Kindling the Fire?

“I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze! I have a baptism I must experience. How I am distressed until it’s completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division."  Luke 12:49-51
It was kind of a dark and stormy Jesus today in our lectionary passage ... Quite contrary to the stern but reassuring Jesus we've been traveling with during our summer series on the Gospel of Luke.

Today's Jesus was frustrated.
He was fiery.
He was miffed that the people who were supposed to be prepared to meet the Messiah were neither prepared nor listening.

This was table turning Jesus.
Jesus on a mission to turn the world around.

This Jesus wasn't afraid to tell it like it is - following him was going to necessitate making some hard choices, doing a lot of self inventory.

Makes me wonder if this is what our beloved UMC is going through right now ... Have we been avoiding making the tough choices for too long?  Have we been worrying about the wrong things all together?  Have we been so worried about maintaining the status quo in our churches we've been missing our chance to have a real impact on planet Earth for the Kingdom?

What would Jesus think of our  UMC churches today?

I'm just wondering.

I think a lot of our churches behave as if they've arrived.
Would Jesus say that we have?
Are we so afraid to fix our problems?

I feel we might be so afraid of the potential divisions that Christ prophesied in the 12th Chapter of Luke that we're in danger of fading.  This isn't new news.  But it is a lack of faith.

It's easy to be cynical.

But ...

I just had a blast this weekend leading worship for 25 youth workers at the Central Texas Conference Youth Worker Sabbath.  For three days I sat back as colleagues commiserated with each other, prayed for one another, and played games with one another.  Like youth.

There's the hope in the Connection.

The UMC isn't done yet, because it hasn't yet arrived.

Signs of a Good Time

What you see here is every dish in our house - DIRTY.  Under normal circumstances, this would probably get my wife a tad worked up.  I'm often given a hard time when I 'use every dish in the house' to make dinner.  And though I can be guilty of that, at least dinner is usually awesome!  Well, most of the time it is.   But really, nobody in my house complains when being served a meal they didn't have to make.

The mess above, though, is due to a great Labor Day weekend party at our house.  Our house was full of family (it was my dad's birthday the day before) as well as a few ministry friends that needed some good food and fellowship.  We grilled out, ate well, and played with our baby; our boy, in all of his crawling-awesomeness was the real star of the day - not my grilled chicken fajitas.

Appetizers, main courses, and desserts all led to every plate in our house (literally) getting dirty, as well as a great deal of cups, silverware, and most of our cooking and serving vessels and utensils.  All comprising 2-and-a-half loads for our dishwasher, not including all of the things we scrubbed by hand.  We had to clean off every counter top, table, the bar, the sinks, the grill, and, and, and ...

As my wife and I took stock of the apparent devastation, we just hugged and gave thanks that we had such a rich life - full of wonderful people, and a place where we could gather them all up.  Then we did the dishes together.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard a pastor say, "If it isn't messy afterwards, ministry probably didn't happen."  It's rung true for me lately.  What if we measured our ministry by the messiness it creates?  Messiness shows signs of life, and when we offer true hospitality to our family, friends, and neighbors, messes come along with the people.

What if we measured a successful service by the scrap pieces of paper on the floor, or the candle wax on the pews and seats after Christmas Eve worship?  What if we measured the success of a church supper by the dirty dishes it created?  What if a church mission was measured by the supplies needed to get God's work done?  We often lament during winter at the amount of cough drop wrappers my choir leaves behind in the loft on Sunday, and while I urge them to clean up after themselves, the loft is only dirty because people are there serving.

What if we even invited more of a mess?  What if we decided that it was ok for (gasp) coffee cups to come into our sanctuaries?  And what child keeps things clean?  I mean, even our infant can't help but make a mess every minute he's awake.

Where can you invite a little more messiness into your faith community?  Or, what do you consider to be the signs of successful ministry and fellowship?

Re-post: Ladderball and the Case for Intergenerational Ministry

This blog is a re-post from a previous entry post-choir tour back in June.  As a new school semester starts, what steps are your church taking to bring the generations together?  As a young adult in ministry, who's often the youngest person in the room (or nearly) during choir practice, I know my generation is hungry to work with those kingdom members who've already been where I am.  There's a lot to be learned from the older generations, but assumptions are often made on both sides of the generational divide, the big ones being:
1)  The young people just want to take over.
2)  The old people have nothing to teach me.
Vital congregations mix things up across the societal divisions from race to economic to generational.  What is your church doing to build the bridges?  Our faith family, through our youth and seniors ministry is beginning to bring in some innovative ideas, for which I'll be telling stories later, but to start with - what is your church family doing?

I just got back from youth choir tour to Nashville!  The first choir tour that I've ever planned and run as a worship pastor.  There were lots of precious moments, and many Aldersgate experiences along the way.  This is the first post of several focused on one of the best ministry experiences I've ever had.

Let me start off by saying that this tour was very different from previous tours that this youth choir had been on.  This was the 19th youth choir tour for my church, and needless to say it's become a juggernaut of a tradition.  It's become foundational in the fabric of our youth and music ministries and much of the year is devoted to fundraising and planning the trip.

The first major difference in the trip was the number of youth on tour.  The tour had had upwards of 80 students in the recent past, 35 last year (my first tour, I attended and directed the music, but our youth pastor ran the trip as it was my third week on the job).  We took 17 students this year.  There were and are multiple reasons for the small size, but there you go.

The second big change was that due to the  size of the group, the huge tour bus was out of the question.  Our church has even had the same bus driver for nearly all of the choir tours.   But we couldn't really justify the expense, and had to go with vans.  Very different, but turned out to be totally awesome.

The third big change was that we weren't able to book churches to sing at.  Many church were able to, and did, lodge our group, but no one (out of more than a hundred churches) was able to host a concert.  There were also many totally justifiable reasons for this, but again, there you go.

So where did we sing?  Retirement villages and nursing homes.  The youth had done the occasional retirement home, but how would they take to a tour entirely devoted to ministry to the elderly and disabled?

Our first gig was at a very nice retirement community, more of a condo living set-up.  A good way to ease in to a tour with more of a missional vibe.  When we had called the place, recommended to us by the church that was hosting us that night, the activities director enthusiastically invited us to share a concert with them.  They would also feed us dinner and would love it if we would play ladderball with the residents.

What's ladderball, you ask?  Apparently it's quite the phenomenon.  You can check it out here.  Think about it as a game of horseshoes that you can play indoors.

The concert was amazing.  The theme music to our tour this year was devoted to the Beatles, although we do a substantial sacred set during our concerts as well.  But the Beatles music was very important to the tour ... Not only are the Beatles awesome and the choir sang the music extremely well, but the Beatles were the soundtrack of the residents' youth.   We encouraged the residents to sing along, and they sure did.  Often times during that first concert our choir swelled from 17 to 75.  I couldn't see it, but I could see the looks on the students faces as we sang, and they were totally digging the joy in the room.

After a dinner of shepherd's pie came the real fun, a youth vs. residents game of ladderball.  A game that's more difficult than it looks.  The scriptures tell young people not to let people look down on them because they're young; I would add that we shouldn't let young people look down on older folks just because they have grey hair.  These folks had skills.

After an hour and four full rounds of ladder ball, the set was tied at 2 and 2, we came to a sudden death round.  One of our adults, all of whom participated throughout for the students' team, came in to give the students a win by one point.  I'm not going to lie, the win felt good,  but I did feel a little bad for winning.  But only a little.  There was a lot of heckling going on, on both sides, and it was hilarious.  Our youth were handing out nicknames like crazy.  Intergenerational ministry happened.  Something I'm starting to think of as the Promised Land for Christian Ministry.

The name of our tour this year was the "All You Need is Love Tour", and a whole lot of love was passed around that night.  The activities director said she had never seen her seniors so active, and I had never been so proud to be a youth choir director and worship pastor.  I've learned an awful lot about the goals of our youth pastor at our church ... doing what ever we can to get the different generations of our church to mix up and do life together.  It happened on our choir tour, at every gig in one way or another, and we aren't turning back from keeping it up in the years to come.

How does your church intentionally get different generations to work together?

A Picture is Worth Four Words

In the wake of the Chick-Fil-A stories there have been a lot of pictures posted on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  Pictures of nuggets, waffle fries, sandwiches, people proudly proclaiming their love of good chicken, and, well, certain beliefs ...  I posted last week on my feelings around the big theological/political debate.  I threw out my idea, and put it to bed.

Then a picture re-posted by a friend showed up on my twitter feed that made me stop and pause.

It was the picture of a guy standing outside of a Chick-Fil-A, watching the huge line of CFA supporters going out the door and down the block.  On the back of his shirt were four words that read: "Jesus is a (bad word)."  I won't say what it actually said.  It's more than a little NSFW.  Just use your imagination.  It wasn't good.

The friend didn't post the picture as affirmation, just asking the question, essentially, "What do we do with this?"

Like most people, my first reaction was more than disgust.  I mean, that's my Savior the guy is ridiculing.  He's breaking commandments.  And it's in poor taste.

But ... I want to know his story, and the stories of others like him.  At some point the Jesus he was shown wasn't good.  And it's not that Jesus needs to be painted as nice; Jesus wasn't nice.  But the Jesus represented to the guy is bad.  The fact that he wore this shirt outside of the CFA Appreciation Day is also very telling ... Christians were the ones in support of CFA, followers of Jesus.  Maybe this guy is gay, or maybe somebody he loves is.  Regardless, his shirt, which showed judgement of the Church, showed what he knows of the church.

Somewhere along the line, somebody modelled a Jesus for this guy that was a (bad word), and wearing that shirt on that day meant something to him.  And that makes me sad for him, but also for the witness being shown.  When we claim the name of Christian, we are called to put on Christ for the world.

What I really want to know is what happened to the guy after that picture was taken on August 1 ... Did somebody try to show him the love of Christ, or was he damned?  What do you do when you're confronted by someone who hates your faith?

What makes 'us' different? A ChickFilA Response

One of the great criticisms of modern Christianity is that we don't live differently from anyone else.
Rev. Bob Farr, Renovate or Die
It's a common thought today amongst those that don't belong to a Christian faith community.  Why choose the church?  Why choose Jesus?

I posted the above quote from Renovate or Die, a book I'm working through, on Facebook and the first immediate response I received was:
What makes 'us' [the Body of Christ] different from anyone else?
It's a great, and important question.  My response:
Our intentional love and care for one another is supposed to set us apart ... And a faith that calls us to strive towards something larger, and show a love that calls others to travel on the journey with us. Radical hospitality not radical judgement is what defined Christ's ministry. Unfortunately the line between the two has gotten super blurry.
I think questioning why people, especially the unchurched, would choose to follow Christ is especially relevant given the hot topic for this week: the politics of ChickFilA.  What would Jesus do in this situation?  Stand with the LGBTQ Community and their Allies?  Or would he stand with the CEO of ChickFilA?  There's a whole lot of gray here when everybody wants to make something black and white.  Jesus might have something relevant to say in these matters.

As soon as Jesus decided to kick-off his earthly ministry, it was off to the races from the word, "Go".  For three years he didn't really stop moving and doing ministry for and with the poorest of the poor.  He spent most of his time ministering to those on the fringes, the poor and the sick, as well as the villains of the time like the tax collectors. 

Because the educated establishment of the time didn't care for Christ's methods (the might have accepted him as Messiah if he'd just quit being so radical), they constantly followed him around and asked him questions with the intent to trick him.  In one such circumstance we get a very important response from the Prince of Peace, found in the 22nd Chapter of Matthew:
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had left the Sadducees speechless, they met together.  One of them, a legal expert, tested him.  "Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?"
He replied, "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it:  You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.  All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands." (CEB)
Christ adds no qualification to the term "neighbor".  A neighbor is just a fellow person.  And we know from his track record that he had a heart especially for the poor and disenfranchised. 

So, how do we apply these commandments to our ChickFilA situation?  Do we support a boycott?  Or do we support events like ChickFilA Appreciation Day?  Or how about this?

What would I like to see?

I know it's radical, but I would like to see members of the LGBTQ Community and their Allies march on ChickFilA franchises ... And ... Eat there.  We need to realize that while many of us have problems with the documented stances that the ChickFilA corporate office has taken with regard to 'loving their neighbors', the local franchise partners of ChickFilA and their staffs have nothing to do with that.  If ChickFilA is shut down, it's those jobs that are hurt.

I could get mad at ChickFilA, I'm certainly dissapointed with what I think is a horrible stance at the corporate level, but what if my wife and I showed up with a rainbow button on with a bunch of friends and said, "You may not love the people that I love, but you're my neighbor and I'll love you anyway."

Maybe I'm an idealist. 

What would the unchurched say of the church's actions on August 1st?  Would that compel someone to join the Body?  Forget thinking of the church as a building - the church is the People of Christ and the purpose of the Body is to grow the Body.  Where Christ worked so hard to tear down veils and walls, we end up building them back up, higher and higher.  Am I one that's building up those walls of division?  No.  But unfortunately the inclusive witness I and others want to proclaim is drowned-out by a Gospel of Exclusion.

Because it's Christians, very loud Christians, who have taken a stance on exclusion, and like it or not, one Christian often ends up speaking for the whole.  A loving witness trumped by one that isn't.

People say, "Love the sinner, hate the sin."  As I interpret the word, ChickFilA is on the wrong side.  But I have to love them and their people into a better way.  I think this has now become a question of evangelism.  Everything we as Christians do does matter to the world looking on. 

So, how are we [Christians] different?

Like a Lion

This Sunday in worship we debuted "Like a Lion", a song by Daniel Bashta, a worship pastor at a church outside of Atlanta.

It's a heavy song.  The first time I heard was two years ago, when the David Crowder Band covered it for Passion 2010.  And, to tell the truth, initially I was really put off by it.  It's a very raw-natured song at it's heart.  The lyrics of the chorus go like this:
My God's not dead: he's surely alive,
And he's living on the inside, roaring like a lion!
It's the "My God's not dead" part that bothered me.  I mean, whoever said God was dead?  In seminary, we did cover for a second in my intro to theology class the "God is Dead" theologians, but I didn't really pay attention there.  I didn't see the relevance.  I did, and do, realize that there are people in this world that do not believe in the Almighty.  Or, should I say, an almighty.  But for people to devote time to theorizing on the death of God, and how we killed God, just kind of struck me as silly at a time.

Recently, however, I've been awakened to the plight of my generation.  A generation who's primary witness to God's love is given through politicians looking for sound bites (on both sides of the many aisles) or TV pastors who do the same before getting caught up in the many ways to do things that are illegal or immoral.

It's to this generation, this feeling throughout the world, that Daniel Bashta is singing for.  Not only is God not dead, God is alive, God is relevant, God is hope, and God wants to roar into the world through us.

At the raw-centered heart of this song is a call for God to come down into this world run amok like a Pentecostal fire:
Let heaven roar!
And fire fall!
Come shake the ground,
With the sound of revival!
How do our faith families speak to the people who don't find relevance in knowing God's salvation?  Specifically to our struggling millennials? 

It might start as it does throughout the Word ... We ask for help.

What is your church's foundation?

The church's one foundation
is Jesus Christ our Lord;
we are his new creation
by water and the Word;
from heaven he came and sought us
that we might ever be
his living servant people,
by his own death set free.
- Samuel J. Stone, 1866; adapted by L. H. Stookey, 1983
As we take this Saturday to prepare for the Celebration of Worship to come on the Lord's Day (for some of you it all may start this afternoon or evening), I think it's relevant to ask ourselves:
What is our foundation?
Is it a building?  Is it a program?  Is it a band or a choir or an organ?  Is it the preacher?  We tend to think that any of these things, if just right can cure every ill.  But there's only one Divine Carpenter, one Divine Healer.

Making Jesus the foundation for anything takes work and prayer.  We should be asking ourselves through every decision made in the Lord's name: is Jesus Christ our foundation?
Called forth from every nation,
yet one o'er all the earth;
our charter of salvation:
one Lord, one faith, one birth.
One holy name professing
and at one table fed,
to one hope always pressing,
by Christ's own spirit led.

#generationhope - a faith-based response to #generationscrewed

Last week I saw #generationscrewed trending on my twitter feed, via the Daily Beast, a fun/serious/snarky news service I follow.  My interest was piqued, so I began to read the tweets that followed.  Then I also caught the article that started it all from Newsweek, "Are Millennials the Screwed Generation?"  News Week started the #generationscrewed tag, offering to retweet anybody using the tag.

I had to do a little research of my own on who millennials even are ... The generation is summed up as anybody born between 1977 and 1994.  So, I'm at the older end (born in 1981) of a group of people that span 17 years, the youngest of which are just graduating from high school and moving on to college.  Nice to know that I'm considered to be in the same generation as my student intern!

In all seriousness, people of the Millennial generation are entering into a troubled time, with much higher than average unemployment (nearly 50% higher than the national stats) an average student loan debt of $27,000.  Because we graduate with bachelors degrees to a closed job market (older generations are not retiring as they used to), we end up going on immediately to grad school, to lump on more debt.  And then we graduate from that to a still closed job market.  Millennials have ended up often finding themselves both over educated and underemployed.  And the penchant of older generations to gravitate towards debt and social systems that the younger generations pay to support and likely won't be there for us creates a huge climate of anxiety for the current crop of young adults that the church is fishing for.

I shared in a lot of this woe when my wife and I got married.  Before we were married, my personal debt total (student loans, credit cards, vehicle loans, etc.) totalled nearly $90,000, $80,000 of which was student load debt.  A little bit from undergrad, plus a lot from seminary.  I didn't even know how to get started with it; I'd taken voluntary forbearance a couple of times, which was only racking on more interest.  Then I met Leanne, and she let me know that if a relationship with her was important, having financial order was going to be essential.  She'd already begun her journey towards getting out from under a mountain of debt and it was a big deal for her to see me, and not just my debt.  As a longtime follower of Dave Ramsey and student of his Financial Peace University program, she brought me a couple of books, and I set to work chopping down my debt, credit cards first, during our engagement.

I also, in the midst of the stress of writing a real budget and making above minimum payments on my credit cards, signed my first-ever pledge card to the church I was serving.  It wasn't the full 10% tithe, but it was something, and it felt right to do it.

My first birthday present to Leanne during our engagement was a card full of the cut-up remains of my credit cards.  I took a stand with her in that moment, we were going to live within our means when we started our life together.

I was fortunate during this time to have many answered prayers ... I stepped out of seminary at Perkins with my MSM from a loving home church to a wonderful new church home in Slidell, LA.  My career had officially started, with a real salary (not crazy by any means, but good).  I went from an underemployed graduate student to real work.  I prayed through that time, but I also took the opportunity in grad school to do what grad school does for you: make connections and network.  My job in LA came through a friend in seminary.  The Holy Spirit worked it out for me, but I put in a lot of work and prayer along the way.

My wife didn't have such an easy time of it when she landed in LA before our wedding.  She was a Perkins grad as well with her Masters of Theological Studies, but that didn't mean much in the surrounding community.  So she had to just get a job to get a job.  It ended up being a stinker.  Underpaid, underemployed, under-appreciated.  It was not a good situation in any respect and not the way to start off our marriage.  She had to quit that one, and took on three part-time jobs through friends and continued to make connections before landing on some wonderful ministry opportunities inside a year of moving to Louisiana.

The whole while we were struggling with our family budget during our first year of marriage, we kept a strict budget based only on our household income, we paid down debt as we could, and tithed.  We gave the full tithe to the church and that has created a financial foundation to our marriage.  But the important thing to note is that through every step, we prayed intentionally together.  We found as we prayed for specifics, a wonderful new job for Leanne, opportunities began to roll in.  We're not naive enough to think that the perfect job opened up just because we prayed to God for help, we worked super hard as we went, constantly in conversation with the people we met in ministry in LA. 

But I do think, that because we prayed constantly for the right path for our family, we were open to possibilities in exciting places.  I now serve a wonderful congregation as worship pastor on the south side of Dallas, and Leanne is serving at the conference level in youth and young adult ministry.  I feel like I need to say that I'm not throwing out our story to gloat - just to say that with God's help, it's been possible for us to go from unfortunate circumstances to a life of blessings over flowing.  It started though with realizing that even in the thick of our own family debt crisis, God was with us.

Keeping counsel with God has been essential in the last three years as we've budgeted, made career decisions, and moved forward as a family.  When we got married three years ago, we had nearly $120,000 in debt.  This month, after we make a payment on my student loans from seminary (the only debt we have left) we'll be down below $20,000.  If all goes well, we'll be done within the first couple months of 2013.  Then following Dave Ramsey's baby steps, it's time to build an emergency fund, start saving for retirement, buy a house, and start a college fund for Wesley.  Good stuff is coming - due to some hard work, discipline, and real prayer as a team.

So when I saw on my twitter feed last week that Newsweek was RT'ing anybody who used the hashtag #generationscrewed, I saw a lot of the sadness within my generation.  I couldn't help my self; I threw out this in response:
#generationscrewed? 30yrs old, mega school debt, but working to pay it off and raise a family. I prefer #generationhope. Made my dream.
It was retweeted an awful lot, making me think that there's something there.  Others in our generation are finding ways to be successful in a world that can be hostile towards youthful ideas, and yes, I'm also talking to the church.  Still others are looking for hope and a way out, towards some kind of peace.  My wife talks more about our family journey toward financial peace over here.

My question as reading other Twitter stories was this: where is the church in the lives of these young adults that are hurting?  What is the church doing to teach them a better way?  My wife first took FPU at a church.  It taught her, and later me, a truly bible-based theology of home finance where giving is a priority and living within your means is essential.

How can the church do a better job of creating a #generationhope?  This is my prayer today.

The Insiders

"As soon as an organization begins to exist more for insiders than outsiders, it begins to die."
Bishop Robert Schnase, Episcopal Address to the #SCJ12

Ever heard of a church described as a country club?  Ever heard of a tithe referred to as dues?  Ever been a guest at a church and just handed a bulletin by an usher without a greeting?  Ever walked in and out of a church on Sunday morning without a word spoken to you?

I've heard something of the kind at every church I've served in ... All wonderful, wonderful, communities.  But, we always have big things to work on.

Unfortunately, this description of the church experience is starting to typify what is observed in established churches nation-wide - not just in the UMC.  I think it begins when priority is put on maintaining disciples over making them.  And by maintaining disciples, I also mean maintaining antiquated systems, styles of worship, and being prideful about what 'we' used to be in our respective communities.  Our established churches start to be less about growth and creativity and more about comfort and predictability.  It starts to be more about who's inside, and less about who's outside.  Which is contrary to everything Christ's radical, revolutionary ministry was about.

Bishop Schnase also laid on the Jurisdictional conference some new statistics on demographics in the UMC - the median age of United Methodists is nearing 60, while the median age of the population is in the mid-30s.  As somebody who's 30 at the moment, that's pretty scary.  But, also inspires me to do God's work.

The last I heard, in the North Texas Conference of the UMC, there are around 16 new church starts up and running right now, with many others nation wide.  But, there are 300 other established churches in the NTC, some growing, many who are not.  Our new church starts don't always flourish, but when they have a clear mission field and the means to meet needs, they do.  Established churches, however, have what should be a leg up on any church start - a building, a known presence, members.  But it's often that these things are the ones that can sink the ship.

We love our building, why change it?

We have a great reputation in this town, why do anything different?

I've been a member here all of my life, isn't our worship great the way it is?

I think that we can agree that a universal sign of a healthy church congregation is that it grows.  The purpose of the church is that ... to grow.  Growth requires doing the work for those outside the church just as much, if not more, than work for the people already inside.

At the same time, however, we do need to do the work of maintaining the ministries of the disciples we are creating.  Growing churches grow because of the connectional ministries they foster: small group and mission ministries.  It's important to have strong, dynamic worship that meets the needs of the established member and the person coming off of the street for the first time.  But accountability groups in bible study and Sunday school will keep them coming back as well.

The first step to fixing any problem is to admit that there is one.  Bishop Schnase laid one out for us.  It's time to have honest conversation on the age gap in our churches.  Clearly young people, and families, are on the outside.  How do we get them in?  How do those of us attending and serving at established churches get them to start getting radical like new church starts?  It's hard to meet the needs of everyone in any given community, but we all need Jesus, so let's make sure at least we're offering that - and the revolutionary ministry that comes with it.

To robe? Or not to robe?

When I first started in professional ministry a few years ago, I was given the task in my home church of directing the children's choir program.  We had three choirs at the time, and they most often sang in the traditional services because that was a simpler fit for them.  Just before I was hired on staff, post-college, the choirs had fundraised and purchased brand-new robes for the entire worship ministry; matching robes for the adult choirs, bell choirs, and children's ensembles.

One Sunday morning the 1st - 3rd grade children's choir was gathering to sing, with the parents helping me to get them robed-up and ready to praise.  In the midst of this action, I had this conversation, with a snarky (and hilarious) 2nd grade boy:
"Mr. Jarrod, why do you got us wearing these dresses?"

"Jake, it's not a dress.  These are robes."

Jake raises his hand and looks at the other kids, "Who here thinks that these are dresses?"
I had no answer to that!  But it did raise some interesting questions in my mind that I still have years later.  We just entered into a more casual summer-time dress code, with no clergy, worship leadership, or choir robes.  It's Dallas, and super hot right now.  We'd have people passing out in the loft if we kept the robes on.  But what's interesting from my perspective is that when we ditch the robes, I have to dress up more than I normally would ... When leading the contemporary service, I usually wear jeans and a t-shirt.  I then throw on the robe to direct the choir at the traditional service.  No dice during the summer.  It's slacks, a button-up shirt with my guitar, add in a tie and blazer for the traditional service.

So, I'm not critical of wearing robes; I even like them.

The question I have is this, though: Do robes create a barrier between worship leadership and the people?

Maybe it's a necessary one at times.  What we wear in worship can set a tone ... Two years ago, at the church I served in Slidell, LA, we offered a U2charist Worship Service.  It was a service of Word and Table.  My senior pastor wore jeans and a nice shirt for most of the service, but when it came time to preside over the sacrament, he put his stole on in front of us.  It was a powerful image that gave me goosebumps.  But it didn't make a show of the pastor being special; it brought real weight to the work he was about to do, for us, in communion with the Trinity.

As a younger minister in a more traditional context, I've found that what I wear with whom I'm working with really matters.  With youth, it's shorts and flip-flops, with adults slacks and a polo.  Both achieve a different kind of respect depending on the context.  It's silly to me ... but apparently, what we wear in ministry really matters ... to people.

What do we think about church dress codes?  What do they say about our faith communities?  Do they help or hinder the work of the people?

Impressions from the Parking Lot

Lately, matters of church hospitality have been on my mind.  My church is beginning to work through it's issues and a few weeks back I posted the plan we're working from here.  One of our biggest, and probably most overlooked problems with our church hospitality systems begins in the parking lot.  I do, however, think it's one of our greatest opportunities.  Afterall, the first brave step a guest takes is actually to load up the family, stick the keys in the ignition, and drive over to a new church experience.  How are we meeting them?

Have you ever  been in a Walmart parking lot on a Saturday?  I don't recommend it.  My wife and I do all we can to avoid going to Walmart on Saturday, because I'm convinced that Walmart, in general, brings out the worst in humanity.  Our pursuit of low-low prices turns us all into villains.

Finding a spot is usually the first adventure.  My favorite is the drive down the lane that's halted by the car in front of you waiting on the mom who's loading up the world and her five kids by herself.  The space is close to the entrance, so it's worth the wait - for the car in front of you.  Unfortunately, there's no room to go around this car because it's a one-way lane.  Sweet.  I'll just hang out with my own crying baby for a bit.  Greatness.

Then there's the awesome spot right near the front of the parking lot.  You drive up on it, thinking how lucky you are that this sweet spot is open - only to find it's reserved for the police.  Bummer. 

My personal strategy for parking at Walmart is to park in a lane that point out of the lot.  So I can make the quickest escape possible.  I don't mind parking a little further out and walking a little further.

Then I'm walking to the entrance, negotiating rude traffic along the way.  My favorite part is crossing that lane that runs in front of the store, in between the parking spaces and the store itself.  How many of you have nearly been run over crossing this river of chaos?  The people trying to run over you are looking for the perfect space themselves, and shoot, they don't have time to wait for pedestrians.  I mean, somebody might take the most amazing spot in the world before they get there!  Nevermind that in a few minutes they'll be in the same spot you are with the expectation that traffic will wait for them to cross.

Our Christian hospitality should start in the parking lot.  I've had some amazing greeting experiences in parking lots at larger churches, with attendants guiding me along in my car to the closest available space, to outside greeters ready to tell me where to go.  I've been treated as a beloved child of God from the moment I turned my car into the church driveway.  Especially when dealing with guests, our church parking lots make an important first impression.  It can set the tone for a the whole morning of worship for visitor and member alike.

It can be a really sensitive subject for more established churches, but we just love to designate parking spaces.  Maybe it's for an honored member of the community.  Maybe it's for the clergy.  Maybe we auctioned of a parking space at a youth fundraiser.  But we often put up signs in choice and wonderful places and label them for exclusive use.

And let's just get this out of the way ... The best spaces are handicap reserved.  And that's how it should be.  Texas law requires there to be at least 1 space for every 25 parking spaces to be reserved for handicap use, and they usually must be the closest spaces to any main entrance with plenty of space around those spaces for loading and unloading.  It's how it should be, but we need to acknowledge that right off the bat, front-row parking for guests is at a premium.

Churches with more seniors in attendance often have designated walking-impaired parking in spaces close to the entrance as well.  My current and previous churches have these special spaces.  The need can be understandable ... But it's not like they're a legally necessary thing.  Often if you stand at the door, you'll see people parking there that are perfectly able to run a marathon.  But they were late for worship, and it was the nearest space.

A little further out from the three previous categories of special parking spaces there are finally a few spaces reserved for our guests.  Sure, they're painted brightly, but in the zoo of other designated places, these few reserved spaces are hard to find.  Sometimes members park there too.  A guest doesn't know that ... But we members of the community do.  All a guest knows is that they need to drive on.

But maybe worse is when those special, designated, spaces are empty.  All they say to a guest is, "Sorry, these just aren't for you."

At the church I served in Louisiana, there were two designated parking spaces for clergy.  They were in front of the church office, not directly in front of the sanctuary entrance.  But they were in the main parking lot that wasn't very big.  Every Sunday morning, my pastors would arrive early and put bags over the signs for their spots and then park as far out in the lot as possible before our early service.  The team that came in after them pulled up the signs altogether and got rid of them.  They made me proud to serve with them and showed me an example of what a servant leader does for the flock.  It was a small showing of hospitality, but you never know who's going to show up on Sunday morning and first impressions always matter.

If we're thinking more like visitors, we'll think more about the impressions we're trying to make.  The signs we put up in our parking lots show preferences.  When my wife and I were expecting, we loved going to Babies"R"Us, because of their parking reserved for expectant moms.  We love going to Ikea because of the small parking lot set apart for families.

How has your church taken the steps to show Christ's love in the parking lot?  What does your parking lot say about your faith community?  How do we feel about designated parking spaces?  Leave a comment!

We Are the Church

I am the church!
You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus, all around the world!
Yes, we're the church together!

So goes the chorus hymn 558 in the United Methodist Hymnal, We Are the Church.

I first learned this one when I was leading the children's choirs at my home church, my first ministry gig out of college while I was in seminary.  I hadn't heard it before, but I was looking in the index of the hymnal for children's choir suggestions, and there it was.

Written in 1972 by clergy and musician team Richard K. Avery and Donald S. March, We Are the Church is a hymn written to be led by children, a lesson to be passed on by children.

The first stanza goes like this:
The church is not a building.
The church is not a steeple.
The church is not a resting place.
The church is a people!
I find these words especially poignant in today's church when we seem to get so hung-up on building these wonderful facilities.  Don't get me wrong, I love the beautiful sancturary I have the privilege to lead worship in.  Hearing the choirs and bands and singing with the congregation is amazing.  The house was built to the glory of God, there's no doubt about it.

But then we call it "The Church".  When in fact, it's we, the Body of Christ, who are the church.

It seems like a semantic argument, but it's an important one.  Our buildings and sanctuaries are important, but that's just where the church gathers.  How many churches have you seen meet in school auditoriums?  Or storefronts?  Or people's homes?  There's even a UMC community that meets in, of all places, local bars.  You don't need a steeple to gather as the church.

How do we make sure that the ministry of Christ is defining the church, and not the buildings we build?

How is it with your liturgy?

One of the foundational questions (I'm told) of the Wesleyan holy club meetings was this:

How is it with your soul?
It was a question that was meant to promote a deeper understanding between people, in a small group setting to bring about trust and accountability. 

Today, I'm asking:
How is it with your liturgy?
My specific arena in ministry is worship.  Sunday morning worship, that is.  The sanctuary is the place on Sunday mornings where we the church gather, work together in prayer in various ways (pastoral prayer, song, sermon ...).  As we dive deeper together into this worship, we find that the service in which we call ourselves together is just the tip of the iceberg in what it means to call ourselves disciples of Christ.

As a crafter of worship services, my job is to get the people involved.  We do that in a lot of ways, through corporate prayer, through singing, through hearing the word proclaimed.  It's all supposed to come together in the liturgy - the work of the people.  The point is for us as worship leadership and congregation to work together, to model the church relationship with Christ, working together to praise God.  We all work together.

The problem we often face though in our consumer-driven society is that we often come to worship wondering what we're going to get ... How good is the choir going to be this week?  Is the organist going to mess up again?  I sure hope that the sermon pops this morning.  But chew on this ... don't we call them worship services?  We come together to serve, not be served, just as Christ did.  We face the problem that a former pastor of mine often phrase this way, "How do we get people to change from consumers to producers?"  But it's so easy to slip into give-me-something-now slump.

As seekers we come to Christ needing something.  Nothing wrong with that.  But how do we, the church, convert those people from just consuming in worship and study to those that are out in the community bringing other seekers to know Christ?

This leads me to my frequent quandary in worship planning and leading ... How well are the laity involved in what we do in worship on Sunday morning?  There are a number of ways that we do this, but we can always do better!  Creating room for lay-witness is essential.  We do it through musical leadership (choirs, bands), through lay speakers preaching, through ministry leaders witnessing.

But,  as said earlier, Sunday morning worship is the tip of the iceberg.  How involved are the laity in the ministry of the church?   Do the laity in your church think that the staff is just there to do what they say?  Or do staff and laity actively work together to resource one-another and glorify God through team work?

I work at an established church that's been through several different types of management, most recently through a turn where most ministries of the church were staff-driven.  That can be great, as long as the staff is doing the job of making disciples.  And it did seem to work great on the surface at the time, but our disciple-making muscles atrophied when things seemed to be going ridiculously awesome.  Now we're in a strange place, with not enough staff to fulfill the needs that were created 15 years ago, but laity that by and large aren't as motivated to dig in and do the work.

There are pockets of people that are completely ready to dive in, and that's what we're going to do.  My prayer is for there to be liturgy flowing 24/7/365 in God's Kingdom, not just on Sunday morning.

So, how is it with your liturgy?

Too many I's in ministry?

Once upon a time, on Facebook and Twitter I threw out this sacramental theology question to pastors:
Who does the baptizing (in your opinion)?  You?  Or the Spirit?
I received a few responses from my little poll:
  • "out ward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. we do the sign, the Spirit does the grace. right?"
  • "The answer is yes! A pastor, as a steward of the mysteries participates and brings the sign-act together, but God does the work."
  • "God is the actor (see Jesus' baptism 'by' John - any gospel version)
  • "Yes to above"
  • "The language is the BOW is 'I baptize you in the name ...' I would say it's both ... a participation in the mystery."

These answers from pastors are all from people that I know and respect, who have all pondered this very question as they've rolled along in ministry.  There were several other enlightened responses from some fun laypeople, but I'll leave those out of this post.

All this leads me to a subject I've been chewing on for a little while: we tend to use a lot of "I" language in ministry.

Have you ever heard somebody (lay or clergy) who works or volunteers at the church refer to a ministry as theirs?  It happens often.  We tend to get very possessive of our ministries.  I personally try to check the I's out of my language when dealing with church matters.  Using an "I" counts out the collaboration that comes as a part of being in ministry ... Collaboration with God, as well as collaboration with the church family (which is also God's).

The big I can creep out in any number of ways.  Just a few examples that I'm sure you've heard:
  • "I'm going off to work with my youth ..."
  • "Well, I gave my money, so I should get ..."
  • "This Sunday, I will be baptizing ..."
It's a fine line in ministry when taking ownership of things.  As a worship leader, I feel that my job is to be a shepherd to the Lord's Day worship.  It's not mine.  The choir is not mine.  The band is not mine.  They belong to Christ.  Although, 'self' often creeps into my heart and mind, I hope that over my lifetime I can say so long to 'self' and be more like Christ.

Does the big I in ministry drive you crazy?  Ever?

Post #GC2012 Musings

There's a lot to take away from GC2012, despite what people are saying.  For myself, this was the first UMC General Conference that I've ever paid any attention too.  And why is that?  Because I'm paying more attention to what's going on in the local church ... What happened at the GC is indicative of what happens in the local church.  Macro view to micro view.  How often has any of us had a bright idea to make changes only to have them shot down ... Not even with the opportunity to compromise.

Wait, this should probably be my concluding statement!  Anyway, here are a few things that I'm taking away.  I'm not full of knowledge just yet on the inner workings of our global denomination, but it will be my mission to get on that ball.  I'm more concerned than ever that the UMC turn the tide on our decline ... My boy needs to grow up in this church!

I said this in an earlier blog post, but the #UMC blew up twitter over the last 10 days.  It's been an epic-level event of building connections.  I've made genuine friends and found a lot of new voices to follow, both young and old.  I can't wait to keep reading and stay in touch with these folks.  It's been a real blessing, from the play-by-play to theological breakdowns of policy and worship, I feel like a journey together for many of us has just started.  Although, I will say, there were a great many folks who broke into the twitter conversation to spread hate.  Not cool.

"General Conference Young People".  Following this #tag was a real trip this week.  It wasn't just young people involved either, a great many people from across the spectrum used this tag to join in conversations.  I sure hope the UMC was listening.

Big Changes?
I refuse to be cynical about it, but pretty much nothing I cared about going into this GC passed through on the plenary floor, if it made it out of committee at all.  I'm not the only one that felt this way, either.  We were so caught up in Robert's Rules of Order, that ministry was hampered again and again.  The IOT/CTA plan?  Fail.  Plan B?  Fail.  Plan C, D, or E?  Fail.  And people keep saying that the word wasn't out enough ... Not true.  People just didn't do their homework, by and large.  At least that's how I felt, watching the proceedings.  We couldn't even agree that we disagree on matters of human sexuality.  Fail.

Term limits?  Yes, Please.
This was a topic of conversation throughout the GC.  There were many people at the GC for the 7th, 8th, and 9th times.  And people applauded it.  Many of the big items on the floor had been up for decades.  But nothing changes, time after time.  Is there any wonder why?  It's the same people every GC!  I realize I'm oversimplifying a bit ... But I would propose to limit terms on going to GC to three times.  That way, people get to go that know the process, but it encourages new voices to come in.  We do it on our church committees, why not for the GC?

Guaranteed appointments ...
Just as Plan UMC was shot down as unconstitutional, you watch this baby be shot down too.  I understand apprehension here, our Elders join in covenant with the ACs when they take their vows.  But ... what to do with ineffective clergy?  They get to keep their jobs!  Some feel it way stifle prophetic voices, keep pastors from making waves ... And it's a real concern.  The process for not giving an appointment to an elder needs to have many, many, checks and balances.  But as I'm in a conference with a ton of clergy, and not much room for new, younger voices, there needs to be a way to tell pastors that it's not working out.  Until you've been in a room with a pastor who says, "They can get me out, but that's ok with me, because I'll just get another church.", you may not understand how I feel about this.  But somebody probably does, because the legislation was put out there, and it passed to end guaranteed appointments.  My hope is that it encourages more pastors to go for it and get radical.

As debate went on on the floor, a real problem, and a blessing became apparent ... We're a global church!  Much of the business needed to be decided pertained to matters in the US.  It became very difficult to pass big policy due to the fact that there are many global perspectives that need to be accounted for.  All of the conferences not in the US are called "Central Conferences".  There's talk now of separation a bit from these Central Conferences, letting conferences in other countries legislate for themselves in order to compensate for cultural issues.  But how do we do that and remain a global denomination?  It's a little over my head at this point, but it's clear that something needs to give.

We're so dramatic
As things wore on, especially last night, there was much talk on twitter of the UMC being doomed.  Many comparisons to the Titanic abounded.  It was kind of offensive.  I wonder how many people (including clergy!) last night who said they had given up hope on the UMC actually left it today ... We are called to be people of hope.  I have a ton of it.

Also called #umcrising at this point, there's a movement to coordinate voices for change in the UMC leading to GC2016.  Some much hope is floating around out there, even after the frustration over the last 10 days.  Good things are coming for those who are faithful.  I can't wait to get started on the work, because you bet I want to be involved in what's coming.  How do I get myself on the worship team in 2016?  Because I'm so there.

Let's not forget, through, all of this ... The work of the church is mostly carried out in the church!  I'm fired up to lead, filled with the spirit of Pentecost, ready to get moving with the Holy Spirit.  It might have been a little dissapointing watching the proceedings the last few days, but I'm more ready than ever to answer my call to lead worship in my community.  With God's help, the global church will catch up with Christ's call to love one another.

#GC2012 Musings (Thus Far)

We are now four days into our 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church.  I'll admit, I've never paid this much attention before.  I think part of that is because in Summer of 2008, the last time General Conference occurred, I was entirely secure in the standing of the UMC.  It'd been around for a long time, and things were going great, right?  I was a seminary student at the time and had seen the data on the decline of mainline denominations in America, but I'm an optimist, and that problem was really too big for me to grab ahold of when I was worried about going to class and learning and practicing the craft of worship leadership.

A lot has changed since then. 

For starters, I've gotten married and had a kid.  That has changed my perspective significantly.  I'm more concerned than ever that the church I've grown up in be the church that my son lives in to.  My wife also works in youth ministry at the conference level in the UMC.  We love this church and feel it has so much potential to be God's love incarnate and transform the world.

Secondly, maybe the biggest news to me, is my calling to pastoral ministry.  I don't mean ordination as an elder of the UMC, but likely a deacon, mostly the realization that worship is intended to be one's whole life not just an hour on Sunday morning.

In that spirit, here are some observations on some of the big things happening at GC2012 

If you're a twitter fan, and a Methodist, you've probably seen a twitter explosion in the last few days, in the coolest way.  The UMC has really taken on social media and is using it as Methodists should, as a connectional system.  Making connections is the strength of our denomination, and the great uses of Twitter and Facebook, plus livestreaming of main conference events really makes people feel like they are there participicating.  My wife and I have been nerding out every night watching the plenary sessions and closing worship.  It's been cool.  I myself have already made some great new tweeps.  Really good stuff.  But it's clear one of the definiciencies of this conference is the lack of inclusion of young people (young adults on down to youth) ...

If you've been on Twitter at all following #GC2012, you've probably seen #GCYP bounced around as well.  The hashtag was created for "General Conference Young People".  It's been a great tool to spread relevant news to young Methodists as well as make connections between people.  My hope, though, is that somebody higher up than me and at the GC is checking this stuff out, collating the data and opinions, and thinking about what myself and my fellow young Methodists think about the proceedings.

Last night, composer, teacher, and worship leader Mark Miller took a stand against what he and others took to be bullying behavior in holy conferencing toward those in the LGBT community, of which he is a member.  He asked for a point of personal privilege, for which he was 'out of order' when he asked everyone to stand with him in opposition to bullying.  He then asked the presiding Bishop to pray in a very beautiful moment ... Thus began #standwithmark and #standingwithmark.  I stand with him.  And hopefully the rest of the UMC will too.  Christ calls us to love our neighbors.

Term limits?
One theme has popped up again and again in conversations around the GC this year ... The same people are always going to the GC.  There are people that have been delegates from their conferences for the last 8, 12, even 20 or more years.  Is there any wonder that we're voting down the same issues to progress the denomination again and again?  We complain there aren't enough young people included at the GC ... are they even aware they have a chance to go?  "Term limits" or limiting the number of times and individual to attend the GC is one solution tossed about.  I agree with it.

That's all for now!  I'm having fun nerding out and watching people work together at the GC and on the internet.  Are you?

Called to Discomfort

Two summers ago, my wife had the privilege to run a summer mission center in South Louisiana, to assist in Katrina relief (work that is still going on).  It was nearly a 24/7 job for three months, so in order to spend any time with her at all I served as her worship leader for that summer.  It was a fun way to volunteer and be in ministry with my wife.

She had a crew of four college interns that helped guide the youth groups that were coming from all over the country to serve and help rebuild peoples homes, people who, five years after Katrina, weren't really remembered on a national-news-scale anymore.  But not only did these college kids work all day, they helped lead worship in the evenings, through leading prayers and offering devotional testimony.  There's one story in particular that I heard every week from a young man who felt a Christ-like call to be 'uncomfortable'.

This kid spent as much time as possible as he could on mission.  As a matter of fact, when he received is one week off during the summer to do whatever he wanted, he went to Mexico for a week to build houses.  If he wasn't on the move serving others with his hands, he felt it was time wasted.  He was particularly affected by what he had seen in the country of Mexico, with how people were able to get by on literally nothing, and still be full of so much faith and hope.  He never knew what kind of conditions he would be invited to stay in either, but he felt that was part of the missional journey ... Being a follower of Christ has nothing to do with comfort, if anything it's about discomfort ... When Christ's earthly ministry started, he never stopped moving, except to heal, teach, and pray.  As my pastor says often, Christ was a true itinerant preacher.

I don't think that I'm off-base in saying that we like our churches to be comfortable.

We like comfy seats.  Beautifully appointed sanctuaries.  Classrooms with full-on sound systems.

We're also comfortable with specific kinds of music ... Music may be one of the things we obsess about the most in our corporate worship experiences.  And it can get pretty contentious.  It's energizing to see, even in a more traditional worship experience (maybe especially) when somebody throws up their hands in praise.  But then we learn a new hymn, and, well, the feedback isn't always great.  Regardless of how the message was menat to be heard that day.

I'm not saying that the Temples we make aren't beautiful, they are dedicated to the Glory of God and we the church need places to gather.  But what would the church, the Body of Christ, be like if we didn't seek comfort?  If we constantly sought new and beautiful ways to make the Word incarnate in the world today?  What if we lived as if the local church was called to discomfort?  What would we build together then?