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.”

Church Update: July 1, 2012

On July 1, twenty-seven people gathered at our house for our first afternoon worship and planning meeting, followed by a potluck supper (because you can’t be a real church without potluck suppers!). The vision of this new church is to become a diverse community of sinners, saints, and skeptics who join God in the renewal of all things. “The renewal of all things” is a pretty big idea, so we try to break it down into five aspects of our life together: Worship, devotion, compassion, justice, and witness. Each of the five Sundays in July we will gather at 4:30 to talk about one of the five areas.

All of these flow from the two great commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. We love God as a community through worship. We love God individually through our devotion. We love our neighbors as a community by doing justice in Birmingham and in the world. We love our neighbors individually through ministries of compassion. Binding all of them together is our witness to what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ.
We also went about the business of doing business and delegating roles. Over the next few weeks Angela and I will be talking with folks about how they would like to grow spiritually through this new church, and what they can in turn offer to others.
We are so thankful to Trinity and Canterbury UMC for all their encouragement, financial support, willingness to serve, and prayer. God is already doing great things.