Monday, December 03, 2007

Diversity in the Emerging Church

I suppose it should come as no surprise that there's diversity in the emerging church. That term "emerging" has been thrown around a lot, but more and more I understand it in cultural terms. We are moving from modern culture to post-modern culture. Perhaps the best symbol of this is the way we learn and communicate. The printing press revolutionized learning and commmunicating in its day, and its effect is pervasive: many Christians consider personal bible reading a hallmark of Christian discipleship (as do I), when this wasn't even possible for the first millenium and a half of Christianity. We are entering the full-blown information age, one that began with mass communications, but has really hit its full stride with the Internet. So the "emerging church" for me just means the church that is coming into being with the emerging post-modern culture.

It should come as no surprise that emerging congregations aren't any more homogeneous than the church in ages past. Some draw heavily on liturgy and ritual, some find their identity in challenging the doctrinal status quo, some celebrate the arts, some, like the church I've started attending on Sunday mornings, feature mainly music and preaching in a casual atmosphere.

Hey, there are even emerging fundamentalists--that's what I've come to believe about Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Unbeknownst to me until recently, apparently Driscoll called Rob Bell a heretic. Besides it being laughable, it is part of a growing trend from the Seattle pastor, in which he calls into question the fidelity to orthodoxy of other (emerging) church leaders (e.g., Karen Ward, Brian McLaren). While others become apostates, he holds the doctrinal line, so he purports. Some time ago, My younger brother's blog opened a discussion about what fundamentalism is; is it just conservative theology, a literalistic approach to biblical interpretation, a detachment from culture? I came to believe that a defining characteristic of fundamentalists is the way they fail to engage others in theological conversation, because they don't accept that their understanding of the bible is an interpretation, just as everyone else's is. Everything I have read of Driscoll's suggests that he believes that people who disagree with him must just not take scripture seriously, because if they did, they would agree with him.

Some people may question whether Driscoll is really an "emergent" voice, but I believe he is, in that he comes out of, and speaks to the emerging post-modern culture. I heard him speak one time in college (at Seattle Pacific University), and my recollection is that he did very much understand the crisis of identity that many post-moderns face because of relativism. I didn't find his exploration of the text (from Ecclesiastes) very sophisticated or nuanced, essentially a restatement.

This isn't a sentiment I'm proud of: I would feel really good if Driscoll's church failed. I know, it's terrible, but the vindication would feel very satisfying. Someone who preaches the inferiority of women, who mocks and insults those with whom he disagrees, even those who honestly seek dialog--I don't want that person to be fruitful, and so claim that God is with them. I want churches who preach the dignity of all, who show empathy and respect for everyone, who recognize their own limitations and welcome the intellectual refinement of honest dialog--I want those churches to succeed, because I believe deeply that they truly bear witness to God as we understand Him through Jesus.

Somehow, in the mystery of God's working through his church, he continues to call people through churches of all flavors. Somehow, people come to know Jesus at Mark Driscoll's church. I don't get it, probably anymore than Mark Driscoll gets how someone could believe in the bible and believe women can be leaders in church. For whatever reason, God sees fit to work through a diverse collection of congregations. I don't really understand, but that's okay. I have to accept whatever way God wants to save the world, even if it includes emergent fundamentalists.

Monday, October 01, 2007

If not Seeker-Sensitive, what then?

I recently finished Blue Like Jazz, a terrific book by Donald Miller. Partly it was terrific because Miller can actually write (see below), but also because had a number of really profound insights. Really great books don't just reveal their own insights; they inspire new perspectives. Blue Like Jazz ignited me: ideas that were just smoldering embers--just the suggestion of illumination--have caught fire.

One of these epiphanies is about the Seeker-Sensitive movement in American evangelical Christianity. When I first heard about Willow Creek, the pioneering seeker-sensitive church, I was excited. Here was a church that realized most unchurched people were tired of "churchy" stuffiness and bewildered by the Church-speak and idiosyncratic culture so prevalent in so many American congregations. Willow Creek's Sunday morning services were designed for people who had not (yet) professed Christian faith. Their "Believer's Service" was on Wednesday night. People who scorned the seeker-sensitive model as "selling Jesus," were, I thought, simply denying the problem that churches were only drawing people who already understood and liked church. How could anyone be content with the status quo?

Recently, however, whole seeker-sensitive model has been unattractive to me. Seeker-sensitive approaches bother me. Why?

I think it because the seeker-sensitive model is attractional. The goal is to get people to come to church, and the Sunday gathering is designed to get people to want to come, to bring their friends. Since the goal is to attract people and to keep them coming back, churches try their hardest to put on a good show. Music and drama have to be really good: culturally relevant, witty, poignant. They don't want visitors to think they're out of touch with the real world; the church has to keep a credible voice. This was the allure of the seeker-sensitive movement for me: finally, we are acknowledging how embarrassing it is to take your friend to church and have the whole thing be so hokey, so amateur.

One reason I'm moving away from embracing the seeker-sensitive approach is that it's kind of a bait-and-switch. We try to get people into church with a flashy show, but hope they'll stay for the deep spiritual growth. Besides, we're not really all that put together. We're broken human beings, prone to arrogance, half-hearted attempts, embarrassing mistakes--we are hokey and amateur, and the good news is that God loves us anyway. Or, put another way, church should be "for people who are tired of trying to be cool, tired of trying to get the world to redeem them." (Hey, look, that guy again!)

But the primary reason I've changed my mind is that the attractional model, at its core, expects people to come to us. Our efforts in "reaching the world for Christ" are consumed by trying to get them to come to our place, our turf. In a recent article in Christianity Today, Tim Stafford contrasts the attractional model with the missional model (as does David Fitch). The missional model (as I understand it) is one that sees the meeting of Christians as the time to celebrate the work that God is doing in the world, a re-invitation to participate in that. Our meeting is all about coming to God again, receiving his blessing through community, that we may better the world with Him. The missional model means "reaching the world for Christ" happens out in the world.

One of the things Miller talks about in Blue Like Jazz is love, and how too often we use love like a commodity. We reward people with love, or use love as an incentive. I fear this is what is behind the seeker-sensitive model. "If you will only come inside, we will love you like family." But the missional model says that love is intrinsically good to give, so go give it away. Love can't be a commodity if it comes from God, because commodities have limited supply. But God's Love is infinite, and we can never run out of it. Why not love everybody you meet, love them deeply, love them recklessly? Because infinity minus anything is still infinity. Indeed, God's love is the only thing that is infinite; knowledge, prophecies, awe-inspiring displays of power and creativity? They will pass away.

I think we don't trust the transformative power of Love. "It would be great if it were that simple," we say, "if all we had to do was just love everybody, but how can we be confident anyone will get saved?" So we try to construct good arguments, design cool worship experiences, put on spectacular and aesthetically sensitive productions, because we fundamentally believe that Love isn't enough. When we are missional, the reason we gather together is to learn again how to Love, to be renewed and transformed into Lovers of the world, the same way Jesus Loved the world, while we were yet sinners.

I've been using the word "We" because while I get excited about these epiphanies, I know I am so far from living them out. I withhold love in order to control. I try to design cool worship gatherings to make people want to come to church. This is why I need a worshipping community in which to confess, pray, ask questions, be challenged, and receive God's blessing.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

What happened to writing?

I admit, I've been doing a lot of reading in a very narrow subset of a niche market: Books about designing/directing Christian Worship.  Be that as it may, I wonder why so many people who write about worship can't seem to write.  (An aside: I won't get into any detailed criticism here, but Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life book is another example of terrible writing in Christian Lit.)

I just recently finished Emerging Worship by Dan Kimball.  There are two forewords, by David Crowder and Sally Morgenthaler.  Both forewords are better written.  I've never met Dan Kimball, or been to his church (Vintage Faith), so he may be a dynamic speaker, an effective and creative leader, a person of great spiritual depth.  But he can't write, and apparently Zondervan couldn't be bothered by assigning him a good editor. 

Kimball's problems start with a poor vocabulary.  A good vocabulary results in an economy of words and a precision in meaning; a poor one yields vague, shallow wordiness. People that lack a good vocabulary start reusing some words and misusing others in an attempt to avoid the words they have been reusing.  They attempt to sound sophisticated, but in so doing expose their weak writing all the more.  When I graded papers of undergrads, I saw this sort of writing all the time.

For example, he writes on page 172: "Historically, church ministry functions in a certain way and there was a specific approach to looking at the church leadership structure.  But Graceland [an alternative/emerging worship gathering] started going against the norms of consistency and church uniformity!"  Lots of words, little clarity--I really have no idea what he is saying except that Graceland operated in a different way than the main church.

Or another passage, this time on the following page: "Instead of our discussions being exciting ones about mission and innovation, they turned into discussion about squeezing Graceland into how the rest of the church functioned....So, once again we began having discussions."  Again, clumsy and vague

So what if I were writing it?  Here's my armchair editorial suggestion: "Where our discussions used to focus outwardly on mission and innovation, they now focused inwardly on on conforming Graceland to the rest of the church....So we went back to the drawing board."

But the book suffers from a larger problem: Kimball is trying to represent a movement that resists generalizations.  Emergents--and Dan Kimball is one--champion the unique identity of each worshipping community and reject formulas for designing worship. (See his most recent post from Out of Ur . "It depends on..." is his mantra.)  He avoids making specific recommendations because he believes each worship gathering should be unique, but the consequence is that his writing lacks focus and purpose.

Another book I read recently, Designing Worship Teams by Cathy Townley, suffers from this same problem.  Because she asserts that each body of believers has its own way of operating (it's unique DNA, in her terminology), she takes pains to avoid specific recommendations, for fear that she will be guilty of fostering the very kinds of formulaic worship gatherings she decries.  (See my review on Amazon for more thoughts on that book.)

Both Kimball and Townley would do better to tell their specific stories, explaining what they have done and why.  This would allow them to write with clarity and depth, since they know their own stories well.  In fact, the best part of Kimball's book is when he profiles several Emerging Worship gatherings, giving specifics about what each gathering is like, and some background from leaders of those gatherings on why they approach worship the way they do.  Kimball still isn't a great describer because of his poor vocabulary, but at least he isn't obfuscating.  Townley makes no real mention of any specific situation she has been involved in, and that omission left me curious and a little frustrated.

Telling ones story in this way leaves it up to the reader to determine what elements of their ministries will transfer well, and does open the door to some futile attempts to copy their approach.  That could be easily warned against in an introduction or opening chapter, and those who disregards such an instruction will learn soon enough their mistake.  The rest of us would actually have a good, helpful book.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Moving on

It's official now: I am no longer the music director at Crossroads United Methodist in Belton. The decision to step down was made over a period of months, and actually I knew my days were numbered there long before I figured out what exactly were the reasons, and when exactly I would resign. There were mixed emotions in thinking about the decision, but I'm very happy to be moving on now.

I wanted to write a little about the process of deciding to leave, mostly because I wasn't able to find a whole lot of resources for "When, Why, and How to leave your ministry position." Those that I found were often directed towards established career senior ministers.

The trouble for me was sorting out whether I was just weary from the logistics, or perhaps just needed a little separation from the week-to-week grind of it in order to reflect and find new energy and purpose; or, was I really reaching the end of my tenure there? Was this a natural feeling of stagnation after two years working at one place, one that would pass if I kept at it? Or was this feeling an indication that it was time to move on? (Obviously, I came to the conclusion that it was the latter.)

It would have been an easy decision if I hated everything about the job, and nobody at the church liked what I did either. (That situation is, I think, thankfully rare in churches.) On the contrary, I did like the work, and I have a growing sense of calling to ministry because of my service at Crossroads. This is due in part to the encouragement that I received from key members at the church. Yet I had a growing feeling of frustration that while many people encouraged my efforts, participation and passion in worship were still woefully sporadic.

I had lost the belief that what I was doing would make a have a lasting effect toward changing the church, and by extension, the community and the world. When I began working at Crossroads, I did not know the congregation's character. As I learned it, I tailored my efforts to try to address its particular strengths and weaknesses: trying to harness the creativity and passion that did exist, and challenging them to a greater surrender to God's purpose and a greater sense of mission. In considering resigning, I had come to believe that these efforts were not really making enough of a difference to see.

More than that, I had lost the energy to rebound from disappointing results to give a true effort the next time. It would be one thing to simply fail to see the fruit of my labor. That, perhaps, is an issue of faith--that I must simply trust God that perseverance and faithful service will bear fruit, even if I cannot see it. But at some point, I have to acknowledge that even if disillusionment is my own lack of faith, it still affects my work. A church is best served by someone with passion and joy, not just determination and perseverance. I didn't think I could muster even the latter traits for much longer.

To be sure, there were tantalizing personal benefits, such as more time for other creative efforts, including a post-modern minded evening service at another church I had begun work on. But I didn't want these to be the main reasons; I wanted to leave because I felt my work was done there. Practically, leaving during the summer makes sense for the church, giving them time to get a new music director in place in time to prepare for the Advent season.

To summarize, my decision to leave came from:
1) A growing sense that, despite any and every approach to leading worship, my efforts were having little lasting effect
2) A weakening energy to face the challenge of overcoming entrenched and recurring barriers to spiritual growth and impact in the church
3) The presence of other endeavors that excited and stimulated me

One final note: I recently spoke with someone more experienced in this field, who said that the average tenure for a church music director is two years. If my experience is any indication, the reason for that may be that many churches have made music the primary marker of their identity. Even at Crossroads, many people felt that music is what would impact lives, draw in visitors, set the tone for spiritual growth. I believe quite the opposite is true. In the healthiest, most vibrant churches that I have attended, music is not the engine, but the caboose: the expression of the community of faith, of changed lives, of their mission to bless the world. We can't sing passionately about music itself for very long; but if I have a passion for God, as my favorite hymn says, "How can I keep from singing?"

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Reflections on the past year

Yes, it has been that long. So what have I learned?
  • I am more convinced than ever that Christian leadership must be, following the example of Christ, the way of brokenness. I'm thinking about this now because I recently read Henri Nouwen's In the Name of Jesus. If I try to be impressive, to be relevant and useful and successful, I am not following the path of Christ. The path of Jesus leads to the cross. I am working hard to show my churches (I'll get to that) that I am not specially skilled or remarkably talented, but just me: broken and beautiful, an incomplete child of God
  • Trusting the Spirit of God to work is hard. I want to engineer things--I can't stand it when what we do in church is mediocre, un-purposeful, and half-hearted. Yet there have been moments when I believe the Spirit of Christ has truly worked that I thought were hopelessly lost causes. In some ways, it is frustrating; I want to think I know what makes a good church service, what will work. But sometimes the best laid plans don't work out, and sometimes the most poorly planned things work splendidly. This is teaching me humility: God will work as he chooses, in unexpected places.
  • Churches are living organisms, not machines. If a church is struggling, people often want to "fix" it. But living organisms don't get fixed; they heal. If a plant gets sick, you can't fix it--you can enrich and fertilize the soil, shelter it from the elements, keep it watered, give it sun, and wait for growth to occur--but that sometimes takes years!