Monday, October 20, 2014

Do We Need More Mission Congregations?

What I am about to ask is about as controversial a question as one can ask in the Church. But because I’ve rarely heard it asked, I’ll ask: Do we need more mission congregations? For those who aren’t familiar with all this language, a mission congregation is a new church plant, an upstart. They are organized to serve gatherings of underserved Christians, or to try to make new Christians in secular areas. Church denominations frequently have goals of planting new congregations in new housing developments or suburbs where a church with their “brand” is not yet present.
     Without a doubt, many areas do need church plants, so it would be quite silly to suggest that there is not an absolute need for more church plants. As the population naturally increases, some areas will have enough Christians to merit a congregation of one brand or another. But how many do we need and what church plants are legitimate, if I may be so bold to ask?
     With a few exceptions, mission congregations that aren’t absolutely necessary, can easily do two things that are harmful to the body at large: they market themselves to a particular demographic, creating a competitive atmosphere in the Church; and they create overhead for new congregations, a burden when so many small congregations are struggling to survive and could benefit from partnership. Unless a congregation is one of the exceptions, mission pastors should strongly consider whether they need to be involved in a church plant.
     What are the exceptions? First, if there is an area that does not have a Christian presence, clearly a congregation is needed. Much more discernment would be needed to decide if a particular brand (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc. and various versions therein) is needed, or if a partnership between congregations can be worked out. Second, if an ethnic group that does not speak English (assuming an American context), it will likely need to be served by a pastor of its heritage for a generation or so. Third, if your brand has very particular theological issues at stake, and no congregation in a good distance (say, a 25 miles radius) shares them, a mission congregation may be needed. If there is no confessional or sacramental congregation in 50 miles, a mission congregation may be needed for sure.
     The problems with too many mission congregations are rarely said –who wants to be opposed to mission! – but they should be. Notably, too many mission congregations inevitably create a competitive atmosphere, because they are rarely planted out of pent-up demand. Graduates from seminary want to lead a congregation, so one is organized. This can lead to a less-than-catholic view of worship and fellowship: people are marketed to by demographics and felt needs. All of a sudden, mission congregations are appealing to the very people established congregations are losing. But instead of restoring people to catholic worship and teaching, they are recruiting them to something new that may be perilous to their spiritual health, i.e. Purpose-Driven, seeker-sensitive versions of Christianity.
     All of this marketed, demographic research and certainty that “we can reach who others can’t” is happening while churches are hallowing out. Leaders and people that could be engaged in already-established congregations, helping them grow or resurrect, are beginning from scratch somewhere else. And when they do, they take on overhead that the other church already has covered: a building, property insurance, utilities, hymnals, and so on. Instead of the Church coming together, it is breaking apart and competing with itself…all in the name of mission.
     What fuels all of this? The easy answer is typical American methodology: bigger is better and numbers are king. We want to say we have planted so many congregations. I think we also look at the megachurch superstars - Steven Furtick, Mark Driscoll, et. al. - and we believe we can be the next guy to start a church as a Bible study and grow it to a powerhouse.
     But what if the Church at large is contracting in the West? What if, no matter how many mission congregations we plant, the Lord is shrinking his Church, turning it into a mustard seed? Why should we resist it? What makes us think we’re so special that we must grow? Or more to the point, is God’s Kingdom always growing? That seems to be the assumption in all of this, but I know of no reason that it is necessarily true.
     I guess to put some meat on the bones, if I were a bishop and a young man contacted me about starting a mission congregation, I would have to really think about it. Unless it were an ethnic situation or a totally barren community regarding the Church, my answer would probably be, “No.”
     A final proposal: among like-minded (generally like-minded, but not always exactly like-minded) church bodies, it seems that congregations should share as much as they can, but create ordinariates within one congregation. For example, Rome has done this with its Personal Ordinariates, where Anglicans retain Anglican liturgy and practice, but in some cases, have reunited with the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps a variety of ordinariates can be one congregation for elements of worship, Bible study and outreach, but separate for sacramental purposes. This isn’t a perfect solution, but at least it shares the burden of overhead, saving resources. It also encourages cooperation in the Church instead of competition.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

On Thomas’ Theology of Usefulness

When my former church body issued a new hymnal (or “worship resource” as such things are now called), it contained an iconic image of people in the act of worship. This was not meant to be a literal depiction, but something intended to depict people in worship. Basically, it was stick figures of people with their arms held up, because people holding their arms up has become the ubiquitous image for worshiping God. Anyway, all of that was fine. But then I noticed that one of these iconic images was a person in a wheelchair. 

Now, I’m not against people in wheelchairs. Indeed, some of my best friends are in wheelchairs, as the saying goes. But it struck me as an especially politically correct attempt to prove that this hymnal would espouse diversity. No potential worshipper would be left out of the imagery. There would be no possibility of exclusion or insult. It made me wonder if the disabled community asked for such an inclusion or if they even cared? It certainly didn’t bother me; it just made me chuckle because it seemed such a naked attempt to be politically correct. 

I say that to let you know a little about me. I like to think that I value people enough that I don’t believe iconic artwork should go out of its way to represent every possible human group, disabled or not. My lack of sensitivity on this issue - if you want to see it that way - should give me some credence for what I’m about to say regarding a blue train and his friends, Thomas the Tank Engine. You see, because I’m not all that worried about hurting the feelings of one group after another (because I know that I do indeed love them through Christ), I can speak honestly about more serious offenses, or deeper rooted problems in our understanding of relating to the disabled. 

As the father of a three and a five-year-old, I have watched my fair share of Thomas and Friends. It seemed harmless enough - and I guess it still is, in spite of this blog - and seeing that an Anglican priest wrote the books this is based on made me feel good about it. But a clear theology/philosophy creeped into the program through the years, and this became an outright assault on the senses as time went on. The show became obsessed with usefulness. A good engine was useful. A bad engine was wasteful, lazy, or didn’t share. Virtue, it seems, is totally wrapped up in one’s ability to be useful, for when Thomas was scolded for not being useful, he felt very bad about himself. Likewise, he was proud when he accomplished all that Sir Topham Hatt wanted for him to do. (A quick Google search revealed that several others have pointed this out. Here’s a nice piece.)

Is this what we want to teach our children? That usefulness is the highest ideal? I suppose at best this encourages children to be hard-working and/or helpful to adults, responsible even. In the worst light, it smacks of utilitarianism, eventually communism. The usefulness of a person to others is what gives them value in the eyes of society and when a person is not useful they should basically be ashamed. This, if actually believed and implemented, would naturally lead to the acceptance that “useless” or “inconvenient” newborns or fetuses could be destroyed. Certainly, this would put the physically or mentally disabled in the crosshairs as well. And don’t forget about the elderly who can’t pull their weight. They aren’t useful at all! Shame on them! 

I may be making a mountain of a molehill, and I know that every children’s program has one kind of emphasis at the expense of others. And even though a priest may have begun this program, it is now marketed to people of all stripes, certainly non-Christians who do not share a Christian worldview. And I don’t know if children actually pick up and internalize this sentiment. I still am hoping my children volunteer to be more useful around the house as they grow. 

Still, it’s not as though one episode was about the value of usefulness. The entire program is obsessed with it. And given the liberal lean of most in the media, I have to wonder after a while why this virtue is singled out above all others. Surely a “Christian” program, or at least one inspired by the writings of an Anglican priest, could point out the realities of suffering and the intrinsic worth of all trains, even those who cannot always be useful. As for me and my household, we’ll be mixing in some other programming to stave off my children’s inevitable march towards Marxism. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

How Sister Act Skewed Real Urban Congregational Renewal

If you’ve never seen Sister Act, you probably should. It’s funny and charming and relatively innocent. If you haven’t, here’s a three sentence summary: a lounge singer enters a convent while in the witness protection program, only to bring new life into a moribund, lifeless and hopeless religious community. Her zany antics revive the church and the neighborhood. What would they have ever done without that crazy lady hiding from the mob?! 

The film pokes fun at the stodgy order or nuns, but it is never particularly hostile to them. It’s not the fault of the nuns that their congregation is dull and dying. After all, they’re nuns! What could they possibly know about vitality in church life? Everyone knows nuns aren’t good for much but praying and slapping the wrists of delicate schoolboys. But for not being hostile and for only portraying the nuns as out-of-touch and not outright evil (or possessed by demons), this Hollywood film deserves credit.

As a pastor of a small, urban congregation, however, I often think about the subtle judgment this film offers on traditional ministry in the city. While I wouldn’t expect a Hollywood comedy to offer sincere insight on the struggles of inner city religious work, I do find the film to be typically American in all the worst ways. The underlying message is that you can’t expect old traditions to have value in the modern age. Times have changed. Chant is out, hip hop is in. If you don’t adapt, you die. In the film, it only takes 90 minutes for a dead church to become the life of the party, all thanks to this crazy sister who wasn’t afraid to buck the trend and shake things up. 

You have to ask if life isn’t intimating art. While I seriously doubt anyone would ever directly admit it, I would bet this film had a subtle - if not profound - impact on a generation of young pastors and church leaders. This film singlehandedly made hanging on to the tradition embarrassing and passé. Every pastor wanted to achieve what Whoopi did; no one would defend the previous life of the convent. 

In the 20 years this film has been out, there has been a revolution in the American church. The assumption is now that there is no room for the tradition in worship - especially in a city - if the church is to have a future. As Hollywood is the de facto culture shaper in America, there is little doubt that films like Sister Act have served as the template for how to do ministry: young, hip, and relevant are the defining hallmarks of nearly every major movement in the church, from the Postmoderns emergents to the megachurches to many black churches to mainline churches, and most of all, in church plants. 

When this film came out, these “worship wars” - which are really philosophical, cultural and missional wars - were still in their infancy. Today the war is really over, and the “contemporary” side has claimed almost total victory. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox continue to retain the historic liturgy. But in the evangelical and Protestant church, the liturgy is becoming obsolete about as fast as the nation itself turns from Christianity at large. (Yes, I know Sister Act took place in a Catholic community, but this was merely superficial in the film.)

What has helped me see this is several meetings with young mission planters who hail from traditional Protestant churches with deep liturgical backgrounds. But both regard liturgical worship as a hopeless ally in building a church of young men and women. They may retain the order of the liturgy - commonly defined now as Gathering, Word, Meal and Sending - but the music is guitars, djembes and the genre of praise. It has even been said to me, as though I might not take any offense at all, that our church couldn’t possibly reach the next generation of Christians and/or seekers, because no one could relate to traditional hymns out of a hymnal, chanted music, or formal liturgy. 

Of course, they may be right. But I’m not sure that’s a judgment against the liturgy as much as our expectations of future Christians. Following in the Sister Act mold, the mantra seems to be that an urban parish cannot possibly be attractive to those in their neighborhood without shaking things up and being iconoclastic. Because in America, we love iconoclasts, change and rebellion.

It’s just a shame that mission planters so rarely consider that in giving these urbanites what they want has created a competitive environment with the historic church. They have also exploited American consumerism in what should be a catholic and apostolic endeavor.

It isn’t the church’s job or calling to appeal to anyone. Persuasive? Yes. Welcoming? Sure. Liked? Maybe. But the church doesn’t have to appeal to anyone. The calling of the church is to be honest and to draw men and women into a formative process, wherein they are discipled. Their emotions and musical preferences have nothing to do with that process, at least not necessarily. And superficial changes to music also symbolize nothing, at least not necessarily. The church is supposed to form people into the image of Christ, people who freely choose to be conformed by the Spirit, not the world. 

Am I saying that contemporary worship is evil or that Sister Act is some kind of bane of existence for the church? Of course not. I am saying, though, that in subtly ridiculing the traditions of the church in the way it did, it made it almost impossible in its wake to be an urban parish holding fast to traditions. It has obviously become far easier to try to look cool than to defend the tradition, asking new Christians to learn from it and be formed by it instead of lampooning it for the new shiny thing. So while Sister Act may be a fine family comedy, it did nothing for those of us who aren’t yet ready to give up on men and women coming to church on its terms, not their own.