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]

Joining God in the Renewal of All Things

This is a draft of the first page of the discipleship book I’m working on. I used to dislike the word “evangelical,” because it has picked up so much political baggage over the last several decades, but I have come to realize “evangelical” is exactly what I aspire to be: someone who delivers good news.

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I’m inviting you to join God in the renewal of all things.

Actually, I’m just delivering the invitation. God does the inviting. I think this is cool for several reasons:

  1. God wants you
  2. to join God
  3. in what God is already doing.

You may not believe in God, or in the Bible, or think of yourself as particularly religious. You may have a low opinion of churches and church people, or of people who call themselves “Christian” and talk about Jesus all the time. Or you may have a low opinion of yourself and your own value, and doubt that God would be interested in inviting you to do anything. That’s fine. The invitation still stands.

In one famous Bible story, a king (representing God) invites people who claim to be his friends (religious people) to a banquet, and they all refuse. Fed up with their hypocrisy, the king orders his servants to go invite people off the street until all the seats are filled. After they do so, there are still empty seats, and so the king orders his servants to just go grab random people and compel them to come in, until the banquet hall is filled with people “both good and bad.” Those random people represent the rest of us sinners, saints, and skeptics who never expected to receive an invitation! Some of us find ourselves sitting in the banquet hall hardly aware of how we ended up in this place. Maybe a friend even “compelled” you to come in! Apparently God is less concerned with the value judgments of people than we are. God wants you.

I suppose God could do this on God’s own, but that’s not the way God works. Some religious people like to describe God as all-powerful, sovereign, and in control, and I suppose those descriptions are true. But they are also often irrelevant, because God is first a lover and a creator. Lovers and creators (like parents and artists) know that both creation and loving involve giving up control. God made people in all their rich and wonderful diversity so they could participate with God in creating something wonderful. God wants us to join with each other and with God in God’s project of renewing and salvaging a broken world.

And God is already doing it. Everywhere he went, Jesus said that “the kingdom of the heavens is at hand.” Although many of his contemporaries believe that the kingdom meant something far off in the future, and although lots of people today believe that “heaven” is somewhere they go when they die, Jesus meant something different. “The kingdom of the heavens,” or the kingdom of God, represented the state of the world when people would finally live at peace with themselves, each other, and all creation; when oppression would end, everyone would have enough to live and thrive, and the world would be healed. Jesus believed in it so strongly he taught it as a prayer that summed up his teaching: “Our Father in heaven, let your name be hallowed. Let your will be done on earth as it is in the heavens.” Moreover, he taught that this kingdom was already breaking through into the world, like a growing plant pushing through the soil. Unlike many modern religious people, he did not see this kingdom as the destruction of the earth, but the renewal of it.

So, there’s the invitation: Join God in the renewal of all things. It’s already underway. Do you want a piece of this action?

Getting Off the Streets

Over the last two months, I’ve been working to help a man get off the streets. We’ll call him “Hakim.” He’s an African-American man in his 50’s who has a remarkable knack for striking up conversations with strangers. I’m a white preacher in my late 30’s who’s a bit of an introvert. We met at the YMCA through a mutual friend.

When you meet Hakim, it may be hard to understand why he is homeless. He works hard (and works out), he’s smart, funny, and friendly. He has a commercial driver’s license. He has no mental illness and no addictions. When we met, he had a job waiting for him as a commercial driver, provided he could meet certain criteria.

But he also has—or had—the nearly insurmountable obstacles that face many people who are financially poor: bad checks he had written 12 years ago; the money to buy his own uniform; a place to store his clothes and few belongings.

I’ve been meeting with him weekly for a meal and conversation. We talk about his goals, the next steps he wants to take to get off the street, and our relationship. I’ve been as honest as I can about my motivations for helping him, and we’ve talked about keeping healthy boundaries and the distorting effect money, race, power and privilege has on our relationship. We also talk about the church I’m trying to plant, my family, and our thoughts about the world.

Many years ago when the company he worked for went out of business, checks he had floated toward his last paycheck bounced. He found out last month he wouldn’t be able to transfer his CDL to an Alabama license until he paid off this ancient debt. The job he had secured would wait for him for one month.

We’ve scrambled the last month trying to get him some odd jobs. He did some work for me as well, helping out with some ministry tasks around town, setting up and taking down our worship space. We resolved that last week, we’d take care of the debt, transfer his license, and get him ready to start his job. That’s when the circus began.

Monday, May 13
8:00 AM – I call ahead to [small rural Alabama town]’s DA’s office, worthless check unit. The phone rings and rings and rings. I try several other numbers.

8:30 AM – I call the DA’s secretary, who nearly hangs up on me until I explain I’m a pastor trying to give her money. She says the woman I need to talk to is on vacation, and I’ll need to call back next week. I explain I already have all the information I need, I just want to know how we need to make out the check. She becomes much more receptive.

9:30 AM – Information in hand, I meet Hakim at the YMCA. We make a plan for the day. We think we can get this knocked out by noon.

10:00 AM – We go to the bank and get a cashier’s check for the necessary amount.

10:30 AM – We drive to [small rural Alabama town] to pay his debt. He keeps talking about paying the church back, but I remind him that we do not do loans. We pay debts—that’s what Jesus does. We do a short Bible study in the car. This is like the day of jubilee!

11:30 AM – We arrive in the office of the DA. We pay the debt. She takes it to the Sheriff’s office and explains that it will take some time to clear out of the database, but we should be good to go. “In case it doesn’t clear,” I say, “Is there a number we can call?” See, I’m smart, because I’ve dealt with bureaucracy before. “Also, can I get a receipt?” See how smart I am? Good thing I’m so smart. She photocopies the check and writes a number at the top.

11:45 AM – Just to see if we can, we go downstairs to the license office. The officer behind he desk asks for his old driver’s license, his social security card, his medical examiner’s card… and his birth certificate. “You don’t need my birth certificate,” he says. I think he’s trying a Jedi mind trick on her. “Yes we do,” she says. He looks at me in disbelief. “It’s not a problem,” I tell him. “We’ll just go to the health department and get you a birth certificate.” “That’s going to be more money,” he tells me. He already feels like I’ve given him too much. “We’ve come too far to let this stop us,” I say. Very inspirational.

12:00 PM – Every office shuts down for lunch. We go to a cafe. “That lady didn’t need my birth certificate,” he says. “She was just being a butt.” “No, I’m sure she wouldn’t ask for it if she didn’t need it,” I say. “They didn’t ask for a birth certificate in Jefferson County.” I chalk it up to paranoia. He’s been living on the streets, so naturally he’s suspicious of people. He also has a tendency to get into arguments with the police. He physically shakes in the presence of people in uniform.

We get the directions to the health department from the wonderful lady who serves us. She’s pregnant, and we can tell she thinks we’re an odd couple in this all-white cafe. Hakim cracks a few jokes about being out of his element, which is his way of dealing with discomfort. Before we eat, we invite her to pray with us, and I can tell people are watching us. We pray for our food, for our server, for her expected child, and for our mission.

1:00 PM – We visit the health department to get a copy of his birth certificate. There’s just one problem—he changed his name nearly 20 years ago, from something white and English-sounding to something more African and Arabic. We go around and around with the people at the health department until we decide we’ll need to get the court documentation for the name change. It’s in another county.

2:20 PM – After driving to [second small Alabama town], we stand in line to get the name change documentation. After paying for that, we go downstairs to the DMV to try for the license again.

3:00 PM – When we go into the DMV, the lady behind the desk asks to see his license, medical examiner’s form, social security card… and NEVER ASKS FOR THE BIRTH CERTIFICATE. Hakim does not say, “I told you so,” but I do not feel so smart anymore.

We spend the next hour on the phone calling back and forth with [first small Alabama town]’s sheriff’s office and another number where people who hold the power to “clear it out of the computer” are spending their time watching YouTube videos of cats and eating Chee-tos. Well, I do not have evidence for this last part. They may be hard at work. But they clearly don’t want to be talking to us, and they keep referring us back to the former number.

4:30 PM – The government offices close. We drive home and get some dinner on the way. I drop him off at the shelter at 5:30. We’ll try again tomorrow.

The following day, Hakim called me in the morning. He had called the DMV in Birmingham and his name was clear! We went to wait in line for three hours, and he came out with his temporary Alabama CDL. We celebrated by going to Captain D’s (his choice). Man, that deep fried fish is good.

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So far, we have spent nearly $1000 on Hakim: weekly lunch meetings, two uniforms and changes of clothes, shoes, supplies, the occasional motel room for when he had overstayed his shelter time, cell phone time, various costs associated with his debts, and so on. I’ve driven him over 200 miles.

I share this story for several reasons:

  1. I am so proud of our church for helping finance this guy’s efforts to get off the street.
  2. I want to warn anyone who ever says homeless people, or poor people in general, just “need to get a job.” If you say this in my hearing, I will not guarantee your physical safety.

Most middle-class and wealthy people just have no clue how forcefully the spiral of poverty can suck you down. It’s one thing to be a white college graduate starting out with $25 and a duffel bag. It’s another to have to claw your way out through injustice and a system rigged to keep you poor. While I believe Hakim could have eventually dug his way out, this relatively short experience of bureaucratic frustration made it even more clear to me that a skewed legal system, stress, depression, and discrimination are all part of the obstacles in the way of people becoming self-sufficient.

And I have not begun to address those who can’t quite reach self-sufficiency. Plenty of research has shown that we spend more on people in poverty if we neglect them. It would make much more sense to simply give people housing. In Hakim’s case, it doesn’t make sense to let a fine of a few hundred dollars prevent him from getting a job and becoming a productive member of society and paying taxes. It is remarkably inefficient to keep such a person in a shelter or a prison.

I also share this story because I have wanted, for a long time, to focus our mission efforts on helping a smaller number of people make one or two significant changes in their lives. Rather than open a kitchen to feed hundreds, what if we resolved, as a church, to take someone out to lunch and spend time with them? To treat them not like a problem to be solved, but a friend and helper with whom we could walk as they tried to define and meet their own goals? Who might have gifts or graces that could benefit us, too? I think churches need to ask, “What do homeless people or people trapped in poverty have that we need?”

As I said, I do understand the complex relational, economic, and development issues surrounding all mission work. I constantly reevaluate my own motivations. Am I trying to be Jesus and live out a savior complex? Am I carrying a white-man’s burden? Am I maintaining healthy boundaries? Do I understand that money, power, and privilege affect all of my relationships, but especially those with people more financially poor than myself?

I’ve decided that though I need to raise those questions and wrestle with them, I can’t wait until my motivations are pure and my methods foolproof before I act. Hakim may be Jesus in disguise, the man robbed by thieves on the road to Jericho. Or I may incarnate Jesus when I act out of compassion. Or maybe Jesus is incarnate not in either one of us individually, but in the moment when we both try to reach across the physical, economic, and spiritual barriers that the kingdom of death has erected to divide us.

I should also add that I’m no expert at this, and I’m not sharing this story to be self-congratulatory. People much wiser than me have been doing this kind of work for much longer, and much more effectively. I’m not a full-time social-worker. I’m a pastor trying to plant a church. But something about this situation was compelling enough that I knew I could not continue to pastor my congregation and say the things I say if I didn’t make the effort to help Hakim realize his goals of getting off the street and into what he says is his dream job.

Anyway, yesterday I picked up Hakim after his first day of work. He looked professional in his uniform and name badge. He was tired but happy. I know his work is not over yet. He has a long way to go, and, like other homeless people I know, he will take two steps forward and one or more back. But he is on the way to supporting himself and, he says, paying it forward. He has managed to do very well under a crushing burden. Now that it is being lifted, I look forward to seeing what he can do.

Values

Saint Junia UMC has a vision: We are becoming a diverse community of sinners, saints, and skeptics who join God in the renewal of all things.

We also have a mission, five ways to join God in the renewal of all things: Worship, devotion, compassion, justice, and witness.

Our next task will be to describe our core values. I think it’s great to see the ways some families are also identifying their core values and putting them in their homes.

When we locate a venue in Birmingham for our church, I’d like to see us do something similar. I’d enjoy seeing our core values rendered as art on the walls.

As I’ve said before, I believe in an inclusive gospel. This is not rooted in “political correctness.” It is rooted in the decisive action of God in Jesus Christ, the definitive move God made to step into our human flesh, confront the power of human sin with love instead of violence, and claim victory over death. It is an affirmation that God shows no partiality as both our judge and advocate. The best picture we have of God is Jesus, who in his ministry identified himself and the image of God with anyone in need.

I also value the world that God loves. Our actions should honor the created world, not abuse or exploit it. And I value the people that God loves. Every human being is someone’s baby. Someone invested time and energy in that person, and God invested the totality of God’s own self in them as well. When we treat them as obstacles, or nuisances, or parasites, we demean what God has done. Each one has potential that can only be tapped when they start living the abundant life available to them.

I value the Bible. I love this book. It is not just a map or a set of instructions. It is not free of contradictions, and words like “inerrant” or “infallible” reduce its poetry to a set of bullet points in somebody’s sales pitch. It is a living dialogue between God and humanity, and it invites us into the life of God. I want to read it the way some people read trashy romance novels or kids read comic books under the covers with a flashlight, to dog ear its pages, to run my fingers over the paper and put its poetry in my soul. I want read it until its images are burned into my eyes, so that everything I see I view through a theological lens. One composer said, “People have been taught to respect music, when they should have been taught to love it.” I feel the same way about the Bible.

I value shared meals. Meals have been used to exclude (Genesis 43:32, Galatians 2:11-12, and Chick-fil-A). At the center of the Christian story is a shared meal. That’s where some of the best church happens.

I value singing. In a world where music has become something you consume, and where people compete on American Idol and judges mock people’s voices, we have all been convinced that we cannot sing, I value a community that lets us find our voices. We all make music. We need to learn to hear it.

What do you value?

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.”

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.