Saturday, November 15, 2008

What's missing?

You remember those drawings in the newspaper, usually near the comics or crossword puzzle and Dear Abby. At first blush, they look identical, but the reader is instructed to find a handful of differences--the left picture has 3 coat buttons instead of four, the tree in the background is smaller on the right, and so forth. Read this excerpt (selectively edited, yes, to serve my own purposes) from a story from NPR's weekend edition: abandoned gas station along old Route 66 is the unlikely home for another kind of Sunday-morning service, and it's one that you won't find anywhere else.

Felix Wurman...didn't feel at home at church. ... He's trying to make it more than that: a community, a spiritual place, like a church for people who don't go to church.

On a typical Sunday morning, a crowd gathers at the Filling Station, an old gas station that's been converted into a theater. It's in one of Albuquerque's oldest neighborhoods, surrounded by small brown adobe houses, a few blocks from the hulking shell of the old Santa Fe rail yards.

Coffee is a major part of the liturgy here — good coffee. Two cheerful baristas serve everyone free espresso in brightly colored ceramic cups. Laura Motter and her husband Nathaniel, who rode to the church on their tandem bike, have been attending faithfully since last spring.

"The first time I came, I heard about it from a friend who was reading poetry here, and we were just kind of blown away by what you can hear in a gas station in Albuquerque," Motter says.

Wurman says he doesn't want the church ... to grow into a megachurch, because that would destroy the intimacy that makes it meaningful.
That sounds like a great church! A cool, artist-friendly, community-centered, postmodern-grounded fellowship. It looks a lot like many of the new generation of congregations sprouting up around the U.S., right? Except this is the Church of Beethoven:

"Really, the idea is to find spirituality through culture, through the cultural gifts that so many people have suffered for and created over so many
generations," Wurman says.
The new (post-modern? emerging? ancient-future? pick-your-term) Christian churches emphasize creativity, community, and usually try to serve good coffee. They aren't often mega-churches, because megachurches work against the intimacy that makes their community meaningful. Is Wurman's church missing anything?

I've just started reading Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water, in which she suggests that true art is Christian art, and conversely, art that is not true isn't Christian no matter how many much it pictures or mentions Jesus. "Whenever we taste the truth," St. Augustine writes, "God is there." L'engle's reflections on art make me suspect that she would agree that spirituality can be found in culture, that God is indeed present in Wurman's church because God is present whenever art elevates our vision and stirs our soul.

But she might also suggest that great art--including Beethoven's music--enfleshes a reality beyond itself. The artist does not serve himself or his audience, but the work that calls to him to create it. But that work is not created out of itself; L'engle, quoting Leonard Bernstein, says art creates Cosmos out of Chaos. Or put another way, art is the window to that Cosmos, not the Cosmos in itself.

What's missing, of course, is Jesus. Yes, we want to love our neighbors, to create meaningful works of art, to enter into deep and meaningful relationships. But we are the followers of Jesus, who says, "I am the truth." That is not very palatable at times, and it's easy to snicker at the overblown sanctimony of, say, religious broadcasters who seem to name-drop Jesus like a politician trying to ride another's coattails into office. God knows I roll my eyes at it.

I do think the congregants of the Church of Beethoven are experiencing God in their community and their music. Heck, I'd love to go to what Wurman envisions as a future sister Church of Berstein. ("Beethoven? Hello, the 1800s called and want their composer back.")

But beyond good coffee, authentic community, and great art, this is what we witness to : we know and experience God, and his name is Jesus.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The chicken or the egg?

A recent conversation with my older brother had me musing:

Which comes first, worship or mission? (Please understand, when I say "worship," I refer to the activity of God's people gathered to praise Him and proclaim the gospel to one another.)

Growing up in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, I was reminded, the task of our local congregation was to support missionary work. The CMA started as a missionary organization, and eventually the support groups in the US became congregations and the whole thing turned into a protestant denomination. (As if we needed another one--but that's another discussion). My brother remarked that this approach had the effect, in some ways, of devaluing corporate worship.

My Kansas City church featured a sermon series last spring about their mission statement, "Outward Focus, Inward Change." In introducing the topic, our pastor said that try as they might, God wasn't going to let them come to a consensus about whether they were going to teach that Inward Change must occur for focus to turn outward, or if Outward Focus promoted Inward Change. Both happened at the same time.

A favorite blog of mine picked up this topic, too, in discussing the nature of building a missional community from the ground up. How, David Fitch pondered, do you attract people to a missional community? Read the full post and comments here.

At this point in my life, as passionate as I am about worship, I am increasingly convinced that worship grows out of the soil of mission. To be fully invested in the songs about who God is and what God does in the world, we must be active participants in that mission. Worship services that do not have a foundation of missional work are just good shows.

Yet at the same time, I am cautious about dismissing the purpose of gathering. So often, we are filled with so much unresolved pain or crippling fear that we cannot see beyond them to the needs of the world that God desires to meet. Gathering together, I hope, allows us to offer comfort and to challenge one another as we sing of God's love, pray for one another, and renew our hearts, minds and spirits. Gathering together is not merely a celebration of the work of God, it is preparation for God's work for us, too.

In A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren relates the story of how he forumates his language for what the purpose of the Church. I still embrace his last addition: "To be and make disciples of Jesus Christ in authentic community for the good of the world." That purpose should inform what we do when we gather, and what we do when we disperse.