Why We Worship in the Afternoon

I had to struggle to close down evening services at the last two churches I served. Both were holdovers from a previous era, a time when people would go to church several times a week. These services had dwindled to a dozen or so older worshipers who faithfully sang the old hymns and turned out to hear a preacher, who was tired from two or three services earlier in the day, deliver a warmed-over homily. In winter, when earlier darkness prevented many of them from driving to church, attendance could be a mere handful. It was hard to end a ministry which had ceased to be productive long ago.

So it’s amusing to me, now that I’m planting a new church, that our primary worship service is in the afternoon! We meet at 4:30. Me, I’m a morning person. If I weren’t a minister of the gospel and could just choose a worship service to suit myself, I’d go to the earliest service I could find so that I’d have a long, uninterrupted stretch of time for the rest of the day—but I’m not the person we’re trying to reach!

The afternoon service works for us for a number of reasons.

1. We can reach a different population. A lot of the people we’re trying to reach sleep in on Sunday mornings. Folks who aren’t in the habit of getting up early to get to church—in other words, most of the population of the United States—often don’t exactly relish answering to their alarm clock on days they don’t have to be at work. Our musicians often have gigs on Saturday nights, so they definitely appreciate a later Sunday start time. Many people work on Sunday mornings, or work night shifts that make mornings tough. Afternoon services allow people to get the rest they need on the weekend.

2. It doesn’t feel “churchy.” Since our goal is to reach people who have been hurt or burned by church, meeting at a time other that Sunday morning helps the service feel less like a traditional (or “traditional-contemporary”) church. Meeting at a different time helps us dissociate our community from the negative experiences people may have had at other churches.

3. We give people time to travel. Young adults travel a lot on the weekends—attending weddings, visiting family, going to festivals or special events, or snatching short vacations because they can’t afford to take off work. I began noticing several years ago when I led a contemporary worship service at a different church that our attendance patterns were often the opposite of our traditional service. On Mother’s Day or near Christmas, our sanctuary would be mostly empty, because many of our young families went to worship with their parents. Meeting in the afternoon gives them the chance to get back in time for worship in our community.

4. We can reach the churched. Yes, you read that right. As a new church, an afternoon service allows people from other churches to attend. While we’re not interested in “sheep-stealing” or cannibalizing members from other churches, we’re always looking for referrals! Several supporters who belong to other churches have brought their unchurched friends to our worship services. They know our community can be a home for people who might never set foot inside a more churchy church, and they are committed enough to making disciples that they are happy to bring their friends to us!

5. We can do mission-oriented evangelism in the community on Sunday mornings. We’re able to do mission projects as well as just go out and meet other people who aren’t already in church. Again, this gives us access to a population most of our churches miss. Our members can invite their unchurched friends to serve lunch at a homeless shelter or do a yard project for a neighbor. For folks who have some antipathy toward church, seeing the church in action on Sunday morning helps shatter the tired old tropes about “sitting in the pews behind stained glass.” Being out in the community on Sunday morning helps turn the church inside-out in their eyes. Many innovative churches don’t even meet on Sundays at all. After Hours Denver meets on Monday nights. Other churches have their primary services on Saturday or even Thursday nights.

The primary downside to having afternoon services is that community events like music festivals and sporting events often happen on Sunday afternoons. Some people might not feel like we’re a “real” church because we don’t meet at the normal time. But as our culture becomes increasingly secular, Sunday mornings are no longer left alone by other organizations for church attendance anyway. For us, Sunday afternoons are a great way to reach a population of people most other churches don’t reach.

[This article originally appeared on Ministry Matters]

Growing in Discipleship: Witness

Jesus gave us the Great Commandment: Love God and love your neighbor.

John Wesley built his Three General Rules of Methodism on this Great Commandment. He expanded “love your neighbor” into two rules: do no harm, and do good. The third rule was “to attend upon the ordinances of God,” which basically means to do worshipy kinds of things: prayer, fasting, study, and so on.

In our culture, I think we need to elaborate the Great Commandment again, because we have a tendency to think in individualistic terms. A Christian does not exist in isolation. We are baptized not only into a faith, but a faith community. We hold each other accountable to grow in grace together. When Jesus says “You are the light of the world,” he uses the second person plural form of “you.” It should really be “Y’all are the light of the world.”

Covenant Discipleship groups have often talked about four ways we love God and neighbor, both as individuals and as a community: Worship, devotion, compassion, and justice.

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To these I like to add a fifth area: Witness.

“Witness” is a loaded word in Christian culture, though, because most people think of it as being primarily about evangelism. I like to point out that there are two meanings to the word “witness.” The first means to observe. The second means to tell.

This fifth area of discipleship is really about loving ourselves, or taking time to experience God’s love for ourselves. How has God been at work in your life before you were ever aware of it? How has God been working to save you and make you holier? How has God grown you in grace? What talents, gifts, passions, and experiences has God given you to shape you into the person you are?

If you can observe this kind of stuff for yourself, if you can know yourself better and how you fit into God’s project of salvage for the world, then you can also tell other people about it and invite them into the same mission. This is what many Christians understand as evangelism, but I think we often put the cart before the horse. Sharing good news emerges from our own experience of God’s grace, and witnessing that means learning to be aware of how God is already at work.

All of these areas overlap each other—worship blends into our daily life and how we serve others, our work of justice blends into how we conduct ourselves toward God. Witness touches everything we do, both as individuals and as a community. It shapes how we share hospitality with others and how we communicate the Good News.

This is our discipleship model at Saint Junia. It’s actually really simple: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Three Thoughts About Money and Church

Here’s three insights from around the web that I think are great for thinking about fundraising, church budgets, and other money-related stuff.

The first is Amanda Palmer’s TED talk on “The Art of Asking.” What I think is fascinating in her talk is that she puts her finger on what pastors have been saying in churches for ages: we have a need to give, that giving and receiving can be profoundly human and spiritual acts, and that asking should not be shameful. In fact, it is liberating to give.

I think the big disconnect is that people think of giving to individuals differently than they think of giving to organizations. It feels good to give to a person. It feels impersonal to give to an organization. But the reality is that those lines are blurry. Amanda Palmer is an institution, and churches are people who coordinate around a common mission. If church members feel like they are giving to an institution, it’s because somewhere, they lost the sense that they are a community sharing a mission.

The second is also a TED talk, and this was is from Dan Pallotta, called “The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong.”

I think his strongest points is that “low overhead” is not necessarily the best criteria for judging the effectiveness of a non-profit charity. I believe churches have fallen into this trap. There are plenty of critiques of the church spending too much money “on itself,” rather than helping the poor. It’s an easy visual to establish: Church members drive by hungry, homeless people to sit in air-conditioned sanctuaries in cushioned pews surrounded by stained glass. (“Stained glass” and “pews” have come to be shorthand for everything wrong with the church). I used to feel the same way, but I’ve served enough churches to know that the presence or absence of stained glass, air-conditioning, and pews are not indicators of the good a community is doing. Now that I’m on the “doing” side of my church-planting dream, I see the importance of investing money and time in doing something well in order to get more bang for your buck. While I don’t think our own community will be investing money in million-dollar lighting systems and holographic projection (although I’ve learned never to say “never”), I can’t simply claim that a church that does so is missing the mark because they could have spent that money on the poor.

There are also good responses to Dan’s talk here and here. The last one frames the debate among non-profit workers as the difference between “Growing the Pie” and “Giving the Pie Away.” I think it is good for churches to have the same conversation, and to recognize it as the same conversation, that happens in the non-religious non-profit sector.

The third article is “The Shocking Un-Truth About Church Budgets,” from Amy Butler, senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington. She makes the case that salaries and buildings are not “overhead” for doing real ministry. If the staff are effective, and our resources (including facilities) are effectively used, then just being the church is ministry. Calling these things “overhead,” as if they were somehow tangential to the real work of ministry, indicates that something is wrong either with our mission or the way we think about it.

Why the United Methodist Church Should Ban Contraception (No, Not Really)

So, yeah, the headline to this post is deliberately provocative, but I think it’s important for church leaders to recognize how changing marriage and birth rates affect the churches they lead. (There are, of course, Christians who do support this philosophy).

This is a follow-up to my last post on this subject, Why Are Fewer People in Church? It’s the Economy, Stupid. I said that the economy has affected how people create and maintain families, and that because churches have strategically focused on stable families, declines in participation are probably more related to the economy rather than to theology or mission (which preachers prefer to talk about). I drew evidence for my argument from Robert Wuthnow’s book After the Baby Boomers, which far too few church leaders have read. I want to share a one particular excerpt from it on why changing marriage patterns and birthrates have affected church participation.

Growth and decline are partly affected by how many children people want and have. Growth and decline are also influenced (perhaps even more) by the timing of those decisions. If a hundred couples gave birth to an average of 2.6 children and averaged age 30 when they had these children, in 60 years there would be 338 offspring. But if those hundred couples gave birth to an average of 2.6 children and averaged age 20 when they had them, there would be 439 children in 60 years, or almost 30 percent more.

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I’ve added another hypothetical average age of childbirth (15 years) not because I think it’s a good idea, but to illustrate the math. – D.

In addition, waiting until age 30 means more discontinuity of the kind that often weakens religious ties with religious traditions (geographic mobility, travel, higher education). To the extent that religious organizations perpetuate themselves by encouraging families to have children, then, the most significant influence may not be the number of children, but when they have children. (Wuthnow, 143)

Again, I want to assert that I do not think that the Great Commission (making disciples of all peoples) is primarily about breeding new Christians, nor do I think churches should actually be advocating for earlier heterosexual marriages or contraception bans. But I do think that part of the religious right’s idolatry of the family comes from a recognition and prioritization of these social realities. Churches that have built Jesus-theme-parks for families know which side of their bread is buttered.

As a culture,  we have idolized a particular vision of family even as we have made that vision less attainable. We have made it economically tough for young people to marry and have babies, even as the religious right has ratcheted up their condemnation of sex outside of heterosexual marriage. If we make it hard for people to form and maintain families, we also shouldn’t be surprised when churches that depend on families begin to decline. Again, I don’t think this is the way things should be. I just think it’s a pretty accurate description of the way things are.

I’ll restate some of the important questions that I believe churches should ask: How can we be church to people who choose not to or can’t have children? To single parents? To gay and lesbian parents? To grandparents? How can we help people whose life goals do not include “settling down,” but building a life of active ministry?

Why Are Fewer People in Church? It’s the Economy, Stupid

“Young Adults, Authenticity, and the Future of the Church.” This was the title of our proposal for three years of study when we applied for an ICE grant. In recent days, an article by Rachel Held Evans has created a flurry of replies about the same topic. Here are some of them, compiled by my friend Rachel Gonia:

My favorite (somewhat curmudgeonly) response is from Anthony Bradley: United Methodists Wearing A Millennial Evangelical Face. He says that really, the United Methodist Church addresses all of Rachel’s examples of millennial dissatisfaction. I, too, want to stand on the rooftops, wave my hands and say, “Hey, all you disillusioned evangelicals and spiritually-minded skeptics! We’ve got what you’re looking for right over here!”

Except that I believe all of the discussion about theology and mission is largely irrelevant to Protestant decline. It’s important stuff, certainly, and worthy of discussion. I’m just skeptical that it has much to do with the growth or decline of the church. Our churches have been beating ourselves up about our theology and mission and so on for thirty-some-odd years, and while there may be some insightful critiques in all the hand-wringing, I believe the decline of participation in both evangelical and mainline churches has more to do with two things: money and birthrates.

I know, we’d rather blame our theological and denominational bugaboos. We’re not missional enough, or evangelical enough, or socially-conscious enough, or orthodox enough, or envelope-pushing enough, or slick enough, or simple enough, or radical enough. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, when evangelical inde-bapti-costal churches were growing and mainliners were shrinking, conservatives gleefully blamed weak liberal theology (and the wrath of God) for our decline. Now that it’s hitting the conservatives, too, we (slightly more) liberal mainliners can blame their bad theology. Or whatever theology and practices we dislike. Some people like the idea of shrinkage, because it demonstrates how countercultural the gospel is—only those of us authentically Christian enough will really get it. Okay, sure, I like being in the moral minority, too.

Robert Wuthnow is one of few researchers pointing to sociological causes, and his book After the Baby Boomers completely changed the way I think about these issues. To wrap your head around the various causes of decline in church membership, remember this fact: The best predictor of church attendance is if someone a) is married and b) has children. I’m not saying that this should be the case. I’m not saying that married people with kids are the only people in church or the only people who count. I’m just describing empirically-verifiable data.

Instead of theological or worship or marketing issues, I believe a more likely explanation for the decline in attendance at mainline Protestant churches over the last several decades is simply that people tend to marry later (if at all) and have fewer babies. Although our mission is to make disciples, most denominations have grown not by converting unbelievers, but by breeding more Christians. Since the best predictor of church attendance is “settling down” and investing in a local community like your parents did, slowing marriage and reproduction rates means fewer generations in a given church. As evangelical churches began catching up with mainline Protestants in education and income patterns (which delay marriage), their growth slowed and reversed as well. Sure, Christians still make converts and baptize new believers—just not faster than they are dying off.

The trend has only been accelerating. Because of economic pressure on the middle class, marriage itself is becoming a less-attainable goal (compare and contrast with this article about urbanization and the family from 1969). When people have to work two full-time jobs to raise a family, they don’t have time to go to a worship service on the weekend. Speaking of jobs, Wuthnow pointed out that it is less likely that anyone will be employed by the same employer in the same place for more than a few years. With all that job-and-place-changing, people don’t settle down anywhere, nor do their children get habituated to church attendance. At a recent church-planter training, Jim Griffith pointed out to us that since people can’t afford to take two-week vacations anymore, they wind up taking multiple weekend trips during the year, decreasing the time they have to participate in church activities. All of these lifestyle and economic influences make it less likely that people will commit to a church.

At the same time, the number of churches per thousand people has been declining since the 60’s as well. At one time, Methodists were proud of the fact that there were more Methodist churches than post offices in the United States. All those little country churches became a drag on growth as urbanization increased, yet we stopped planting new churches in cities. And guess where young people are more likely to be? The cities. Not marrying. Not breeding. And the longer they are not in church, the less likely they are to return.

It’s not all about young people. Since a greater number older people can’t afford to retire, the pool of available retirees who provide valuable volunteer labor to churches is declining. We like to talk about the graying of our congregations, but the fact is they are increasingly absent, too.

Here’s a little comparison that illustrates what I’m talking about. Overlay these two graphs. The first is union participation and wage growth for the middle class:

This graph starts with 1967, the last year that the UMC posted a gain in church membership. Since then, we’ve mirrored all other Protestant denominations:

Of course, I’m not claiming that you can just look at two possibly correlated graphs and infer a cause. But I do think that they illustrate what Wuthnow claims about socioeconomic factors leading to fewer young adults in churches. We designed churches to be anchors in the community and shaped them around heterosexual couples who were married, had children, a stable income, and predictable life patterns. The church in the United States shaped itself around the middle class, and grew as it grew. We do not live in that world anymore.

Sure, any given individual’s story may not describe those socioeconomic pressures. I have no doubt that an 22-year-old who has left a church disillusioned might blame bad theology, religious exclusivism, or intolerance of LGBTQ persons for her leaving rather than her parents later marriage, smaller family size, and job transfers in the 80’s and 90’s. And again, I’m not suggesting theology and mission are not important. In fact, I think they are extremely important. But I am always skeptical of self-reporting, and I tend to look for material (rather than intellectual or spiritual) etiologies for church problems. I know this approach is not popular among the religious set, but I have to ask myself which is more likely: a) that an entire generational cohort is suddenly asking the critical questions I’ve always wished they would ask, or b) that growing income inequality, rising poverty, and a shrinking middle class over the last thirty years has changed the way people approach their careers and their relationships, and those factors, in turn, affect how their families (and their children) relate to church?

There are some questions, though, that do connect the socioeconomic problems with the theological ones: Why is church a place where we settle down instead of launch? Why have we idolized family, race, and class values instead of questioning them? And why aren’t we raising more of a ruckus about the economic injustice that is (directly or indirectly) decimating our churches? Why aren’t more of us pointing out that our civic religion and social structure seems to be based more on the pagan worship of the power and wealth of the 1% than the liberating God of Moses and Jesus? Maybe it’s time that we were driven out into the wilderness to learn about the kind of society God envisions.

From Daniel Erlander’s “Manna & Mercy”

The inevitable question people ask me when I talk about this stuff is, “What do we do, then?” I wish I had a better answer, because I automatically mistrust any pastor or pundit whose answer is “Think more like me.” Including me. Especially me.

I do not have an answer, but I have chosen a particular response: Make disciples and plant churches. Plant churches for people in transition. Plant churches for people who want to launch instead of settle down. Plant churches for families. Plant them for homeless runaways. Plant them in bars. Plant them in parks. Plant them in closed or dying churches. Plant them among the young. Plant them in retirement communities. Plant them on the internet. Plant them for liberals. Plant them for conservatives. Plant them among the disillusioned and the non-religious and the too-religious and the rich and the poor. Plant them for freaks and geeks and people who like church and people who don’t. Plant them and call them churches or plant them and call them something else. Just plant them, like a sower randomly casting seeds that bounce off of car hoods and passersby and fall between cracks in the sidewalk and land in vacant lots and on railroad tracks.

That’s my plan, anyway. I’ll tell you if it works.

Advice for Small Group Leaders: Using the Magic Question

I’ve absorbed my share of sermons and essays that lament how we greet each other. “When you ask someone ‘How are you?’, do you really want to know?”, they ask.

No. No, I don’t.

I figure it’s pretty obvious to anyone who can read social context that “How are you?” isn’t actually a question. It’s a greeting. Sometimes we shorten it to “Howdy!” Imagine saying “Howdy” to someone only to have them stop, scratch their head, ruminate for a few minutes and reply, “Well, I feel a bit melancholy today, but I think it is because I didn’t get enough protein in my breakfast.” I wouldn’t want to lengthen the conversation.

For the ancient Romans, “Salve!” (sal-way) was the preferred greeting. It means “Health to you!” It’s also where we get the word “salvation.” We’ve simply turned a wish for health and well-being into a call-and-response rhetorical question.

Jesus gave his followers guidelines for how to show love for others in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:47 says, “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” He uses greeting people who are not your brothers and sisters as an example of impartial love for all people. Greeting others demonstrates a loving attitude toward all people. It creates a culture of hospitality He did not say you needed to stop and have a therapy session.

Having said all that, there are times, especially in small group meetings, when I do want to encourage people to share. John Wesley’s “How is it with your soul?” is a bit abrupt in its intimacy. I’ve found that if I replace “How are you?” with the following question, people begin opening up to talk about their lives:

“How has your week been?”

Rather than saying “Fine,” or “Okay,” people tend to talk about specific events, feelings, and activities. Once we are having that conversation, I find it much easier to ask people where they see God active in their lives. We might even get around to addressing John Wesley’s “How is it with your soul?” question. It also creates opportunities to pray for specific things that people might not mention if the leader only asks for “prayer requests.”

I also like the freedom the question “How has your week been” gives to others. You are still free to answer “Fine,” if you don’t really want to go into detail.

I stumbled on this question about ten years ago when I was putting together a worship team that would pray before practice each week. I wanted our prayer time to be something more than the usual perfunctory words about the weather and playing well. I wanted the group to bond as a team, and to honestly pray for each other and to know what was going on with their team mates. I started beginning each practice with this question, and we’d spend the first thirty minutes of band practice praying for each other.

I noticed that after about six weeks, they started asking “How has your week been?” in other contexts. They started asking it of me. They started asking it of people during worship. That simple change of phrase did far more to change the culture of our congregation than a dozen sermons asking “Do you really care about the answer when you greet someone?”

Psychologist John Gottman talks about the importance of a married couple having their “magic ten minutes a day.” This is the time they spend reconnecting at the end of the day in a stress-reducing conversation, which can begin with a simple “How was your day?” I’ve started calling “How has your week been?” the magic question for small groups. Creating intimacy by hearing each other and praying with each other is part of building a successful small group.

It’s amazing how a fairly simple change of wording can shift the way we interact with each other.

Practicing the Discipline of Non-Prophecy

I can, and have, critiqued the American Dream from within the framework of the Gospel: we are too soft. We are too prosperous while too many are too poor. Our pews are too cushy, our music too out-of-touch, our priorities too scrambled. The modern institution “church” looks nothing like the simple and radical early followers of the house-builder from Galilee. Yadda-yadda-yadda.

But I’m increasingly impatient with this kind of criticism of “the institutional church” or “Christian culture.” Both of these phrases are really empty signifiers waiting to be filled with whatever negative generalizations we come up with. It’s about as difficult, insightful, and radical as bitching about reality TV. (I confess that I do this, too.)

As we’re beginning Saint Junia UMC, and as I read more and more books and authors talking about how the old way of doing things is broken, I am beginning to believe this kind of talk is a symptom of a deeper problem. We are naive, and I believe naiveté is not necessarily benign. It can be sinful.

We often believe that the early church must have been great, because the author of Acts says it was (although you can read Paul’s letters for a reality check). We seem to believe it is possible to love human beings but hate human institutions, human groups, and human ways of organizing labor. We talk about “relationships” in a warm and fuzzy way as if they existed outside the context of schedules, money, power, or leadership. I believe that by thinking in these ways we assert a particularly earnest and Christian naiveté that actually allows systems of abuse, indifference, and exploitation to flourish and reproduce.

Politically, it looks like this: Those of us with money, political power, and the freedom to pursue lives of meaningful work love talking about simplicity and criticizing the “American Dream” because it is yet another function of privilege to voluntarily choose a lifestyle rather than be forced into it.

Theologically, it looks like this: We talk about the importance of churches “getting out the pews” without actually noting that people’s butts occupy them for less than an hour each week. We diminish the importance of worship. We elevate the importance of “low overhead.” We make broad, generalized, negative assertions about church members’ volunteerism, beliefs, and generosity with absolutely no data. We repeat the claims of the harshest critics of “the institutional church” without ever asking “Which church? Who does this? Based on what evidence?” We uncritically make the connection between any given church crisis and a thought problem (theological, institutional, or otherwise) rather than demographic, social, or economic changes. “In order to reach a new generation for Christ,” we say, “we need to be more X,” where X can be missional, evangelical, biblical, liberal, conservative, organic, whatever.

Again, while I am no traditionalist, and I do not want to be an apologist for the North American Institutional Church, I am increasingly skeptical that the movers and shakers who write books about where the church needs to go in the next century have any freaking clue. Most of the stuff out there written by would-be-reformers isn’t based on good data. It isn’t even based on good Bible study. It’s based on people’s strong opinions.

I am trying to practice the discipline of non-prophecy. It is surprisingly difficult to hold my tongue about the grand evils of society or the church and look at specific problems and specific solutions, to name the sin not just of “bureaucracy” but of a particular situation with a particular remedy. I think we pastors have been trained away from such thinking because we have been taught it is not only acceptable, but “prophetic” to make broad, data-free assertions about things we don’t like. I also recognize, on reflection, that this, too, is a data-free rant.

I repent, and I will try to do better.

Unsolicited Advice to an Atheist Church: Mission

This may sound condescending, and the only thing I can do is insist that I do not mean it that way: I find it very heartening that some atheists have decided to start a church. Along with stories about humanist chaplains, I think this is a sign that popular atheism is “growing up.”

Again, I don’t mean that in a condescending way. Well, I do, in one sense. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and others have been known more for what they rail against than what they are for. When someone insists that religion embodies everything that is wrong with the world, and that we would all be better off if only our thinking were more rational and in better order, I can’t help but think them a bit naive. In Christian thought, sin is pervasive, and infects everything we do—including our reasoning. This is why a raving religious fundamentalist and a non-believer who insists he is “spiritual but not religious” can express the same contempt for others in the same religious terms: “everyone who disagrees with me is a damned fool.”

But I believe that most reformations begin by rejecting something and then having to deal with the “what now?” When Protestants rejected papal authority they had to deal with the “what now?” of how they would organize and who would be in charge. It is not enough to be isolated individuals who share proper thinking. We must organize and effect change. That is what I mean by “growing up.”

Christian churches have operated with a theology that they enflesh or “incarnate” the Spirit of Christ, that they continue a ministry which he started himself. In secular language, it’s about how you live out what you believe and connect it to a larger, ongoing project. And it’s not just “walking the walk” on your own, because it doesn’t become real until it’s done in community, with a common purpose, with real human beings who sometimes get on your nerves or challenge you. If atheism is only about getting religion off our backs so we can enjoy life, then it is a juvenile atheism. When it becomes about how we can practice transforming society into something more humane and increasing our collective quality of life, all the while struggling with our own tendency toward evil, then it is growing up.

In terms of the condescending sense of “growing up,” I’ll also point out that it is far too easy to find examples of Christians who are immature, who are known more for what they are against than what they are for, who do not connect the tenets of what they supposedly believe with their way of life. So easy, in fact, that reciting all of the ways Christians fail to be Christian is tiresome, and I find that I tune out and start thinking about more productive ways to spend my time. I’ll also point out that anyone who thinks they are mature and that they have it all together is probably the most “lost” of us all. (Not coincidentally, this was Jesus’ chief complaint against the religious leaders of his day).

One part of growing up is having a sense of mission, and this is what really excites me about the concept of the atheist church in the article: Just because you believe in an accidental, purposeless universe does not mean human life—and your life—are without purpose. This seems to be a hard concept for many Christians to grasp about atheism. The mission (the author calls it a “mantra”) of the church in the linked article above is “live better, help often, wonder more.” Having a good mission statement is key to getting people on board with collective action of any kind. If you want to challenge the naysayers, have a clear yardstick for group decision-making, and motivate your people, you need a mission statement.

It’s also a reason you need a good theology—or “atheology”—of your mission. Why is what you do important to other people? Can’t they achieve that mission by watching a bunch of TED talks? Is there some reason people need to be “in the flesh” with other human beings in a group? For Christian churches, it is good to ask: Why do people in your community need Jesus? Why do they need church? Why do they need your church? If you really want to take it to the next level, ask these questions of your people.

While I am writing about mission with an air of authority, I do so tongue-in-cheek, with some sense of trepidation and humility. Though I do have quite a bit of experience in different churches, I’m in the process of planting a new church, and we’ll see very shortly if I’m able to live out what I write. The atheist church in the article started with 300 people. I hope we do so well!

I enjoy thinking about what it would take to plant an atheist church, because it helps me critically reflect on how I am planting this church, and what difference a theology of the presence of God and the power of the Holy Spirit has on what I do. There are days that I have trouble believing in God, and what sustains me is the belief that I’ve been called to do this thing, regardless of how I feel in the moment, and not by my own power. Somehow, even in the midst of my doubt, God shows up. Again and again I witness the miracle of the mustard seed: a tiny bit of faith, planted and watered, which spreads like an invasive weed. (In atheistic language, it is a benevolent, infectious meme.) I hope to see the birds of the air come nest in its branches.

Sinners, Saints, and Skeptics

The vision of Saint Junia UMC is to become a diverse community of sinners, saints, and skeptics who join God in the renewal of all things. Here are some reflections on the middle part of that statement.

Sinners

Few of us live up to our own ideals and expectations, much less the expectations of an all-powerful, all-good Supreme Being. It’s no wonder that so many people feel negatively about religion when their primary experience of it is disapproval. It’s also no wonder that so many of us claim that identity and wink about being bad boys and girls.

But Jesus reveals a different way of thinking about God. Jesus spent much more time with sinners than with religious leaders, and he was quick to remind religious experts that they were merely sinners, like everyone else. The fastest way to get on Jesus’ wrong side was to pretend to be something other than a sinner.

Saints

It has often been said that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. We are made into saints, holy people, not because of good things we’ve done, but because of what God has done for us in Jesus. Jesus invites us to participate in God’s activity—this is what makes us “saints.”

John Wesley enjoyed talking about how God was at work “perfecting” us in love. Being a saint doesn’t mean being perfect—it means being aware that God is at work in us, making us into something new, “perfecting” us the way a master craftsman would create a beautiful work of art from imperfect material.

Skeptics

Some people have a hard time with the virgin birth, or with miracles and resurrection, or with the idea of life in eternity. Some people have questions about stories in the Bible, or about their own spiritual experience. Doubt is not a sin. What would be a mistake is to be skeptical without having the guts to try it out—to put Jesus’s own words to the test and see what happens when we pray, or give, or live the kind of God-inspired life he invites us to live, putting our trust in grace instead of violence, love instead of contempt, forgiveness instead of revenge.

Jesus’s invitation to us is to join God in what God is already doing: renewing all things. Whether we are sinners, saints, skeptics, or all three, the invitation stands: “Follow me.”

Is This Message For You?

I couldn’t stay another minute at Catalyst. There are great speakers, of course, and some good, original music. In some ways it feels like the best (and worst) contemporary evangelical Christian culture has to offer, a giant pep rally and motivational time for church leaders. But after just a short while I felt God calling me elsewhere.

Part of it was that I could lip-sync to the event. I’ve heard the speakers before, and I’ve recently had training up to my eyeballs. I was very conscious of time slipping through my fingers.

But the other part was being made very aware that what they were selling isn’t for me. While I would very much like to buy into the idea that we’re all Christians and all on the same team, it’s difficult to do so when people’s language continually reinforces the idea that they are the team captains and you are the last picked.

Maybe that’s just my childhood insecurity coming out.

Anyway, Andy Stanley talked about leading as parents, and I enjoyed what he had to say about following our fear, and allowing our vulnerability and hurts to shape us for leadership in ministry. In one story, he even gave a shout out to St. Mark UMC in Atlanta, and I appreciated his recognition of the unconditional inclusiveness of St. Mark and his honesty about the problematic relationship conservative evangelicals have not just to homosexuality, but sexuality in general. It still had a “love the sinner, hate the sin” vibe, but you know, whatever. At least he’s helping conservative evangelicals wake up to their own issues.

During one part of his closing prayer, I actually held my breath. The line was something like, “God, strengthen these people who you are calling to ministry. Lord, I know there are some women here who are afraid…” This is where I nearly gasped. Was he about to say something really powerful and controversial about women in ministry? “…of what God is calling…” Oh my goodness. He’s about to do it! “…their husbands to do…”

I don’t know why I let myself expect otherwise. I guess I just got caught up in his message. He is an excellent speaker.

He was followed by a band who had a retro folk-rock, Mumford & Sons vibe going on. This is the kind of thing I *should* love, because I’m always asking “Why can’t contemporary Christian music sound like this? Or this? Or this?” But in their enthusiastic, foot-stomping lyrics I couldn’t get past one line. As they implored God to set the church on fire, and send us out to do good work, and so on, they also sang “win this nation back.”

Now, this could mean all kinds of things. Bringing a nation back to God is certainly a prophetic theme of the Hebrew Bible. It also happens to be code among the religious right for defeating Obama, repealing Roe v. Wade and putting non-straight persons back in the closet. And instantly I went from thinking, “I’d like this kind of music in my church” to thinking, “I could never have this music in my church.”

Now, it’s entirely possible that they didn’t mean anything by it. But the nature of privilege is that you don’t hear how you sound to other people. It’s also possible that I’m hyper-sensitive to coded messages.

On the break, I wandered around the exhibits and looked at the materials promoting awareness of human trafficking. While I am very glad that there are stronger voices within conservative evangelical culture calling on Christians to be involved in doing justice, I couldn’t help feeling a bit cynical after what I’d just experienced. Church leaders know that many folks are hostile to the church because of a perception that it has been hypocritical and unconcerned with justice. We want to counter this perception, but we are too politically polarized to do anything about climate change, or women’s rights / abortion, or predatory lending, or drone attacks in Pakistan, or gay rights, or militarism, so we need a “safe” cause we can all agree on. Nobody is FOR human trafficking. Like Joseph Kony’s practice of using child soldiers, it’s something we can all agree is bad.

Before anyone begins angrily composing a reply about me being dismissive of human trafficking, please hear me: I am glad we can agree. I am intensely practical about such things, and I don’t particularly care why someone is motivated to do justice. Nobody has to meet an ideological litmus test before they can do good, or be passionate about a certain social issue before it is cool to be so.

But this is yet another way that the experience felt like God telling me, “This message isn’t for you.”

I am aware that there are cool hunters who serve conservative evangelical culture trying to keep their fingers on the pulse of what’s hip. They want to be able to reach more people, and so I do not resent their appropriation of what’s cool (like DIY trends). As I said, I’m intensely practical about such things. But for me and, I suspect, the people I’m trying to reach, you can’t just take the same message and wrap it in skinny jeans and hipster glasses and expect it to work. It will come off as fake, even if you self-deprecatingly talk about how uncool you are.

Now, for some people, it isn’t fakeThis is because we’re dealing with social discourses, those ways of talking, dressing, and presenting yourself that mark you as belonging to a certain group of people. We all “pull off” being a certain kind of person. If we succeed, we are “authentic,” and if we do not succeed, we are “fake.” But Christians often seem to have this idea that they can opt out of such discourses. They profess that they follow their faith, that they are neither conservative nor liberal, that their God transcends mere politics, or bandwagons, or economic ideologies, or brand loyalties. It’s charming, in a way, like Holden Caufield complaining about “the phonies” in The Catcher in the Rye,  even while he can’t keep himself from lying.

But it made me aware of the contextual nature of the gospel. I do not think God’s “Good News” is necessarily the same news for all people. It isn’t, as many evangelists argue, a timeless truth that you wrap in a different package to reach a new generation. It’s a living truth that gets embodied, incarnated in a group of people with a particular mission. So their message wasn’t for me.

And if this blog post bothers you, or is incomprehensible, then maybe this message isn’t for you. Those with ears to hear, let them hear.