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.”

Zealots, Essenes, Pharisees, and Sadducees

Simon the Zealot

In my last post I mentioned that there were at least four political groups of homeland Jews in Jesus’s day: Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, and Sadducees. I think modern Christians could learn a bit about their own politics from each of these groups. At the risk of oversimplifying, here is a thumbnail sketch of each group:

  • Zealots believed in the overthrow of the Roman Empire. They would not tolerate pagan idols and practices in their land. God would bring about the Kingdom with their help.
  • Essenes believed in withdrawing from the corrupt Temple system and the Empire. They would live holy lives in an alternative world until God brought about the Kingdom without their help.
  • Pharisees believed in radical personal holiness. They believed in internalizing their religious law, and that God would give punishment and reward in the afterlife.
  • Sadducees believed in the establishment. They made peace with Rome and focused on religious ritual. They believed divine punishment and reward happen in this life.

Rather than thinking of the world in terms of liberal and conservative, I like thinking about how Christians of various kinds fall into similar groupings. For example, Zealots are those social activists who are passionately committed to political action. Essenes react negatively to Zealots, warning them against putting their faith in politics.

There were also polarized parties in the early church. While we often love to talk about the unity of Acts 2, when believers were “all of one mind,” I think Luke’s depiction of the church is a bit more rosy than other evidence indicates. There were disagreements between Greek and Hebrew Jewish Christians. They fought over gender equality. They fought over food regulations. They fought over circumcision. They fought over how literally to understand resurrection. They fought over who was in charge. Of course, the most sanctimonious ones claimed they simply followed Christ.

They struggled to figure out how to deal with slavery, classism, and their relationship to a pagan government. Sound familiar? Of course, Paul’s words to the Corinthians give disputing groups some guidance on how to treat each other. Basically, if you can’t be loving, at least be civil! And while he acknowledges that some members may be jerks (what he called “body parts you do not display in public“), they may also play an essential function.

I believe our contemporary polarization is not some aberration from the ideal early church, but entirely consistent with the action of the Holy Spirit within a group of highly committed political and religious people. In any given conflict, there will be winners and losers, as there were from the debates before, and the terms of debate will shift, and we’ll be arguing about something else fifty years hence. But if we don’t look at the history of these disputes, and only focus on the rosy picture of church unity in Acts, we will never really ask, or learn, or care what God is doing, right now, in the midst of this debate. How has God acted before? Where would you have stood in the circumcision debate? In the food-sacrificed-to-idols debate? In the women-in-leadership debate? In the prohibition debate? In the civil rights debate? Are your religious and political attitudes closer to the Pharisees, the Essenes, the Zealots, or the Sadducees? We’re really good at finding prooftexts for our own beliefs in scripture. Can we also find examples of how to talk about those beliefs?

Jesus vs. the Drama Queens

We usually use the word “hypocrite” to mean someone who doesn’t practice what they preach, or someone who notices other people’s sins but do not notice their own. But after hearing yesterday’s lesson on Mark 7, I began to hear something different about the way Jesus uses the word “hypocrite.”

I wrote about this passage in my book God Shows No Partiality: “hypocrite” is a Greek word that meant stage-actor, and for the first Gospel writers it would have carried several negative connotations that they associated with Greek theater. Because both Christians and non-Christians use the word so much, it has lost it’s ability to connote these other meanings.

So I started thinking, what if we translated “hypocrite” as “drama queen?” Imagine Jesus saying to today’s Christians, “Woe to you fundamentalists, you drama queens!” The phrase “drama queen” connotes both acting and overacting. It can include manufactured outrage, religious posturing, or disapproval at people who break religious regulations. It connotes the shocking gender and sexual ambiguity that was present in first century theater (where men played women’s roles, and theater people were associated with lax morality) as well as the modern implication of some kind of personality disorder. Religious drama queens have a deep personal need for attention and approval, either from God or from their social group. They love stories in which they are an oppressed minority. For them, the world is always about to end. The president or the pope or Lady Gaga are the anti-Christ. For preachers who rail against homosexuality, the phrase “drama queen” points out that they may have their own gender and sexuality issues.

It’s too easy for Christian holy-rollers to shrug off being called hypocrites, and it’s too easy for non-Christians to slap the hypocrite label on religious people without thinking of how it applies to themselves. One common sermon illustration is the person who says they don’t go to church because it’s full of hypocrites. The pastor replies: “We’ve always got room for one more.” Both religious and non-religious people can be drama queens.

You can be a religious or a non-religious drama queen any time you build yourself up by showing others what a lifestyle diva you are: praying in the marketplace, as Jesus said, or publicly lamenting whatever it is trendy to lament, or manufacturing outrage over someone else’s misstep. Their are eco-drama queens, and second amendment drama queens, and vegetarian drama queens, and libertarian drama queens. In this way, hypocrisy is not only about saying one thing and doing another. It’s the whole practice of blowing tiny things, even irrelevant things, out of proportion.

The story from Mark goes like this: The disciples sit down to eat one day without washing their hands. (For contemporary Christians, this might be like sitting down to a meal without saying a blessing first). Some of the Pharisees notice, and they say to Jesus, “Don’t your students care about honoring God before they eat?” Jesus answers, “The Bible warns about you religious drama queens: ‘These people talk incessantly about me, but their hearts belong elsewhere. Their worship is meaningless, and they teach their own rules instead of mine.’ ”

The Pharisees were taking a few verses from the Bible about religious purity for priests (who were supposed to wash their hands and feet before serving in the Temple) and applying it to all people in all situations. Today, religious drama queens take all kinds of scriptures out of context, or make up new restrictions that they say follow logically from other scriptures, and teach them as God’s Will for All Humankind. Jesus says that such people are not really following God. They are drama queens.

As we begin forming Saint Junia, our new United Methodist Church in Birmingham, I think we need to establish early on a “no drama” rule. Not the theater arts, obviously, which are hugely important, but the bad drama of moralistic posturing and religious politics. The idea is to walk with God humbly, recognizing that it’s very easy for us to cross the line from authenticity to overacting without ever realizing it.

What Does “Authentic” Mean?

Our clergy continuing education group spent three years studying “Young Adults, Authentic Community, and the Future of the Church.” One of the things we were concerned about was how many people say they left a church because it did not feel “authentic.” You probably know the familiar refrain: “People have not stopped being spiritually hungry. They’ve simply stopped trying the institutional church.”

But as we wrestled with the topic, we kept coming back to the question: what does “authenticity” actually mean? Is it something you can measure?

Everyone participates in “social discourses,” meaning that you are trying to be a certain kind of person. How you dress, how you talk, what you consume, all of it communicates information to the people around you. Nobody gets to opt out of social discourses. “Normal” or “regular” are also social discourses. It’s why you don’t see more men wearing kilts or togas in Birmingham. When you do, you think, “Hey, what’s he trying to say?” But every man wearing shorts is also “saying” something. Part of authenticity is if you can “pull off” being a certain kind of person in a convincing way.

And what does it mean to be an “authentic” community? We shared experiences of visiting churches that were trying so hard to be authentic that it felt fake. And there’s nothing faker than fake authenticity. “Look! We have tattoos and cool glasses! We’re edgy!” I like the ways these guys point out the social discourses they are using:

In our travels and visits, we came to understand that healthy communities have what Luther Smith calls both intimacy and mission. Intimacy is the warm-fuzzy group feeling that we have being part of a community together. But by itself, warm-fuzzy group feeling is toxic. Communities that turn inward and worship their own sense of community will die. They must be focused outward and have a clear mission. Likewise mission without intimacy becomes brutal. The community guilts its members into service. Healthy community requires both intimacy and mission, which in turn creates a sense of identity. We can say, “This is who we are. This is our history, and this is our future together.”

My friend Bill had this insight: In such a community, I can have a sense of authenticity when I can say, “This is who I am in the midst of who we are.” I can clearly state the kind of person I am trying to be. I do not feel that I have to walk on eggshells around other people, that I’m going to somehow hurt the group with my own identity if I disagree with someone, or if I don’t live up to their—or my—own expectations. In fact, I relish being held accountable. In such a community with a clear mission, I can have my own mission as well, and other people are helping me achieve it.

So, for now, that’s my working definition of “authenticity.” I want Saint Junia United Methodist Church to be a place where people can find their mission in our mission, where they are free to say “This is who I am in the midst of who we are.”

What I Learned Last Sunday

A week ago Sunday (June 24) I got to visit Innerchange UMC in McCalla, Alabama. Several Trinity members visited Innerchange last year and told me that I should visit. (It is tough to visit other churches when you are a pastor, but I’m beginning to think it is essential. I’ve learned so much from just the last few Sundays of visiting around).

RIght off, I loved the signage. It was so easy to see where to go. Big, brightly-colored signs are right on the buildings pointing the way to different areas. Greeters welcomed us warmly. I was on crutches and someone held the door open for me. We were directed to the coffee bar and to a welcome table. Mike, the pastor, was sitting at the table and he welcomed us, too. He is the founding pastor of Innerchange, and I really appreciated his words to us newbie church planters. I also appreciated during the prayer time that he offered a special prayer for us. One lady sitting beside us put her arm around me as we prayed. It meant a lot to me.

I think the coolest thing was just the genuine sense of community there. I liked the informal, semi-round seating in the warehouse. Mike sat down to preach, and it felt more like shooting the breeze in someone’s living room than a sermon. People felt free to comment and talk back to him.

I also really appreciated the fact that the band clearly wrote a lot of their own music. The last song in particular was good (it had a good meter as well as rockin’ rhythm). Although I can’t quite recall it, if I heard it again I could sing along immediately.

Worshiping in the round in the gym at The *Story

I mentioned to my group on Sunday that for a long, long time I’ve wanted to design worship in the round or semi-round, like an ancient Greek theater or one of the coves along the Sea of Galilee. We found that in our contemporary service at Trinity, when people sit in a circle, they can hear each other sing. They tend to participate more. They can see other faces and it has a much more intimate feel. The main action of worship happens among us instead of in front of us. When we began an alternative worship service called The *Story at Fairview, we worshiped in the round and most people seemed to really dig it.

I didn’t get to visit another church’s worship service this past Sunday, but I hope to go somewhere else that will stretch me a bit.

Dear Songwriters: Please Learn This!

Okay, I’m going to make people mad with this post because I’m writing about music.

Songwriters, if you want a congregation to actually sing along with your cool new worship song, you need to know what this is. These few pages in the back of a traditional hymnal are called a metrical index:

from Church Hymnary, Canterbury Press, 2006

You see some little numbers in bold, and under those numbers are some tune names. Those little numbers show how many syllables comfortably fit the meter of a tune.

For example, in the above photo, John Bell has written some lyrics to fit his tune called “Lincoln.” The first line has five syllables, the second has five, the third has six, and the last has five: 5-5 6-5. The most natural way to fit lyrics to this tune is to write one phrase of 5-5 syllables and one of 6-5 syllables, like this:

Now that evening falls,
gently fades the light;
moon replaces sun and
day takes leave of night.

-John Bell

Judging from most of the contemporary worship music produced these days, I figure writing lyrics that fit a meter is either passé, or people just plain don’t know what a meter is.

Here is an example of lyrics that fit a meter:

The very first lines convey information about the rest of the song, and listeners can immediately predict the pattern of the verse: 9-4, 9-4. This makes it easy to sing along, clap, gyrate your booty, or whatever you do when you hear such stuff. Nearly every syllable has it’s own note in every phrase.

Here is an example of lyrics that are irregular or have no meter at all:

Now, as much as I like the song “Jeremy,” there is no way to sing along with it the first time you hear it. You cannot predict where the syllables are going to hit the notes, if they hit at all. Rhyme, which also helps people predict how to sing, is totally absent in this song. Again, I like this song, but it isn’t singable on a first (or second, or third) hearing. You wouldn’t actually use this song in worship, but it would be nearly impossible to do so for the simple fact that the lyrics are unpredictable.

U2, a band a lot of contemporary musicians try to emulate, also sing a lot of irregular lyrics. Now, if you listen to the words often enough and memorize them, you may be able to sing along with them, but if you try to get a group of diverse people who have never heard the lyrics before to sing along, you are pretty well guaranteed to fail.

I’ve heard artsy-fartsy songwriters criticize metrical tunes as being too “singsongy.” YES!!!!! Exactly! Singsongy predictability is what you need if you want a group of people to sing along. Using an irregular meter says to visitors, “You need to be a regular attender, an insider, to know and understand this music. Maybe you’ll be able to sing along after you’ve been coming for a few weeks.” No, thanks.

I’m going to go ahead and lay this out there—this is one of the reasons contemporary Christian music in white churches is so white. African-American musicians don’t seem to have this problem. In most African-American churches, the roles of the soloist and the choir are clearly spelled out, and anyone who wants to can sing along at least with the chorus. In addition to meter, there is a tradition of call and response:

Even funky lyrics that play with irregularity can be predictable. You can use rhymes and rhythm to create a predictable pattern, and then layer your soloist’s unpredictable lyrics over the top:

The ironic thing is that I’ve heard worship musicians say that the above songs are too much like performances. When I’ve said that worship music should be more like Ben Harper and Lenny Kravitz and less Bono, they make the same comments. Really? Who is easier to sing along with?

Even the most rhythmic and inspiring of white-people worship songs lend themselves not to groove, but to swaying gently with hands in the air partially because they have irregular meters. Check this one out by Chris Tomlin, and if you don’t already know it, try to predict how to sing it even when the lyrics are projected in front of you:

Here is how the meter goes:
First verse: 12-10-12-12-4
Chorus (first line): 55-13-6 (cheating because “Amazing” actually hits four notes)
Chorus (second line): 44-13-6
Second verse: 12-12-12-12-4

Not only are the lyrics complex, there are just too dang many syllables in each line. Again, I want to point out that I like the song just fine, I just think it’s lousy as a congregational song. It may have a place in worship as a special musical offering or a solo.

Here is a song that I really like. It has great lyrics, consistent imagery, and is just plain beautiful. But if you’ve never heard it before, try to figure out where to sing, even if lyrics were projected in front of you.

Again, I will say that I like this song. It is just not a good congregational song. This is where many music leaders object that if you hear it enough, you can sing with it, but that’s like saying an auditorium full of 20,000 Pearl Jam fans can sing along to Jeremy.

People often talk about the distinction between “worship” and “performance,” and they can get into all sorts of abstract arguments about it, most of them dealing with the subjective emotional experience of the individual. But when you worship you are dealing with a community, and the more relevant questions are things like, “What enables this body to act as one in praising its creator?” I think it’s primal stuff: bread, wine, water. Rhythm, call, response, melody, harmony. I wish more contemporary songwriters understood this.

One more thing with regard to meters: My pet peeve is the song “Hungry.” This song has a meter, but the syllables hit the notes in odd places.

I’m FALLing on my knees
Of-FERing all of me
Je-SUS you’re all my heart is longing for.

As a friend of mine from high school used to say, your emPHAsis is on the wrong sylLABle.

It drives me nuts that we have such a rich musical heritage in Birmingham churches, black and white, high church and low, mainline and independent, secular and sacred—and we keep singing stuff like this. It’s not that I don’t like songs by Chris Tomlin and David Crowder, it’s just that as a pastor and worship leader it’s my job to help a community work, pray, and sing together. It’s hard to do that with lyrics that are not easily singable.

I went to Innerchange UMC last Sunday (which I will talk about in my next post), and I loved the fact that they write a lot of their own music. The last song they sang was instantly singable and it had lyrics relevant to their own community. I would love to have such music in our new church.

How to Love

I’m not sure who came up with this illustration, but I really like the way it helps me understand what Christian individuals and communities are supposed to do.

Jesus says that two commandments are the greatest of all: Love God, and love your neighbor. You place those commandments at the top and bottom of a Y axis.

The X-axis is the part most people forget: We act not just as individuals, but as larger communities. This diagram helps us break out of our American tendency to think that every human activity boils down to the individual. So the left side of the axis is what we do as a church community (public), and the right side is what we do as individuals or smaller groups (private).

The way we act in love toward God as a community is worship. We gather together to pray, sing, read and interpret scripture, and offer our praise and attention to God. The way we act in love as individuals or small groups is devotion. We do some of the same activities like prayer and reading, but we also study, fast, and practice stewardship of our time and money.

Moving clockwise around the image, the next act of love is toward our neighbors individually. This area is sometimes labeled “charity” or “kindness,” and it includes all the ways we behave toward others, like practicing hospitality or helping people in poverty.

The way we love our neighbors as communities is the part that seems to generate the most controversy in churches today. The phrase “social justice” has become a political litmus test. Being human means being part of social groups and structures: families, work groups, organizations, genders, ethnic groups. A feral human being, cut off from others, is not a “natural” human being. As Christians we are part of an even larger organism called “the church” that transcends all of these social boundaries, and this corporate creature has an impact on society that can be good or evil. If we ignore how we behave toward others as a larger group, then we are likely perpetuating evil. Justice means restoring just relationships between all people and groups of people.

Usually when I’ve seen this illustration used it leaves off the part I’ve added in the middle: Witness. I put it in the middle not because it is most important, but because it overlaps all of the spiritual disciplines and connects public and private, God and neighbor. Witness means both seeing and saying what God is up to in the world. It includes what Christians usually call “evangelism,” which means telling the Good News, but also being a living witness in the world, what Jesus called letting “your light shine before others.”

The United Methodist Discipline describes the mission of every church as “making disciples for the transformation of the world,” but our new church will think about making disciples in this way. This is how we join God in the renewal of all things: publicly and privately, loving God and loving neighbor: worship, devotion, compassion, justice, and witness.