vine.

But that’s not why I left.

***

This is the first of a series of posts--"Between Churches"--chronicling my departure from our church of several years and our exploration of the church in our area. I welcome your feedback.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

A Touch of Faith

Now that I'm "between churches," struggling to figure out in what context I'm most inclined toward Christian worship and discipleship, I find myself revisiting seemingly solved questions. How important to vital faith, for example, is the experience of a direct encounter with God?

When I was twenty, that question was the ball game, but prior to that, I'll be honest, it wasn't even an academic question to me. I didn't associate belief in God with encounter of God until college, with its rampant evangelical subculture.

Since then, direct encounter being the ball game, my theology has coalesced around it--rightly so, I'm generally inclined to think. After all, the scriptures tell us two things far apart from each other but intimately connected to each other: (1) human beings are created in the image of God and are "inspired" (life breathed into) by the Holy Spirit, the breath of God; (2) Jesus--Son of God, second person of the Trinity and image of the invisible God--took on flesh and dwelt among us. By God's incarnation but no less by God's entrusting us with his image, the Bible tells us, our humanity is intimately and uniquely connected to God's divinity.

And yet, over the years I've also encountered plenty of people whose faith is not dependent on an acknowledged direct encounter with God. Some of those people think people like me are being weird or silly when we use language of "personal relationship" or "direct encounter"; others are downright traumatized by it. One person's innocent testimony of God's goodness becomes another person's crisis of faith: "That's never happened to me; maybe God doesn't exist--or worse, maybe God doesn't like me."

So I find myself wondering lately how important touch is to faith. Can we really believe without it? What does it add to our faith experience?

I've been on a Peter Rollins kick lately. He's the author of several books, and part of his approach to writing and communicating is to play with Scripture. I've written about that elsewhere, but his example continues to be a helpful thought experiment for me. So below please find an imagined mashup of four Bible stories: a bleeding woman who sneaks up on Jesus; a priestly guide for dealing with bleeding women; a spoken encounter between Jesus and another woman; and a wrestling match between God and an unlikely patriarch. I doubt it solves the question of how important touch is to faith, but maybe it can help us think a little more about it.

***

A large crowd followed and pressed around Jesus. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she went to see him, but the mass of the crowd, and her reputation among the people as unclean, meant that she could not get near him. So she climbed a tree and stared at him from afar off, praying silently for liberation from her suffering.

At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. But there was the press of the crowd, and he was expected at the home of Jairus, whose daughter was dying, so he continued on without stopping to discover where his power had gone. And so the woman’s healing passed without comment.

The woman, knowing what had happened to her, trembled as she climbed down from the tree and made her way to the local priest. He was familiar with her long suffering, and on learning of her miraculous healing, he praised God and sent her out from the community for seven days. On the eighth day she returned, bringing two young pigeons to the priest. He sacrificed one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering on her behalf. In this way the priest made atonement for her before the LORD for the uncleanness of her discharge. And she went away praising God.

Several weeks later, Jesus returned to her town, to check in on the daughter of Jairus. Once again the crowd followed and pressed around him, but this time the woman entered the fray with boldness and interrupted Jesus as he walked. “Hosanna to the son of David!” She shouted toward him. “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you!”

At once Jesus realized that the power that had gone out from him those weeks ago had gone to her. “Woman,” he told her, “your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”

But though his disciples pressured her to move on, she refused to leave until he laid hands on her and blessed her. And as he did, the bleeding returned.

And she went away praising God.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Arrogance of Service

I'm editing an interesting book, by Professor Glenn Myers, about the Beguine communities of medieval northern Europe--lay, voluntary orders of unmarried women who lived, prayed and served together in ways that alternately inspired and irritated their neighbors. I'd never heard of these communities before I met Glenn, but he's doing a fine job of making the case that they should inform our current practice of faith, that they effectively confronted some of the same spiritual challenges we face in contemporary Western society. The book comes out next spring; keep an eye out for Seeking Spiritual Intimacy in the Formatio line from IVP.

I should mention that I'm editing the manuscript from my family room. It's come to this: my work has become so overwhelming that the only time I can find to edit (the root word in my official title, editor) is in my house, away from my work. My family room, consequently, is becoming less "focused on the family" and more an annex of my office.

Such is contemporary life, I'm afraid. We go and go and go, and we do and do and do. I'm not at all unique in this blurring of professional and personal boundaries. There was a time--a more agrarian time--when there were no such boundaries, but I think it's fair to say we've all come to appreciate them, even as we actively forsake them. We do so because we don't see other options, because busy is what we were meant to be. By ceding personal time to our work, we imagine, we're fulfilling our life's purpose.

That's silly, I know. No comma is so offensive to the English language that it couldn't wait till office hours to be excised. Editing, as vital as it is to writing, is not keeping the world spinning on its axis.

The trickier part is when our work--whether paid or unpaid, whether voluntary or habitual--entails service toward others. Tending to another person's suffering is much more easily spiritualized than parsing another person's sentences. It's also, almost by definition, the right thing to do. We were created, at least in part, for service to one another.

Nevertheless, as Myers rightly observes throughout his manuscript, our impulse to serve others is a point of vulnerability for us: in serving others, we can easily begin to imagine ourselves superior to them. In caring for others, we can quickly congratulate ourselves for our compassion. In acting other-centered, we can regularly reinforce an ugly self-centeredness.

One of the cool things about the Beguines is that, smack in the center of the Middle Ages, these single women--not traditionally vested with power or authority--are writing profound, authoritative insights into the human condition. Nearly a thousand years later, we still benefit from their service, and we still marvel at their wisdom, as in this little nugget from Hadewijch of Brabant:

O dear love . . . you busy yourself unduly with many things, and so many of them are not suited to you. You waste too much time with your energy, throwing yourself headlong into the things that cross your path. I could not persuade you to observe moderation in this. When you want to do something, you always plunge into it as if you could pay heed to nothing else. It pleases me that you comfort and help all your friends, yes, the more the better—provided you and they remain in peace; I willingly allow that.


Yes, she advises, bear the burdens of those around you, and so fulfill the law of Christ. But do so with the awareness that they are similarly charged to bear your burdens. We don't serve one another because we're better than one another; we serve one another because that's the way the good Lord set up this world to work.

If you can't wait till next spring to read about this stuff, check out Phileena Heuertz's Pilgrimage of a Soul. It's not about the Beguines, but it takes up a similar question: how do I live out my calling without losing myself, on the one hand, or crowning myself, on the other?